Seminar Paper: Victorian Sexuality

Attached here is a copy of a seminar paper completed in fulfillment of the requirements for a Topics of British Literature course here at NDSU. Further explanation for its inclusion with this portfolio is provided in the “About” section of this blog.

Click here to view the seminar paper.

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Ode to Man

What follows is a creative adaptation of the “Ode to Man” from Sophocles’ Antigone
written as a part of a World Literature Masterpieces course. The adaptation is informed by queer politics.


Ode to Man
By Christian Novak

Of the many creatures that silence through fear or awe

Where is one that quiets as greatly as man does?

In his every origin, man struggles against the tides alone

Or holds to another, in spite of drowning.

From there, man willed the water and the land

To join arms as man helped man.

Through weary convictions and commandments

Even gods too came to be worn by man.

They were worshipped, but as anything else,

They were used, just as man’s steed.

And as man became men, man looked to his tools

And pondered as he did

When he subdued

The birds and the fields and

The fish and the peaks and

The might of these were codes cracked

Through will and way: the tools of man’s making.

And as his ways became roads,

He made a law of his will to limit where they go.

Man is maker of the fatherland and mother tongue.

His land provides healing and his tongue reads the heavens.

His readings of the truth become the truth.

Man points to his gods,

And any unpleasing thing before him becomes an offense.

With justice as gallows and the public as blade…

Men become jailed within themselves.

Man will then be praised. But Death,

Even the same Death man wielded before

Will visit man’s bed.

This man will then know the men:

But as when he told the men

To look down to the fires

Or to look up to the heavens

While fitting muzzles to their faces,

When he begs, those muzzles will again turn away from him.

“Rules” for Writing

The following “rules” for writing are targeted at me. An outside viewer may find some insight in reading the explanations for these rules, but I don’t expect that these rules should or would apply well to the writing process of everyone.


 

 

1. Write about the stuff you think you should be over with by now.

The things you think about the most, even if you think about them to an obsessive degree, are going to be some of the things that you’ll be able to write most vividly about. Moreso, even if you think certain people are going to be sick of your writing on a specific topic, the fact that you’re leaning towards that topic again in your writing must mean that you haven’t said what you need to say yet. If it’s not resolved in your mind yet, it can’t be resolved in the mind of your reader.

2. Do Storytime

If the sole purpose of every single story in the world were argumentation, the tradition of storytelling would be a droning and boring one. While your writing should always have a point in mind, it doesn’t matter that you’re not exactly sure what it is as you’re drafting. Writing a narrative with the main point informing every word you’re writing is going to make for an incredibly boring piece of work to read.

3. Don’t just get to the point. Get more points.

In a similar sentiment to “Do Storytime,” putting too much focus on “getting to the point” cuts your writing of any and all other points it might have to make. If your writing truly has a way to get to the point without being informed by other points that poke their head in the door, then your essay might as well be no longer than a single paragraph.

4. When you need to write to figure out what to write, do it with poetry.

My ideas circle around me,
And I can grab at them,
But then they just flee.
Maybe it’d just be best
To write them as they be.

5. Share your writing (preferably out loud).

Christian, let’s be honest: You’re a much better speaker than you are a writer. That’s not to say you’re a terrible writer, but you always feel an immense sense of satisfaction when a captive audience gets to hear the immediate version of what you have to say. The questions that people ask of you reveal far more about what your writing could include than you could ever possibly predict otherwise.

6. Research your writing far beyond what you need for the writing.

Being overly-informed on the subject of your writing has never come back to hurt you. Rushing a set of findings for the purpose of getting that tenth citation for your paper has hurt you. This rule goes far beyond what you need to do for sustained research projects, however. Think about your most successful pieces of creative writing, and think about how long the “Works Cited” page would be if you were to include every piece of writing, every news report, every person’s quotations that inspired the creation of that piece of writing. Yeah.

Life, Literacy, and Change: A Textbook Facebook Secret

“I know I can’t tell you what it’s like to be gay. But I can tell you what it’s not. It’s not hiding behind words, Mama. Like family and decency and Christianity.”

  • Armistead Maupin, author and reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle

“So are you saying that this is my fault?”

“No, Mom, please, just listen.”

Contrary to the analogy some make, coming out to your parents isn’t like ripping off a Band-Aid. Taking a Band-Aid off is unpleasant for just the split-second after it’s gone. You immediately know that taking the Band-Aid off was worth it when you see that your cut has fully (or mostly) healed. The aftermath of a Band-Aid includes wiping off the glue where the cut once was. Above all, removing a Band-Aid involves no tears, no yelling, and no shame.

Telling Mom that you’re gay is nothing like that.

In the moment, coming out feels more like the self-amputation of an infected leg. You’ve been hurting for so long. You’re positive that it has to be done eventually, but more positive that it will hurt.  At times you wonder whether or not that kind of hurt could ever stop. Without knowing what life will be like afterwards, you have the looming fear that going through with this means losing something that you can never get back, and being changed forever.

You will be changed forever, and the hurt that stings more than it shows does stop. It doesn’t stop right away, and it doesn’t stop soon enough for some. The pain is different for everyone, but the fear of that pain is something that everyone who’s had to come out knows well. The fear makes people keep secrets from the ones they love most. The fear makes people hate those who are like them, or even hate themselves. The fear makes people hide behind generalizations and analogies of Band-Aids and amputations.

Okay, maybe that last one is just me. Being forthright about it, I personally went through a lot of fear and demented priorities in my journey of coming out. This includes, but is not limited to, coming out on Facebook before coming out to my own parents.

But, I’d do wrong to get too far ahead of myself. The very first person I ever let my biggest secret slip to was my older sister Ashley, and she was by far the easiest person to tell. I don’t really know why this was the case, though; she was a bit of a blabbermouth, to be honest. If Ashley knew something, I could be pretty sure that my other sister, Erica, and maybe a few cousins would find out about it soon enough.

Ashley and I hadn’t been incredibly close or anything, but one thing that we could always bond over was my mom. This usually meant complaining about how smothering she can be at times. One day during my senior year of high school, she and I were driving around town engaging in our usual pastime, when we got on the subject of how close-minded she can be. In reality, my mom is not much more close-minded than the average person of her generation, but that’s beside the point. Ashley then made an offhanded remark:

“Like, can you imagine if I were a lesbian? What would she even say? She’d just freak, I’m sure.” I half-forced a chuckle. She continued, “I want you to know that if you’re gay, you can tell me.” I pause, ready to respectfully deny it as I’d done so many times before in high school. I guess I didn’t pass as much as I would have liked to back then. I opened my mouth to respond, but she then took a more serious tone than I’ve ever seen her use and said, “Christian, are you gay?”

I still could have denied it at that point. Nothing was stopping me from lying. Moreover, there wasn’t much different about this time than there had been in past times I’d been asked. But I don’t lie this time. I just fib.

“…Um, well, I think I might be… bi.”

My response, carefully constructed and meticulously awkward, didn’t burn any bridges or anything. After all, if I was bisexual, I could still go on to live a “normal” life: I could go on to date girls, I could get married to make mom and dad proud, and Ashley would be the only one who had to know that I liked dudes.

I don’t think Ashley bought my response, but regardless, she was incredibly supportive and thoughtful all the way though. We talked and talked about it, starting with when I first knew that I was into guys, and moving on to whether or not there were any guys I was into right now. Usual older-sister-younger-brother-who-is-super-gay stuff. We cried for the rest of the drive, and laughed too.


A few months went by with relatively little to make note of. I had told no one else that I was gay. More to the point, this meant I was a now 18-year-old boy with raging hormones who had never kissed someone (at least in a mutually sexy way) in his life. That sucked.

Eventually, I came to the day of my high school graduation, prepared for anything but not ready for everything. As the captain of the speech team who had goody-two-shoes grades, I was expected to give the valedictory speech at the ceremony. Graduation itself went by unceremoniously and, while giving the speech was terrifying, at least my hair looked good in the cap. That night, however, I, still high on all the excitement and amazing changed promised during my graduation, decided that tonight was the night. I would come out to everyone and anyone all at once.

On Facebook, of course.

I can’t remember exactly what I said. It was something to the effect of “I’m pretty gay, fyi” but in novel format. The response, thankfully, was nothing but support. I deleted the original message the next morning at the advice of my sisters, who were genuinely worried that my parents might kick me out of the house if they found out. I greatly regret this now. This post was the most important piece of writing I’ve composed in my life. It quite literally was writing that changed my own world, and I’d give anything to have a copy of the exact text I published that night.

All that remains is the message I replaced it with the next day:

“To those of you who were beyond supportive with my FB status last night: I honestly cannot thank you enough. For the time being, I have to take it down. But don’t think for a minute that I didn’t mean a single word that was said. I truly have met the best people I could possibly hope to meet in these last few years, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

  • Christian Novak, 18-year-old sap.

Don’t ask me how, but through all of this, I simply knew that my mom would not find out about my posting this. She did not have a Facebook account, and our friends and family are absolutely of the “North Dakota Nice but Secretive as Fuck” ilk. Moreover, she wasn’t going to find out because she couldn’t. I was nowhere near ready for her to know, so she couldn’t know. The forces that be wouldn’t let her know.

That night, I reached a breaking point where everyone but my mom had to know my secret.

Still, I could’ve gone without Dad finding out.


The one person I know more sappy than me would be my dad. If I’m a sap, that makes Dad a maple tree. Having the “Dad, I’m sorry, but I’m gay” with the two of us was bound to be pretty tearful, regardless of how he took it.

The day after I came out on Facebook, I was walking through the living room in my childhood home on my way to go downstairs when I passed by my dad. He was reading the Grand Forks Herald, or maybe just pretending to read it. Regardless, he stopped me as I was leaving the room.

“Say, Christian?”

“Yeah?”

“…I saw what you posted on Facebook last night.” Damn.

I went quiet for a bit, unsure of his reaction and even more unsure of how I should respond. After all, this is one half of the couple that named me Christian. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my parents might have had some pretty specific expectations for my value system. Being gay definitely wasn’t part of what they envisioned for their son, and I was reminded of that every time I signed a receipt, typed an essay, or labelled homework with that name.

Dad must have been just as unsure of what to say as I was, because most of our conversation was silence. That’s not the worst outcome I had envisioned for the conversation, so I was at least thankful for that. I only remember scraps of what was actually said in our talk, but through the whole thing, we were both crying out of frustration. He and I were always so close, and there was nothing we could do to see eye to eye on this.

It sounds morbid, but all I remember of the conversation are the parts I can joke about now:

“I won’t talk to Mom about it until you do. You should wait to do that.”

Deal.

“I don’t know if you can still get hired as a teacher if you’re, you know…”

…A Taurus?

Overall, the conversation with Dad wasn’t that fruitful. He wasn’t ready to talk about it, and neither was I. But still, he now knew, and that was at least something.


The summer after my graduation came and went as might be expected. As a soon-to-be college student, I dipped my toes in a variety of scandals, including my first time being belligerent, my first time being at a party where others were smoking weed, and my first kiss / drunken makeout session. Some or all of these scandals might have occurred on the same summer night.

While these were all important events for my first awkward steps into college-life and dating, I still hadn’t come out to my mom during this summer. That August, my mom helped me move into my newly-assigned dorm room at NDSU without a hitch. She helped me unpack my clothes, organize my desk, setup the television; you name it. She even helped me to loft my bed, completely unaware of who I’d eventually be wanting in that bed (cue heavy winking).

My freshman year of college began and I was free to experience my first taste of independent living. A month or so passed and I went back to visit my parents in Grand Forks for a long weekend. It was this trip home when I finally came out to my mother.

I hadn’t planned for it to happen at this time, or anything. I had come home and been talking to my mom for a few hours about college when, all of a sudden, the emotion of seeing my mom after being away for the first time really hit me. She was making dinner when, suddenly, she noticed that I was tearing up.

“Wha-…What’s wrong?”

She walks over to where I’m sitting and puts a hand on my back.

“Christian, what happened?”

Despite having been most nervous about my mom finding out, I hesitate only a second before responding. “Mom, I… You need to know something.” She waits, clearly as nervous as I was. “I’m gay.” She waits again, as though that wasn’t the end of the sentence.

“A-Are you sure?” she asked. Her hand leaves my back and she paces a bit.

“Yes.”

“Oh, well.” She goes quiet again. After a half-minute or so, she says, “You know that I still love you.” I know there’s much more to the conversation, but I’m glad to hear those words. I sigh with at least some relief.

“…But, how can you be so sure? You’re still so young, Christian.” She tries to deny what she doesn’t want to believe. “What about the girl you dated back in high school?”

“Mom, I’m sure. I’ve known for…a long time.”

“How long?”

“Since I’ve been 12, I think.”

“You couldn’t have known that young, I think you’re just confused.”

“Mom, I’ve been trying to tell myself that I’m not gay since I was 12. I just, I can’t deny it for that long.”

“Okay…” She suddenly seems to accept that I am gay as fact, at least. “Have you ever thought about getting help for this? From the church, or wherever?” Maybe not.

“You can’t change this, Mom.”

“Do you think that you were born like this?”

“Yeah.” I try to explain what I know of the research behind homosexuality. “Research thinks that it has to do with the prenatal conditions of the baby that might alter the hormones the baby is exposed to.”

“So, are you saying that this is my fault?” She doesn’t sound defensive, just sad.

That hits me hard. It’s bad enough that my parents feel so terrible because I’m finally trying to be who I am. Seeing that Mom genuinely thinks she might have failed in raising me is what really hurts in this talk. I’m not worried about Mom disowning me at this point, but I never again want to hurt her in the way she was hurting when she said that.

“No, Mom, please, just listen.”

We talk for a while longer, and, as in the conversation with Dad, no instant bond of understanding is made.

She knew, however. That was something. We could work from there.

Little Things Are Big: A Rhetoric Story

One day in the middle of January 2009, my eighth grade teachers decided to give all of the students a (much applauded) break from our usual class work to watch President Barack Obama’s first inaugural address. For me, this event was incredibly powerful on a bunch of different levels. It was likely the root reason I eventually went from calling myself a conservative to calling myself a liberal. It was the first time I got to see a live broadcast that served (or at least aimed) to unite so many different walks of life. It was the first time I could see how a multi-year long bitter competition of political campaigns could end in what seemed like a democratic victory for all people, regardless of who won the election. However, this experience spawned a moment later the same day that shaped my reading of politics and persuasion for years to come.

Upon being picked up from South Middle School by my mom, she asks me what I did in my classes throughout the day. I was still excited about seeing the newly-elected president’s speech early that morning, so naturally I started with that. My mom quickly retorts with: “Oh, haha, so your teachers had you guys watching twenty minutes of him saying nothing, huh?”

I don’t exactly know why this remark stays with me to this day, but I remember rushing through my feelings at that moment. I felt a bit betrayed at the notion that most people (or at least someone I greatly respect: my mother) didn’t find the president’s words to mean anything. More than that, I felt disillusionment for the sense of a united nation that I had felt during the speech itself.

However, more than anything, I couldn’t help but feel that my mother had to be wrong, even if she just meant her words as an offhanded joke. My mom had always taken similar positions to the words of any politician, but in hearing the president’s speech for myself, live, I knew that her cynicism had to be unfounded. The power of the words being spoken simply did not equate to “nothing” for me, regardless of how I tried to slice the situation.

This was, as far I can remember, the first time that I realized my worldview was significantly different than the worldview my mom had grown into. At this point in my life, I still considered myself a conservative, so, like my mom, I didn’t exactly see myself agreeing with everything the president said. However, while my mother saw this as a testament to the pointlessness of all of the words politicians use to do their politics, I saw it (and still see it) as a huge demonstration of the profound power that words can have in changing people.

Since this moment in my literacy, I’ve come face-to-face with many people who, like my mother, see the art of political persuasion to be a basic, demagogue form of writing. However, regardless of how many people use political rhetoric in an irresponsible way, this moment in my life has permanently installed in me a love of taking apart and piecing together the words behind the speeches of any political juggernaut. From this day, my literacy has gone on to become my love for speech and debate, my love for politics, and my love for rhetoric.