‘The Queer Child’ by Kathryn Bond Stockton

Lawsuits to ban GSAs from schools continue to prove what Anita Bryant most famously did in her 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign: ‘queers and children’ is always a hot topic because it is also always taboo. Within this realm of religion and politics, the idea of the “queer child” is unimaginable. Kathryn Bond Stockton’s richly incisive intellectual history The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century reveals a parallel tract of the literary imagination. Her compelling, and vitally important, contribution to our understanding of how society juggles, sometimes successfully and often provocatively, the ideas of queerness and childhood proves that these ideas have literally formed one another.

Bookended by movements for sexual purity and safety, the twentieth century set the terms for how innocent children become reproductive adults. Historian Philippe Aries dates the invention of childhood, and its innocence, to the mid-seventeenth century, but Swedish writer of social reform Ellen Key christened the twentieth century “the century of the child” at its inception. Social scientists continued to complicate, and extend, the period of delay that anticipates adulthood. Their safeguarding measures over managed the child’s growth as they increasingly imagined opportunities for its deviance. This cycle inadvertently gave life to the queer child through fiction, and The Queer Child picks up here. As the “dramas of children’s darkness” (6)—from which they are protected and for which they are feared—accumulated on the twentieth century road to enlightened adulthood, every child became queer by “growing sideways” as they awaited, or resisted, the time to grow up. Like queerness, innocence was imagined but never found; unlike queerness, it never really existed.

What is remarkable about The Queer Child is that no comprehensive, or even extensive, discussion of queer children exists outside the psychological and educational discourses that draw their power from the threat of the queer child. Stockton’s treatment of the subject is distinct from these studies of the social conditions of gay kids and homophobia. For what is thrilling about Stockton’s approach is that it reads as an extension of the literary sources in which she details the conditions for queer desire to germinate—as if Stockton herself is feeling and thinking sideways. In her discussion of the sexual love of women for each other in Djuna Barnes’s 1936 novel Nightwood, Stockton spotlights metaphor, particularly one character’s relation to her dog, as the child’s means of becoming queer: “Robin, revising the kind of woman the novel describes as ‘unsexed as a doll,’ becomes a vehicle to her tenor, crawling back to Nora through the body of a metaphor. She becomes as sexed as a dog” (112). Stockton’s writing is stock-full of metaphors that extend from the pages of her sources onto her own and make palpable the elliptical yet felt existence of the queer child.

In a time of the impossibility of queer love, Stockton argues that through their child-like relationships with pets, specifically dogs, girls, like animals, could “openly cry in pain and pleasure.” She finds strikingly similar metaphoric uses of girls and dogs in works by Virginia Woolf and Radclyffe Hall, let alone for all children in Lassie. If for girls, or young women, the dog “is truly a figure for what it means to be beside oneself with sorrow”—“sorrow for the historical prematurity of the love of lateral growth”—then pleasure follows in the unseen wake of the masochistic boy’s “desired role in dramas of pain” (68), such as Henry James’ 1891 novella The Pupil (considered by many critics to be a gay classic). For where else can children be jubilantly irresponsible and subvert social mores but in embracing the pain, if not the act, of growing up (straight)?

Stockton looks to the private imaginary realm of fiction precisely because the queer child is not seen, or spoken of, in public. For Stockton, a metaphor is a “moving suspension” (92), where meaning moves and time hangs in delay like dog years. This approach resists models of sexual identity incapable of marking the feeling of childhood queerness that has had no language, and until Stockton, no articulated conceptual framework. In the lateral movement of metaphors, meaning grows sideways by accentuating, and familiarizing, the connection between strange juxtapositions like child and dog (91-92). Stockton maintains that it is through metaphor that children’s pleasure as queer is made accessible to them and hidden from parents and a future of reproduction. A powerful queer sexuality in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) and its 1962 and 1996 film versions, for example, appears as a car as well as a dog that “mark the motions of a motive that’s obscure but is seen as opaque” (145). According to Stockton, the idea of the child “is the act of adults looking back” (5). In Lolita, Humbert Humbert is blind to her queer motives in the present as they continue to haunt, ghostlike, in his rearview mirror (150). This queer child, dangerous, antithetical to childhood, takes a few central forms that braid together throughout The Queer Child. Stockton clumps them as the ghostly gay child (the suicidal or closeted child), the grown homosexual (the developmentally arrested child), the child queered by Freud (the sexually precocious and aggressive child), and the child queered by innocence or color.

In presenting novel ways to think beyond the identitarian connections between black and gay as marginalized, Stockton distinguishes between growing up and growing sideways as innocence versus experience. She grounds this major philosophical wrinkle in William Blake’s 1789 poem “The Little Black Boy,” wherein the “black boy, quite simply, is not weak enough to come across as innocent. He is a paragon of strength and experience” (31). This idea of blackness as “older, experientially, and more absorbing of life” is apparent in Stockton’s later cinematic examples Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and Six Degrees of Separation (1993) where, in the latter, blackness is “a bridge to, a door opening onto, color and imaginative force” (210). Stockton shows how the common masochistic condition of queer childhood, for boys and girl, white and black, imagined and not, can also enlighten, if only for a moment and at least in fictional representations, straight white upper-class liberal adults.

Stockton’s nuanced application of queer theory as a literary project—she jumps off from the work of James Kincaid, Lee Edelman, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—reveals the illusory nature of social acceptance, and the control and knowledge that underwrites it, but it is no methodology to connect the written, or filmed, word to lived experience. Stockton’s implicit response to this critique is that it has predominantly been narrative that has kept the queer child alive. As she answers to the forms in which the queer child lives, she never fully addresses the implications of the question ‘alive for whom?’. The audience for these texts? Their artistic circle of reception? The queer child itself? All of the texts Stockton cites as evidence of the queer child were written through the same act of adults looking back that she critiques as stillbirthing the queer child. This conundrum is mainly disciplinary. What all of these texts do in common is show “how to read a sidetrack and respect a little haze: man/boy masochism or girls’ access to themselves through their dogs” (155). Stockton’s limning of sideways growth reveals the track as it lays it for other disciplinary approaches to expand and deepen.

If thinking, feeling, and reading laterally is the queer mode of becoming, Stockton also suggests that all people, not just children, can become queer through over consumption. She ends by introducing a quotidian yet illuminating theme to the construction of the queer child: money. The child queered by money is made both vulnerable and dangerous (222). Adults financially provide for children, and children play as adults through disposable income, and in ways parents do not allow for sex play. Money circulates, moves laterally, and incites imagination (225) while also clouding motives (222) in forms such as contractual labor in The Pupil or advertisements in Lolita. Stockton points out that the children in the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams negotiate reality and fantasy, joy and sorrow, through money (228-238). Within this final amendment to her argument is buried Stockton’s most powerful conclusion: the fictional life of the queer child shows what it means to be human.


Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (2009)
by Kathryn Bond Stockton
ISBN: 978-0822343868
Duke University Press, $22.95, 312p