Elegies: Eve Sedgwick Through Gary Fisher

As the tributes to Eve Sedgwick’s life and work are written and proliferate, let me register her ongoing impact on my life. Between Men was one of the first 3 queer books I ever read, as a sophomore. I did not understand a word but it stayed with me. And I stayed with it. And it gave me a language, a frame of reference, a map with which to navigate the academy, a map that I still use.

Queer elegies are occasions for thinking about what queer lives and loves and losses enable, what they generate, what they make possible. And so let me muse, briefly, on one of Sedgwick’s most enabling texts: Gary in Your Pocket.

Gary Fisher was a black graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley who took a class with Sedgwick when she was a visiting professor there in spring 1987. He was also one of many of us, who never submitted his work for publication, but kept writing the world as he experienced and imagined it.

Friday, April 20, 1984

Darkness, darkness. Good Friday. I’m feeling a little religious, a little inquisitive, a little frightened, a little lost in the magnitude of what I have to say. It’s not going away, this tenderness under my arms, the occasional burning sensation, a couple of painless red dots—one on each hand. It’s not going away and I don’t feel good about that with AIDS such an issue. I want to blame and beg and apologize to certain people, to God, to my dying mother perhaps. That’s been feeling like a consolation, a bit of relief perhaps knowing I won’t go alone . . . Never alone, Gary, just faster.

Gary told Sedgwick his status while apologizing for missing “so many classes.” He also confessed that he hadn’t “told this to other people” and asked her not to do the same.

Sedgwick writes, “It wasn’t commonplace back then, at least it hadn’t happened to me before, to hear from young people that the futures they look forward to are so modest in duration.”

Modest. And profuse.

Monday, September 3, 1984

Time, time time, look what’s become of me . . . My rash is just an itch now, but I discovered a small protrusion of skin, another mole I guess, and it made me feel old and dying. Unfairly though—not fate, but my decision to lay down and die so easily

In 1984, Gary was 23.

Sunday, March 29, 1987

So I’m on my knees again, before God. Tall, white, wary of me, trying to work him into a froth of masterliness. . . . I hope to draw out the ego, the cruel ego in the men that I suck.

Inhabiting the muck of racio-sexualized masculinities

I haven’t written the paper for Sundquist and now I want to suck cock, or think about it anyway. The loads churned in my stomach, my ass is still smarting from Michael’s torture. . . . It is after midnight. I have not started this paper. Thursday night 5 men ejaculated the semen from their hard penises into my mouth and throat. There were several other encounters but five that actually fed me and left me full and strange that evening. The first man I met was big and white and darkly bearded, but he stinked like the onions he ate for lunch and had a small dick.

Are we allowed to write like this? To call white men “God?” To dream of sucking off “God?”

Monday, April 27, 1987

. . . I’m on BART and there’s a man in front of me, big, white, mustached, glasses, rather cruel- and solid-looking, kind of military, and I’m turned on by him, want to be used and humiliated by him, then made love to in that odd one-sided way. . . . What is this fantasy that cuts across all of me, racial, intellectual, moral, spiritual, sexual . . . ?

A radical queer, Gary practiced modes of interracial submission and domination, wrote, in great detail, about s/m sex, its ego-shattering appeal, wrote, in other words, about forms of queer practices that queers of color often disavow, through deliberate silences or the pieties of health and safety and futurity.

Thursday, May 28, 1987

I took a chance on a handsome, dark-haired big man. I rubbed his chest and crotch and he rubbed my crotch but kind of absently, looking anywhere but in my face. This bothered me, but in hindsight, isn’t that the kind of encounter I wanted—one-sided, well-defined roles?

Gary Fisher was not a good black queer, not a respectable black queer, not even an admirable black queer. He was, in fact, a black queer it would be easy to throw away, one of the many who “give us a bad name,” as blacks, as queers, as black queers.

Saturday, October 17, 1987

I went home with him. We got drunk and had intense sex. I jerked off before I serviced him, and then I serviced him for five hours. I was in a fine state of arousal most of the night and so drink I could hardly stand up. He fucked me and pissed up my ass. He had me suck him off. By then I was exhausted, but he threw me out, and he wasn’t gentle about it. . . . This guy just wants sex from me. And I’d settle for that if we could make it steady.

Sedgwick did not throw him away. And in not throwing him away she taught me how not to throw Gary Fisher away, not because he was too unlike me, but because the likenesses were too frightening, too uncomfortable, too unbearable. And, here, I must register how Sedgwick continues to teach me to be honest, to face what is difficult and ugly and unbearable in me and in the world.

9.19.93
. . . I want to write about KS. I haven’t really written about what I look like now. I have a new skin. I have a new identity. They are not the same, but they do on occasion converge, even eclipse one another.
. . .
The spots, the lesions, patches—they are so random (Even the name is slippery. What should I call these things, individually, I mean. One KS. Look, there’s a KS. I have a KS on my hand, under my thumb). They refuse a common shape or texture or size and they sprout-spring-develop-appear unpredictably, time and location. (Backtrack: even the action of the disease is slippery.) Some are clustered; some are island-like. Some are small—just dots. Some are large, sprawling, giraffe-like.
. . .
(It’s hard to write and watch movies at the same time.)
I’m that sick.
I could die that soon.

Sedgwick writes,

The time of immersion in this volume has brought me many such experiences. Almost every night of it I have dreamed, not of Gary, but as him—have moved through one and another world clothed in the restless, elastic skin of his beautiful idiom. I don’t know whether this has been more a way of mourning him or of failing to mourn; of growing steeped in, or of refusing the news of his death.

To dream as Gary is to act surreptitiously in the world, but to act. His journal’s geographies traverse bars and clubs, bushes and sex clubs, spaces that I, too, have traveled through, inhabited, sought the pleasures of loss and the loss of pleasures, and created thinking and art. Gary turns us to the ambivalence of black queer desire—at least the kinds of desire I own and share with him. Border crossings across and along skin as texture and color and health create multiple fractures, some filled with pleasure, others with none.

How does one have an ambivalent orgasm? Or none at all? What is the point where getting someone else off is more important? What is the point where one can no longer resist cock-hunger and risks a lot, too much, even, following an insatiable libido?

I come to Gary Fisher through Sedgwick, and return to Sedgick through Gary Fisher.

For Eve and Gary: “Love in Prepositions,” by Gary Fisher

I don’t want you to love me. I don’t even want you to like me. I don’t need these abstractions of you. I might want you to want me, I know what want is and I know that after the third time (arbitrary as three is) you must know want, mine or your own (mine from yours), and you will respond to want with more want, at least a second one. So, maybe then I want you to want me.

But more than all that, I want your prepositions.

I want you in me; I want you on me; I want you all around me (forgive the little flourish there); I want you under me (on occasion anyway; but mainly) want you over, over top of me, on top of me . . . I want you between me (—?—or more exactly in me tearing me apart); I want you near me; I want you next to me . . . I want to remember you as you were in relation to me.

2 thoughts on “Elegies: Eve Sedgwick Through Gary Fisher

  1. Two things I’ve always wondered: how much did Sedgwick’s mediation shape Fisher’s production (while he was alive), and would she (or many others) have been as interested if the dynamic had been different, if Fisher had engaged in the self-same actions with, say, one of the many thousands of Asian-American men–a leatherdaddy, say–in the Bay Area? Or a Latino? Or a Black or mixed-race person? Or a transgender person of color, etc.? In which ways does his narrative map neatly onto the expectations that people already have, the social logic that continues to govern such texts, in this society?

  2. Sedgwick notes that Gary had been writing for some time before they met and that after they met, briefly, for one semester, irregularly, he wrote to her infrequently. The book contains mostly pre-1987 material, and so I am not sure how much she influenced his work.

    There is certainly a Carl van Vechten “feel” to the project, and Gary freely acknowledges that Eve will help his work get into print. I have yet to sort out the politics of patronage–which seem to get more, not less, complex. Even for those of us who publish academic books. My career might hinge on my not saying more, and this is certainly tragic, but realistic.

    What I leave out here, because of my own restrictions, is how deeply Sedgwick relishes Gary’s style and aesthetic–she describes his work, his writing, his way of seeing the world, as lovingly as she describes the other writers she discusses elsewhere (Austen, Dickens, Proust), and it is this, more so than the content she privileges, that inclines me to the book as it is produced: it marries sexuality to aesthetics, a project that, to my mind, Sedgwick still “owns” in a way I’ve yet to see anyone else do.

    To what extent does his narrative match the expectation that black men will always desire whiteness in some form? And that, to refashion Fanon, for black gay men the destiny is always gay white men? I have been wrestling with this, professionally and personally, for the last 10 years. Gary wrestled with it as well, and is his awareness of that wrestling and his honesty about it, and his ambivalence, that, in part, makes his work so valuable for me. A non-answer, but the best I can do.

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