I first encountered James Baldwin as a 20-year-old college student assigned to read Another Country for an undergraduate course in queer studies. Beyond Foucault and Sedgwick, Baldwin’s book crystallized for me, more than any other text, the insight that “queerness” (however we might define that slippery and elusive word) is not reducible to simply “being gay.” Presented with Another Country’s complicated landscape of sexual pairings that cross lines of race, class, region, gender, and even orientation, I found it impossible to hold on to the idea of sexuality as a singular and unchanging essence. I realized that the language I had been using to describe my sexuality—to my parents and friends—was personally and politically inadequate. But if queerness, for Baldwin, is not reducible to being gay, it is also not reducible to the common theoretical refrain about the performativity of gender and the fluidity of sexuality. Jasbir Puar has coined the termed “sexual exceptionalism” to refer to this phenomenon—the “queerer than thou” sensibility through which certain transgressive subjects congratulate themselves and one another on having achieved “freedom” from social and sexual norms. But to do away with identity categories is not necessarily to do away with privilege. In its searing indictment of white liberal guilt, it seems to me that Another Country is powerful not only for the way it anticipates and critiques the emerging rhetoric of “gay pride,” but also for the way that its insights might be brought to bear on uncritical celebrations of queer fluidity.
It is standard, of course, to pit these pro- and post-identity positions against one another. But as Baldwin makes clear, in Another Country and elsewhere, neither stance is, ultimately, enough. Both are insufficient because both celebrate the exceptionality of the self without interrogating the self ’s ethical relation to others. This is not to say that Baldwin does not value self-examination, but for Baldwin, the act of introspection, when it is done right, does not look inward but outward. Self-knowledge is achieved not by taking a hard look at oneself—at least not exactly. It is achieved, instead, by examining our complicity within systems of oppression, and by seeing ourselves reflected in the eyes of those who have been most grievously injured by that complicity. And if we can manage to do this successfully, then that self-knowledge will not express itself as “pride” (or even as “guilt”) but rather as something that I would say is closer to humility. “Pride and “guilt” require no intervention—they let us off the hook in the end. “Humility,” by contrast, places us within a larger, if often uncomfortable, circuit of accountability.1
In its searing indictment of white liberal guilt, it seems to me that Another Country is powerful not only for the way it anticipates and critiques the emerging rhetoric of “gay pride,” but also for the way that its insights might be brought to bear on uncritical celebrations of queer fluidity.
It is worth mentioning that the semester that I was assigned to read Another Country was the spring of 2002—that tense interval between the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Had Baldwin been alive during this ongoing chapter in American history, I think he would have had much to say about the need for accountability in relation to the crimes our nation committed in the name of freedom, democracy, safety, and security. A common refrain in Baldwin’s writing is the extent to which such concepts ultimately fail to align. Too much investment in “safety” and “security,” he believed, far from ensuring the continuing success of democracy, actively imperils the democratic freedoms that Americans purport to protect. In “The Uses of the Blues,” for example, Baldwin reflects on the “public delusion that some of us will be saved by bomb shelters” (80). Dismissing the desire for security as a misguided fantasy, Baldwin urged the nation to first grapple with vulnerability as a necessary and productive condition. Returning to the image of the “bomb shelter” in his foreword to A Quarter-Century of Un-Americana, Baldwin identifies the “Un-American Activities Committee” as:
“ … one of the most sinister facts of the national life. … It always reminds me of a vast and totally untrustworthy bomb shelter in which groups of frightened people endlessly convince one another of its impregnability, while the real world outside—by which, again, I mean the facts of our private and public lives—calmly and inexorably prepares their destruction.”
The walls of the “bomb shelter,” for Baldwin, are “sinister” not because they provide protection for the privileged few on the inside while leaving those “on the outside” to “prepare for their destruction.” More fundamentally, he suggests, bomb shelters are dangerous because their “untrustworthy” walls provide an illusion of “impregnability” that fosters denial about the intimately entangled lives of the privileged and the disenfranchised.2 From the Patriot Act to the compromised intelligence that pointed to “weapons of mass destruction,” I suspect that Baldwin would have indeed found the price to be quite high for America’s lack of accountability to the global community during the years that spanned the Iraq War.
I will speculate, too, that he might have had something to say about the controversy that arose in 2013 around the selection of transgender military intelligence officer Chelsea Manning as the grand marshal of San Francisco’s annual gay pride parade. At the time of the selection, Manning had been awaiting trial for multiple counts of espionage after she had “WikiLeaked” over 700,000 classified documents that contained evidence of human rights violations committed by the U.S. armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the leaked videos, titled “Collateral Murder” includes footage of the gunning down of civilians during a U.S. Army airstrike, accompanied by American soldiers’ dehumanizing remarks regarding their Iraqi targets.
Impressed by Manning’s act of conscience, members of the San Francisco Pride organization invited her to be the grand marshal of the 2013 parade, but this decision was met with uproar by members of the LGBT community who condemned Manning as a military “traitor” who had imperiled American national security. In an official statement, SF Pride Board President Lisa L. Williams wrote that “even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms [sic] way the lives of our men and women in uniform … will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride.”3 To many, Manning’s act of protest disqualified her from representing the values of “gay pride.” Further complicating the story was Manning’s continual misgendering in the press coverage; though she identifies as a transgender woman, many of the initial accounts described her as a gay man and used her deadname. Manning was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 35 years in a federal prison. She was also nominated, jointly with Edward Snowden, for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.
Too much investment in “safety” and “security,” he believed, far from ensuring the continuing success of democracy, actively imperils the democratic freedoms that Americans purport to protect. In “The Uses of the Blues,” for example, Baldwin reflects on the “public delusion that some of us will be saved by bomb shelters.”
There are several stories here. One is a somewhat straightforward story about “whistleblowing” and the debates that such practices ignite between proponents of “national security” and advocates for government transparency and accountability. In a New York Times Op-Ed, for example, Manning explains that she was “shocked by our military’s complicity in the corruption of [the Iraqi] election. Yet these deeply troubling details flew under the American media’s radar” (SR4). Manning continues,
We intelligence analysts, and the officers to whom we reported, had access to a comprehensive overview of the war that few others had. How could top-level decision makers say that the American public, or even Congress, supported the conflict when they didn’t have half the story? … The more I made these daily comparisons between the news back in the States and the military and diplomatic reports available to me as an analyst, the more aware I became of the disparity. In contrast to the solid, nuanced briefings we created on the ground, the news available to the public was flooded with foggy speculation and simplifications. 4
Like Baldwin, Manning seemed to recognize the appeal to security, along with the stories we tell ourselves about how that security was won, as costly fantasies enacted through both the explicit suppression of information and a deep denial of who we are, or have become, as a nation. “[T]he dilemma of this country,” Baldwin writes in “The White Problem,” “is that it has managed to believe the myth it has created about its past, which is another way of saying that it has entirely denied its past” (91). Rather than confronting these uncomfortable histories, Baldwin argues, we have made “legend out of a massacre,” producing “cowboy and Indian stories” that “reassure us that no crime was committed” (92). By contrast, Manning’s own crime, for which she is now imprisoned, was to alert everyone that a crime was indeed committed—in essence, to make a “massacre” out of a “legend.” Holding a “disagreeable mirror” to the face of American nationalism, she forces us to acknowledge that there are other, more truthful, versions of the stories we tell ourselves about freedom and democracy.5
The story of Chelsea Manning is also a story about what Puar calls “homonationalism” and what Chandan Reddy refers to as “freedom with violence.” Calling attention to the ironies that mark contemporary LGBT politics, Puar and Reddy illustrate the way the extension of new rights and freedoms to certain (white, middle-class) members of the LGBT community are enacted in the same gesture that authorizes state violence—both physical and ideological—against racialized bodies. Reddy find a potent example of this irony in the fact that Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, an important piece of LGBT legislation, was passed as an attachment to the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act (which drastically increased the budget of the Department of Defense). Similarly, when Puar encounters a post 9/11 print ad depicting two white gay men wrapped provocatively in an American flag and urging the nation to “come together,” she reads its blatant homonationalism as the counter-image against which the racialized figure of the “monster-terrorist-fag” now looms as newest symbol of social and sexual perversity. To the members of the 2013 San Francisco Pride Board who revoked Manning’s invitation to serve as Grand Marshal of the parade, Manning’s “leak” dealt a puncture wound to the proud image of the newly legitimated homo-nationalist citizen.
Significantly, Manning’s release of classified documents was synchronous with the historic repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010 which allowed gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals to serve openly in the military. What a setback, the Pride Board must have felt, to have such a shameful scandal associated with an LGBT service member at a moment when gay men and lesbians had finally proven their loyalty, patriotism, and fitness for duty. After forty years of gay liberation struggles, I imagine they thought, why compromise our hard-won victories by honoring a known traitor? This stance, of course, willfully forgets that the Stonewall Riots, which the parade commemorates, also began as an act of civil disobedience that protested the state-authorized use of police force against vulnerable populations. In “believ[ing] the myth it has created about its past,” the LGBT community had “entirely denied its past.”
Rather than confronting these uncomfortable histories, Baldwin argues, we have made “legend out of a massacre,” producing “cowboy and Indian stories” that “reassure us that no crime was committed.” By contrast, Manning’s own crime, for which she is now imprisoned, was to alert everyone that a crime was indeed committed—in essence, to make a “massacre” out of a “legend.”
This is not to say that Manning did not have a strong contingent of LGBT supporters.6 Even among the military, many gay service members defended Manning’s actions, several of these supporters seemed intent on promoting a narrative that preserved Manning’s maleness along with her patriotism. For example, Dan Choi, a highly visible former American infantry officer who had been discharged as a result of DADT, argued that “what [Bradley Manning] did as a gay American, as a gay soldier, he stood for integrity, I am proud of him.” Choi’s use of Manning’s deadname and his choice of male gender pronouns to describe her, are particularly perplexing given Choi’s own acknowledgement, several sentences later, of Manning’s trans identification:
“Bradley Manning, a gay man who discussed his desire to have a sex change operation and be known as Breanna, can be described as trans-curious, and so we feel the tie-in with the [Trans March] to celebrate and promote the rights of transgendered people, who still face high levels of discrimination in the United States, legal and otherwise, is appropriate.”7
Here, Choi superficially affirms Manning’s identity as a transgender woman, while skating past Manning’s clear request to be addressed as a woman. “Trans” is both grammatically and temporally subordinated here—it is an adjective, modifying and supplementing gay male identity, as well as dream deferred on the horizon of LGBT equality. In contrast to the new freedoms that gay men enjoy, “transgender people still face high levels discrimination,” making them an “appropriate” (if auxiliary) “tie-in” to the larger project of securing freedom. The description of Manning as “trans-curious” extends this logic; unlike her labeling as a “gay soldier” and a “gay American,” her trans identification is presented merely as a “desire,” one that is contingent, exploratory, and possibly even temporary. Foregrounding Manning’s identity first as a “gay man” and only secondarily as trans, he thus folds her story back into a familiar homonationalist narrative about the bravery and patriotism of gay soldiers. Thus Manning’s insistence on her trans identity in the wake of her military insubordination not only complicates the “nationalism” embedded in homonationalism, but the “homo” as well.
In refusing to play into the image of the “good” gay soldier—butch, compliant, and indistinguishable from his straight counterparts—Manning rejects what Baldwin refers to as “the American ideal of masculinity” which “has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden—as an unpatriotic act—that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood” (815). We might, of course, read a dissonance between Baldwin’s desire for the American boy to “evolve into the complexity of man-hood” and the insights of trans scholars who reject the notion that boys must grow into men at all. However, the observations that directly precede it suggest that the “complexity of manhood” may simply be another way of referring to the “complexities of gender”—complexities that are broad enough to include Manning’s own transgender rejection of the homona- tionalist masculine ideal.
Finally, intertwined in all of the narratives that have swirled around Chelsea Manning, is also a powerful story about disability, psychiatric diagnosis, and compulsory able-bodiedness/able-mindedness. During Manning’s trial, her defense attorneys made much of her mental health at the time of the leak. Dr. David Moulton, who examined Manning’s medical history, foregrounded her “Gender-Identity Dysphoria,” adding to this designation a diagnosis of “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and some traits of Asperger’s.” Moulton also discussed Manning’s “narcissistic traits” including “grandiose ideations” and what he called “post-adolescent idealism.” This compounded Manning’s previous assessment, by a brigade psychiatrist, who diagnosed Manning with an “occupational problem and adjustment disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct.” (The brigade psychiatrist’s assessment followed an incident in which Manning was discovered “sitting on the floor in a fetal position in a storage room,” having etched the phrase “I want” into a vinyl chair with an army knife).9 In highlighting Manning’s supposed mental instability, the defense hoped to make a case that Manning had been acting with impaired judgment and was not responsible for her actions. Rather, the defense claimed, it had been the Army’s responsibility to recognize the warning signs, remove her from duty, and provide treatment for her psychiatric problems. Transforming political “idealism,” itself, into the symptom of diagnosable disorder, the defense mounted at Manning’s trial thus extended a long history in which disability and mental illness are used to disqualify acts of social rebellion.10
Indeed, in May of 2011, The Washington Post published a lengthy bio piece on Manning that read less like a biography than a psychiatric case history designed to “explain” Manning’s incomprehensible actions. Entirely avoiding Manning’s trans identification and egregiously misgendering her, the writer of the piece begins her exploration by noting that “Manning had a history of emotional outbursts throughout his youth, and they continued during his Army service, culminating in a breakdown in Baghdad.” She goes on to ask: “How did a young man of such promise wind up in a brig? And how was he in a position to potentially access sensitive material given what the Army knew—or should have known—about him? Who is Bradley Manning, and what made him the way he is?” What follows is a psychoanalytically overwrought portrait of a tumultuous early home life and coming of age—an alcoholic mother, an emotionally and physically abusive father, a traumatic divorce, a remarriage that left Manning feeling “replaced by his stepbrother,” and a stressful closeted life under the military’s DADT policies. Though sympathetic in tone, the article concludes with the speculation that Manning’s “history of emotional fragility” and her “outbursts” should have served as enough cause to have her “clearance reviewed.” Turning to the “expert” opinion of a psychiatrist who has been frequently consulted on espionage cases, she explains that “supervisors can be trained to recognize signs of distress in people before they take actions that could harm national security. Young adults often don’t know their place in the world. ‘When there’s a lot of confusion about that,’ he said, ‘then you really are talking about a deeper sense of being unmoored in life.’”11
In refusing to play into the image of the “good” gay soldier—butch, compliant, and indistinguishable from his straight counterparts—Manning rejects what Baldwin refers to as “the American ideal of masculinity” which “has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white.”
The article guides readers to empathize with Manning, contextualizing her “crimes” by providing a humanizing back story. However, the resulting portrait presents Manning as a psychologically damaged and dangerously “unmoored” individual whose acts of disobedience, far from representing a principled outcry against injustice, constitute little more than a reckless cry for help. Manning’s public outrage and the political context of her actions are supplanted by a “private” story about individual setback and personal trauma. Furthermore, threaded through all of these psychiatric speculations—from the unofficial diagnosis of “post-adolescent idealism”8 to the image of Manning as a mentally distressed “young adult” “confused” about her “place in the world”—is the implication that Manning had never sufficiently or successfully matured into adulthood. As though literalized in the gerund of her surname, she is presented as a vulnerable and volatile boy whose masculinity, inadequately nurtured and pathologically constructed, remains locked in a perpetual process of “manning” that will never reach fruition. That she might never have wanted to become a man in the first place is a possibility that is never seriously considered.
Against these accounts which disqualify Manning as psychologically damaged or mentally ill, we might be tempted to present a counter-narrative that insists on Manning’s clear-headed rationality and unimpeachable mental health. In this counter-narrative, Manning’s personal life and private emotions would be overshadowed by the political import and public service of her actions. Her trans identification (made respectable through the language of having been born “in the wrong body”) would be irrelevant to her principled decision to become a whistleblower. But just as Baldwin argued that the public and private are nonsensical distinctions, he frequently insisted that there could be no meaningful separation between political life and psychic life. Manning’s feelings of anxiety and depression—which she herself shared with various friends—cannot be extricated from the national context that framed the conditions of her military employment. Neither, I will tentatively offer, is her disidentification with American manhood. Against a culture that valorizes toxic masculinities, produces a skyrocketing rate of transgender suicide, and requires enthusiastic complicity in the enactment of state violence, Manning’s mental distress may be the only rational response.
In his review of Stuart David Engstrand’s 1946 The Sling and the Arrow, Baldwin critiques the way the novel presents a “carefully embroidered case history” of a “schizophrenic personality” that is as accurate “as any of our psychiatrically conscious millions could wish,” and yet which offers “no illumination, no pity, no terror. One closes this neat and empty volume untouched, indifferent, leaving Herbert floundering in his irrelevant hell, knowing that this happens seldom and can never happen to us” (304). The problem with psychiatry, for Baldwin, was not its preoccupation with mental health, but the way its vocabularies and narratives functioned to depoliticize psychological life, allowing us to leave our encounters with others “untouched,” “indifferent,” and satisfied with our present level of comfort and safety. What kind of world might we create, Baldwin asks, if we could bring ourselves to embrace “terror” not as a force of destruction, or a thing to declare “war” on, but as means of “illumination”? What would it mean to make peace with terror? In posing this question, I do not mean to imply that marginalized subjects should “make peace” with the powerful institutions (like the police force) that terrorize them through ongoing, and often deadly, force. Rather, to make peace with terror is to be willing to see systemic injustice where it appears and to approach it truthfully, and with compassion.
What kind of world might we create, Baldwin asks, if we could bring ourselves to embrace “terror” not as a force of destruction, or a thing to declare “war” on, but as means of “illumination”? What would it mean to make peace with terror?
Baldwin’s reclamation of “pity,” too, may feel counterintuitive to disability scholars who have long understood pity to be a tool of disability oppression. Pity makes disability readable only as tragedy, framing the disabled person as wholly dependent on voluntary benevolence of their non-disabled counterparts. Far from facilitating meaningful connection, pity robs disabled individuals of self-determination and political agency.12 Like “white guilt,” it constitutes a liberal evasion of responsibility costumed in the language of support. But in the Baldwin lexicon, pity takes on a more radical meaning. More accurately described as empathy, Baldwin’s version of pity requires honesty and accountability. It asks that we drop our usual defenses and become vulnerable in the process of seeing the other. Here, and elsewhere, Baldwin’s willingness to question the value of autonomy and independence—and the emphasis he places on our obligations to one another—aligns him with disability theories of “interdependence” which, in their strongest form, argue that no one, not even the most “able” among us, is truly self-reliant.
My own relationship to Baldwin has changed since I first encountered him in that undergraduate course over a decade ago. I returned to Baldwin several years later, as a graduate student with a long-standing commitment to queer theory and a deepening interest in disability studies. Baldwin scholars have long focused on the intersection of “black” and “queer” when responding to his work, and while on the one hand it may seem excessive to add yet another marginalized category, disability, to the list (no less a category with which Baldwin did not actively identify), I suspected that Baldwin might, in the spirit of coalition, have been open to this unlikely crossing. Indeed, reading Giovanni’s Room, I found that it was disability studies, rather than queer theory, that led me to see the more “radical” side of Baldwin’s seemingly “less radical” novel. Though psychiatric narratives of homosexuality saturate the text—with Baldwin’s closeted white narrator, David, constantly insisting on the diagnosable origins of his same-sex desire—I began to suspect that there may have been more than internalized homophobia or queer ambivalence at work in these medicalized confessions. To what extent, I wondered, might Baldwin have been actively staging psychiatry’s “prophylactic” tendency to isolate and extricate the individual psyche from its larger social and historical context? What kinds of messy (interracial, cross-gendered, lower-class) histories and associations were being obscured by David’s bourgeois insistence on the diagnosable origins of his own same-sex desires?
Though Baldwin was suspicious of psychiatry’s tendency to medicalize (and therefore depoliticize) mental distress, he was interested in the psychological toll of systemic injustice, and the collective forms that healing must take within a racially divided nation. I was reminded of this the evening before the one-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s murder, when I attended a poetry performance and workshop sponsored by St. Louis’s Social Justice Healing Network. In the process of completing this essay, I was at the same time watching my friends risk their safety in order to stage activist disruptions of public space. Exhausted by conflicts with the police, they also found themselves galvanized by the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement and the community networks that provided various forms of practical, financial, and emotional support. The event organizers recognized that, in contexts like these, self-care is no frivolous indulgence but a crucial means of survival. In pairing “Social Justice” and “Healing,” they framed self-care as form of collective action, even when it takes place in the private refuge of a coffee shop after hours. We were a small and diverse group, and as a white queer cisgender woman, I was aware of the privilege I was bringing into the space, just as I am cognizant of the able-bodied privilege I bear in disability activist settings and in my own writing on disability politics and representation. Like Cass in Another Country, who had “never had to deal with a policeman in her life, and it had never entered her mind to feel menaced by one” (290), I move through my neighborhood and community with relative ease.
But in the Baldwin lexicon, pity takes on a more radical meaning. More accurately described as empathy, Baldwin’s version of pity requires honesty and accountability. It asks that we drop our usual defenses and become vulnerable in the process of seeing the other.
Before she performed her first piece, poet Cheeraz Gormon asked everyone in the audience to find a stranger in the room and to look into their eyes for five seconds. She noted that often, in times of self-care or meditation, our tendency is to close our eyes and to disconnect from the world around us. This exercise was intended to make us fully present, not just with ourselves, but with each other. Against a clinical language of diagnosis and cure, Gorman wanted us to experience healing, like Baldwin, as moment of “illumination,” “pity,” and even “terror.” It is a disconcerting thing to make prolonged eye contact with a stranger. But as Baldwin argues in “Stranger in the Village,” none of us can be strangers in America whose lives are intimately shaped by the facts we accept or repress about our country’s racist legacies. To look into the eyes of a stranger is to come to terms with your role in that legacy—how you have been injured by it, how you have benefitted from it, and who you are accountable to as a result. This, for Baldwin, comprises the only ethical foundation for American democracy.