By Jessica Shehane
(Winner of the Carson McCullers Literary Award, first place, Academic Essay)
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, consisting of the two plays Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, confronts the American desire for binary categories: male/female, black/white, religious/secular, gay/straight and feminine/masculine. Through his use of characters, Kushner demonstrates the overall unrealistic nature of such categorization, most specifically in the case of the masculine/feminine divide. By contrasting effeminate characters such as Prior and Belize with more traditionally masculine characters like Roy, Joe and Louis, Kushner uses Angels in America to explore and ultimately subvert the gay community’s struggle with the effemiphobic nature of the masculine/feminine binary struggle.
The initial problem in analyzing effemiphobia in Angels in America—or any other work—stems largely from the fact that ‘effemiphobia’ is still very much in its infancy as a term and a concept. Consequently, the definition of such a nebulous and new concept becomes difficult to articulate or define. Rooted in twenty-first century net neologisms and so-called ‘Tumblr activism,’ effemiphobia is most concisely defined as the cultural and prejudicial fear of men who defy the “heteropatriarchal sexual script” (Hill 145) by engaging in gendered behaviors that are typically considered female or feminine. Rooted in what Kierski and Blazina describe as “the male fear of the feminine” (155), effemiphobia can also be conceptualized as the backlash within the gay community against men who are perceived to play into the stereotypical role of the ‘nelly’ queer: the effeminate, submissive partner in a homosexual relationship.
While discussion of the specific term ‘effemiphobia’ may still be in its early stages, the overall concept certainly is not. The cultural prejudice against men who defy strictly prescribed gender roles has been explored by a multitude of scholars in the field of men’s studies. A 2010 study by Mitchell and Ellis of over seven hundred college students examined the effect of the label ‘gay’ on the perceived masculinity of a man by third parties, finding that the label of ‘gay’ almost universally led third parties to evaluate a man as more feminine and less masculine (91). Moreover, the study found that a man who appeared physically less masculine as more masculine than a more muscled man who was labeled ‘gay’ (92). Thus, though it may be said that ‘effemiphobia’ is a relatively new term, the social ramifications of the behavior it describes are pervasively rooted in mainstream heteropatriarchal America.
Yet contemporary discussion on the Internet, especially on social media sites like Tumblr, has turned from the traditional analysis of effemiphobia from the viewpoint of the social majority (that is, heterosexuals) toward the inner self-discrimination and perpetuation of the effemiphobic attitude by the gay community itself. As illustrated by certain scenes in Angels in America, there is an internal backlash against men who are perceived to live up to the stereotype of the ‘camp’ gay: overly effeminate in mannerisms, speech and preferences. Louis decries Prior and Belize’s participation in drag as “sexist” (Kushner 98), with the implication that perhaps either his specific distaste or the greater community’s distaste has driven Prior and Belize to become ex-drag queens. Belize himself decries his and Prior’s “girl-talk shit” as “politically incorrect,” to which Prior comments that Belize sounds “like Lou” (64). From these interactions, it becomes apparent that effemiphobia—experienced both by the effeminate and the masculine gay man—is an underlying tension that permeates throughout Angels in America.
To contextualize any discussion of effemiphobia in Angels in America, it first becomes necessary to concede the shortcomings of the text. Specifically, though Angels in America may decry the internal effemiphobia within the gay community, the text itself can (and has) been interpreted as unfair to actual female characters where it is generous to feminine men. Natalie Meisner notes that “while a spectrum of gender becomes available to most of the male characters through the performance of power and/or drag, the same is not available for the biologically female characters” (178). Using Harper as her main focus of analysis, Meisner points out that “audiences are encouraged to laugh at, not with her” (180) and maintains that the character represents the problematic “erasure of the biological female body within queer theory” (179). Moreover, Meisner points to a disturbing lack of interaction between female characters in the plays, to the extent that “friendship between women…is a matter of obscure taste and a perverse desire to go against the grain” where “friendship between men may not be perfect but it is necessary” (184). Indeed, in contrast to the male characters—the central focus of Angels in America—the few female characters the reader encounters come across as little more than bit actors, present only insofar as their connection to a male locus (Joe in the case of Harper and Hannah, Prior in the case of Emily) makes them relevant. Though subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” it is clearly apparent that the gay community Kushner portrays excludes women entirely; the only mention of a lesbian character is early on in the play, when Prior notes that “Cousin Doris is a dyke” (20).
Despite the somewhat problematic representation of female characters and biological femininity within Angels in America, the text does confront the issue of effemiphobia in a positive and constructive way. Kushner presents the reader with an array of characters on the masculine-feminine spectrum: Roy and Joe on the far masculine end, Louis approximately somewhere in the middle, while Prior and Belize fall clearly toward the feminine end. In fact, a great number (if not the overwhelming majority) of conflicts in the plays occur within the context of interaction between characters at different places on the spectrum. However, contrary to the masculinity-centric ‘fight the stereotype’ position the reader sees Louis exhibit (Kushner 98), Kushner clearly establishes the more effeminate and classically campy figures of Prior and Belize as both moral and rational centers for other characters in the play.
Prior functions as a moral and rational center of the text primarily in comparison to Louis and Harper, the latter of whom seems to occasionally return the favor by acting as an abstract moral center and comforting presence both in their shared dream sequence and when Prior visits the Mormon visitor’s center where Harper is squatting. Harper and Prior are the only two characters within the play to share the unique trait of accessing the “threshold of revelation” (33) through which they obtain knowledge that they had no other way of mortally accessing: Joe’s homosexuality, Prior’s AIDS, and the relationship between Louis and Joe (33, 195). In Louis’ case, the moral and rational balance is skewed more in Prior’s favor: he protects Louis from the symptoms of his disease because he is well aware that Louis cannot handle the truth (39) and gently censures Louis for constructing a “cosmology” that “lacks an ending [and]…lets [Louis] off scott-free,” suffering “no judgement, no guilt or responsibility” (43). In many ways, Louis’ moral struggles throughout Angels in America—his abandonment of Prior, his relationship with Joe, the difficulties accepting that he knows nothing about Joe or what he does—can be linked back to his initial decision to abandon Prior, his moral center, when that relationship is no longer easy for him (50). And, at the conclusion of the play, when Louis and Prior make their difficult reconciliation, it is made abundantly clear that their relationship will ever be the same: it is irrevocably tainted. Louis and Prior can be amicable but Louis “can’t [go] back. Not ever” (284). As Prior later tells the audience, “the world only spins forward” (290). There is no way for Louis to ever return to the point where his relationship with Prior (and thus, his own morality) is wholly unblemished.
In parallel, Belize functions as rational and moral opposition for both Louis and Roy Cohn. After Louis severs his relationship with Prior, the reader sees Belize fill in briefly when Louis’ lofty ideals and endless theorizing need a thorough reality check. Belize criticizes Louis for being “ambivalent about everything” (100) and minimalizing the issue of racism in America (96). However, his interaction with Louis—places specifically when Louis is theorizing about how “power is the object” in America (94)—only serves to set the scene for his later interactions with Roy, who fully embraces that life is not about labels but about “who will pick up the phone when [he calls]” (46). More than Louis and even Joe, Roy is the extreme example of the self-hating, effemiphobic gay man. But despite the clear animosity between Roy and Belize, Kushner uses their relationship to demonstrate Belize’s unwavering morality. Roy hurls verbal abuse at Belize (which Belize often returns in kind) but Belize gives Roy fair and honest advice on who to navigate the health care system as an AIDS patient, even going so far as to tell Roy to “watch out for the double blind” in the AZT drug trials (155)—an action that later saves Prior’s life. That Kushner would pair Roy as a foil to Belize, who is opposite Roy in almost every way, indicates a genuine attempt to confront the polarizing schism within the gay community: those who embrace their identity and do not eschew femininity and those who refuse to be identified and resent that the popular representation of gay men is effeminate and campy. To add even more evidence to Belize’s function as moral guidance, when Prior begins to doubt the importance of gay men in American society, declaring that they are “just a bad dream the world is having” (158), it is to Belize that he expresses these doubts. Furthermore, Belize is the first person Prior informs about his encounter with the Angel and the person to whom he speaks most about his role as a prophet and angelic interactions—even if Belize is, more often than not, highly skeptical.
Though both Prior and Belize are criticized by Louis for performatively adopting feminine behaviors through the act of drag, the reader is simultaneously presented with evidence that Belize and Prior innately reject this criticism. In the dream sequence where Prior and Harper first meet, Prior is depicted sitting “at a large makeup table, applying his face” (Kushner 30). The fact that, in his dream, on the “very threshold of revelation” (33), Prior is reveling in his feminine side points to an inherent femininity that is more natural than strictly performative. Similarly, the reader can see Belize’s rejection of Louis’ (a stand-in here for the mainstream ‘butch’ masculine gay man—or at least the self-critical feminine) criticism by his decision to become an “ex-ex” drag queen (98). Belize and Prior are men who ultimately refuse to abandon a part of their identity because of outside criticism, which again puts both of them in contrast to Louis, who is guilty about everything (98); Joe, who has been coerced by religion into giving up his identity as a gay man; and Roy, who refuses to even be recognized as a gay man.
It is important to note, however, that Kushner does more than simply focus on the fact that certain characters in the play are different than others. He intentionally sets up a scene of chaos, one where no one really agrees on what is right or what is fair, where the mere concepts of binary ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are thrown into a pool of gray relativity. Even the establish moral centers of the play, Prior and Belize, engage in behaviors like theft, doubt and petty jealousy that would seem to conflict with their roles in the play when viewed in the context of traditional binary morality. But Kushner offers resolutions within Angels in America between the effemiphobic, masculine gay characters and the more effeminate figures that are Belize and Prior. Roy’s death—specifically the selfishness and clout that being so effemiphobic and self-hating won him—save Prior’s life when Belize and Louis steal the remainder of his stash of AZT; Belize even coaxes Louis into saying the Kaddish for Roy, chiding him that “a queen can forgive her vanquished foe” (265). Louis rediscovers his own morality, leaves Joe, and tentatively repairs his friendship with Prior.
Angels in America was written in 1993 but, despite the very hopeful tone at the play’s conclusion, little has changed in the subsequent eighteen years in regard to discrimination within the gay community against its own members. Effemiphobia has only recently been named, let alone fully discussed and the implications wholly rationalized, and it remains a topic of discussion still couched somewhat in taboo regardless of its inherent link with feminist concerns. There exist an entire slew of stereotypes within the LGBTQ+ community that stem directly from internalized effemiphobia, not just the typical effeminate gay man but also the stereotypical masculine lesbian and the derogatory appellation of ‘femme’ toward traditionally feminine gay women. For both effeminate gay men and traditionally feminine gay women, the community’s internalized effemiphobia has created an exclusionary atmosphere that leaves them as acceptable sexual partners but renders them as unacceptable relationship partners, as entering into a relationship with them is conceived as somehow giving in to the stereotype (in the case of gay men) or ‘selling out’ of the cultural identity (in the case of gay women). The most overarching difficulty of this hidden culture war is winning admission that effemiphobia even exists which, harkening back to its inherent link with feminist concerns, comes with its own laundry list of cultural problems. Even more problematic is the lack of discussion regarding how effemiphobia affects the heterosexual community, specifically in regard to how feminine heterosexual men find themselves in the same scorned position as effeminate gay men and feminine gay women. (Hill 145).
However, it must be noted that Tony Kushner’s message in Angels in America is ultimately hopeful: through the characters of his play he offers a worldview in which reconciliation between the two sides of this controversial schism is possible. There is a solution, and it lies in both accepting that some men are, by nature, more effeminate and some are not. It required accepting that some men have sexual interaction with other men but do not necessarily identify as gay, or members of a ‘gay community.’ And even though Angels in America is woefully lacking in its representation of the lesbian experience, it is not altogether difficult to apply the message broadly to that portion of the LGBTQ+ community as well. Kushner urges the reader to recognize that a person does not necessarily have to adhere to a predetermined script of behavior in order to belong to a community. More importantly, he urges readers to acknowledge the wide variety of individual identity and to strive for the maturity to realize that these differences are not impermeable divides between people. Like Belize, Kushner urges his readers to be the victorious queen who can forgive her vanquished foes. Acceptance, like forgiveness, comes slow—but it does come. “It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy; it’s the hardest thing” (264).
Hill, Darryl. “‘Feminine Heterosexual Men: Subverting Heteropatriarchal Sexual Scripts?’” Journal of Men’s Studies 14.2 (2006): 145-159. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 14 April 2015.
Kierski, Werner, and Christopher Blazina. “The Male Fear of the Feminine and Its Effects on Counselling and Psychotherapy.” Journal of Men’s Studies 17.2 (2009): 155-172. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 15 April 2015.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2013. Print.
Lemaster, Phillip, et al. “To Have and to Do: Masculine Facets of Gender Predict Men’s and Women’s Attitudes about Gender Equality among College Students.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity 16.2 (2015): 195-205. PsycARTICLES. Web. 14 April 2015.
Meisner, Natalie. “Messing with the Idyllic: The Performance of Femininity in Kushner’s Angels in America.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 1 (2003): 177-189. Project MUSE. Web. 20 April 2015.
Mitchell, Robert, and Alan Ellis. “In the Eye of the Beholder: Knowledge that a Man is Gay Promotes American College Students’ Attributions of Cross-Gender Characteristics.” Sexuality & Culture 15.1 (2011): 80. Advanced Placement Source. Web. 14 April 2015.