Jack’s Naughty Bits: James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Pin it

Jack's Naughty Bits

the much-beleaguered Nerve author
Leif Ueland, I’m often asked if I am gay.
Normally I respond that I don’t think so, for I certainly don’t seem aroused by male
genitalia — but this answer doesn’t seem to resolve the issue. I’d like to believe that I
would know by now, that the truth ‘twould have outed long ago, but the whole orientation
thing is so complicated, so fraught with conflicting signs, that it’s easy to doubt, to second
guess and finally to third guess the second guesses and start the questioning over. If I say
I’m gay, then clearly I’m gay, but if I deny it, I’m likely to be repressed (I grew up in the
Midwest after all) and thus probably even more gay. Or so the vicious logic goes, thank
you Dr. Freud.


You would think, then, that I could take some comfort in the notion that people’s
sexual preferences are said to fall on a continuum of one to ten, with the numbers at either
end representing complete, unequivocal commitments to a single gender and the middle ones
representing leanings either way. But for those of us who probably fall somewhere close to
the equator, the continuum is a source of both relief and renewed suspicion. Relief because
our sexuality doesn’t seem deviant, suspicion because it’s not clear where the truth might
lie. Seven, three? Four, six? Five? God knows. How would I know?


Ah . . . but wait. Some people do seem to know, and not only those at the far,
unambiguous ends of the spectrum. Take, for example, James Baldwin’s male protagonist
in Giovanni’s Room, who, early in the book, has his first sexual encounter, and
it’s with a boy. He realizes that he’s gay, but then tries to suppress it in the most painful
account of unwelcome identity I’ve ever read. Baldwin’s characters (both here, and in
Another Country) struggle mightily with their conflicted sexualities, bringing to the
page the pain and anguish of living a lie, or a truth you are unwilling to accept. It’s ironic
that an author so adept at portraying the sexual identities of confused bisexual men would
script the moment of realization with such lucidity and precision, but sadly, for Baldwin,
that moment was the beginning, not the end, of the questioning.

* * *

From Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

I laughed and grabbed his head as I had done God knows how many times before, when I
was playing with him or when he had annoyed me. But this time when I touched him
something happened in him and in me which made this touch different from any touch
either of us had ever known. And he did not resist, as he usually did, but lay where I had
pulled him, against my chest. And I realized that my heart was beating in an awful way and
that Joey was trembling against me and the light in the room was very bright and hot. I
started to move and to make some kind of joke but Joey mumbled something and I put my
head down to hear. Joey raised his head as I lowered mine and we kissed, as it were, by
accident. Then, for the first time in my life, I was really aware of another person’s body,
of another person’s smell. We had our arms around each other . It was like holding in my
hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to
find. I was very frightened, I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To
remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly
forgotten it. I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly
stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my
heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy, we gave each
other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be enough for me to act with
Joey the act of love . . .


But Joey is a boy. I saw suddenly the power in his thighs, in his arms, and
in his loosely curled fists. The power and the promise and the mystery of that body made
me suddenly afraid. That body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I
would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood. Precisely, I
wanted to know that mystery and feel that power and have that promise fulfilled through
me. The sweat on my back grew cold. I was ashamed. The very bed, in its sweet disorder,
testified to vileness. I wondered what Joey’s mother would say when she saw the sheets.
Then I thought of my father, who had no one in the world but me, my mother having died
when I was little. A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words. I thought I saw my
future in that cavern. I was afraid. I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for
not understanding how this could have happened to me, how this could have happened
in me. And I made my decision . . .

© James Baldwin