Thursday, 8 April 2010

Times: Saints, fireworks and drag queens

Thursday, 8th April 2010 by Ranier Fsadni

I confess that I approached Joseph Carmel Chetcuti's recent book, Queer Mediterranean Memories, with the attitude that, if the book has earned a condemnation from the pulpit, the author must be doing something right. So my initial reading of the book was something of a disappointment. Its subtitle reads "penetrating the secret history and silence of gay and lesbian disguise in the Maltese archipelago". But what history there is in it is really gay lore put on record - and told with the digressions, repetitions and quips of a raconteur rather than a good writer.

Nevertheless, there is something redemptive about rescuing any memories from oblivion. And possibly some of the disorganisation of the writing stems from the relatively unstructured lives of which it speaks - the limbo of cultural illegitimacy, of men whose lives cannot be told truthfully using conventional narratives.

Mr Chetcuti's self-imposed task was to make those lives visible on our cultural radar. The problem is that he understands that to mean, in social terms, going on a quest for secret homosexuality and using flimsy evidence to claim that St Paul and St Ġorġ Preca were gay (though not necessarily sexually active).

The problem is not so much the claim but the reasons given. One is that both saints were, allegedly, misogynists. And Ġorġ Preca is made to seem fairly seedy: To suggest that ritually washing men's feet (and only men's feet) is a sign of repressed homosexuality is really to suggest that solemn ritual was manipulated to get a cheap thrill. With evidence like this, why should anyone who believes that homosexuality is a disorder change his mind?

Ironically, the obsession with what lies invisible in the saint's heart makes Mr Chetcuti miss a more interesting connection between sainthood and homosexuality.
The self-abnegation of a saint like Ġorġ Preca does challenge conventional notions of masculine strength and identity. At the same time, witnesses testified to a kind of power and mystery that he made visible - for which he served as a magnifying lens.
Many saints have often displayed a pronounced discomfort with conventional gender roles and sexuality. But this need not mean that the saint was not heterosexual; rather that he or she, in expressing unconventional weakness or strength, ecstasy or tears, dependence or independence, intimacy or distance, is actually rendering visible areas of heterosexual experience that social norms tend to repress and render inchoate.

It is why so many people experience getting to know a saint as simultaneously a process of self-discovery. The saint makes them visible to themselves.

And, as is suggested by the agonies and ecstasies publicly displayed during village feasts, the saint can also provide a larger-than-life space to inhabit.

What applies to the sacred realm may also be discovered in the profane. Mr Chetcuti gives a great deal of attention to drag queens, who give rise to some of the most interesting pages of the book.

One of the anecdotes concerns a drag queen whose performance at the Why Not? took an unexpected turn. The St Julians club, which closed in the mid-1990s, was hosting a beauty contest. The drag queen, on a roll, decided to use her stick to tap the blinds of a nearby window. "At the gentle touch, the blinds rolled up, revealing to the passing crowd below a rather skimpily-clad drag queen in a feathery bikini. Straight men rushed into the Why Not? and an already packed venue became even more crowded."
This fascination with drag is part of straight lore as much as gay. Many drag queens' star turns - with their blend of artifice and trembling feeling, pastiche and soul-baring - qualify as performance art. To appreciate it one doesn't need to analyse the juxtaposition of comedic striptease and melancholic lifting of the veils covering sentiment. The act does its own work.

Under the cover of hilarity, mockery and play-acting, certain feelings and attitudes towards gender identities, which would otherwise not be acknowledged, are given a rare opening for the spectators, even the straight ones.

The juxtaposition of saints and drag queens may seem far-fetched. Only they do come together in practice, in the carnival atmosphere of certain feasts.

As one youth from Għargħur, remembering the revelries of the feast of St Bartholomew in 1985, told Mr Chetcuti: "Gays know how to celebrate. I was one of those who put on a frock and I can't tell you how much we enjoyed ourselves. They lifted us on their shoulders and everyone cheered us."

That year, a small group of young men, many of them manual workers, had decided to give the feast a carnival atmosphere. It was carnival costumes, not drag, that they wore and, although many thought the parish priest was "disappointed with the revelry," it seems everyone of all ages enjoyed the spectacle.

Not everything visible is beautiful. There are suggestions in Mr Chetcuti's material, and plenty of evidence in gay histories of other Mediterranean societies, that homosexual relationships can, like straight relationships, reflect the ugly power games between men and women.

However, even such instances display the cultural interdependence of hetero- and homosexuality.

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]

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