Visible Invisibility: The Ghostly Nature of Queer-Reading
I cannot explain queerness any longer in ways that don’t involve ghosts.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
An anecdote I tend to tell about my life as a queer teen is that before I could come out of the closet as a lesbian, people had already decided that I was a lesbian. That word was thrust at me so many times, by well-intentioned people or ill-intentioned ones alike; before I could admit that I was part of the queer community, I took part in its spaces, in its vigils, in its joy and its mourning. I was invisible in the sense that I couldn’t imagine that what I was experiencing, what I was feeling, was real; I was visible in the sense that those feelings and experiences simply were real. Queer-coding, queer-reading, and queerbaiting in popular media or literature are all products enabled by this invisible visibility.
Due to academic rigor and the limited scope of a seminar paper, in my writing back then, I focused on two books and on gay men. But we’re all in this together, as they say. I can apply this ghostly concept to so much more than The Picture of Dorian Gray (a beautiful map of nineteenth-century homosexuality) or the Harry Potter series(Remus Lupin is a trans gay man, so says the subtext, no matter what the text says).
Take, for example, the never-ending list of flamboyant, queer-coded Disney villains. Jafar’s drawl, Hades’s drama-queen antics, the basing of Ursula on the legendary Divine, and so on and so forth. Your favorite Disney villain is most likely queer-coded, and that’s nothing new for me to say. We could probably see that even before it was explained to us in intellectual ways—under the historical context of the Hays Code, and in relation to developing academic theories about queer villainy and queer representation on-screen. For most of us, the tipping clue about a character being queer is the same sensation we get when we recognize another queer person on the street. That same confusion about whether we are recognizing someone or are being recognized; about whether we are haunted by seeing the familiar traits that make us queer while that queerness is never acknowledged or are projecting those traits on what we’re seeing, haunting the text. That’s how it works, the double-edged sword of visible invisibility. We can tell that queer-coded characters are meant to be queer. Others, less so. Thus, queerness in media often exists in the liminal space of ghosts.
While some creators make use of that liminal space to communicate to us the uncommunicable, what they’re not allowed to communicate or can’t communicate in more explicit ways (that is what queer coding is, after all), some creators make use of that liminal space to tease and bait. Ghosts tend to transfer messages to those who see them, who sense their presence, who become aware of them. While queer-coding transfers a message about a sort of existence, even if it be one of suffering, even if it be one of secret messages, queerbaiting, on the other hand, transfers a message of inexistence. It implies that queerness exists, but, at the same time, it denies that very existence, creating a world in which queer people cannot take part. While the queerness of queer-coding haunts the text more than anything else, the queerness of queerbaiting haunts the reader of the text.
I have had my share of fandom involvement in my life. I’ve been to places and I’ve seen some things. I insisted on the subtextual queerness of textually heterosexual characters online way before I wrote about it in an academic context. And when the early 2010s trend of queerbaiting soared with shows such as Merlin BBC, Teen Wolf, and Sherlock BBC, I was there to see fandoms haunted by clues and insinuations that forever remained as nothing but clues and insinuations. Haunted by jokes about the possibility of a character that queer people read as queer being actually queer. Haunted by denials that came with a wink.
While the creators and actors of Teen Wolf teased and baited their audience without any intention to follow up on any character’s insinuated queerness, I’ve seen the fandom stray so far from the show itself that you didn’t need to watch the show anymore to participate in the fandom’s creations. When Sherlock BBC fostered a whole theory about a planned eventual confirmation of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson’s relationship that, expectedly, turned out to be nothing but false hope, I was, for a while, one of the people who believed that. Because nothing else made sense. Because we were all seeing something where there was nothing, nothing where there was something. We were all haunted by the same ghost.
Queer audiences’ perceptions of their own sexualities are continuously questioned by creators and actors who, intentionally or unintentionally, bait queer audiences into seeing ghosts that aren’t meant to be there, for money, ratings, enthusiasm, or by mistake. Lena Luthor and Kara Danvers are probably not going to kiss on Supergirl, but queer audiences will always see the ghost of that kiss. And for heterosexual audiences, these ghosts may forever remain urban legends. Something that someone they know heard about from someone they know. Something that they’ll never see themselves. Because queerness exists in the liminal space of visible invisibility, and even as we assert our own identities, they are so easily erased. We remain haunting.
On November 5, 2020, Supernatural—a show with a track record of about eleven years of queerbaiting their audiences by teasing a relationship between monster-hunter Dean Winchester and angel-from-Heaven Castiel, a legendary fandom even to those who were never a part of it, like me—confirmed Castiel’s queerness. It’s not for nothing that fandom spaces on Twitter, on Tumblr, on AO3, on Discord, in private conversations, and everywhere else exploded with the news. It’s not every day that one of the most famous ghosts in fandom history turns out to not be an urban legend after all. Regardless of what I have to say about the homophobic nature of that confirmation (spoiler: Castiel died immediately after confessing his love to Dean, and Dean never returned said love,unless you watched the episode in Spanish), it’s not every day that suddenly, queer audiences aren’t haunting a text they’ve been haunting for years, nor are they haunted by it any longer; they simply exist.
Of course, queer representation isn’t limited to coding or baiting; we’re lucky to live at a time when queer representation is prospering in explicit, beautiful, genuine ways. A time when queer creators and actors push for more of it, when queer audiences know that they deserve more of it. But that doesn’t mean that the haunting and haunted nature of queerness has been made irrelevant. It might be more relevant than ever, in the way that explicit queer representation explores and expresses queerness.
I was floored by this utilization of the haunting and haunted qualities of queerness to tell a story that is gentle, hopeful.
The most obvious example would be the recent Netflix show The Haunting of Bly Manor. A reimagining of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and the second installation in their haunting series after The Haunting of Hill House, in Bly Manor, a queer love story between characters Dani and Jamie interweaves itself with the ghost story in such a way that in the final episode, this question is posed to the audience: Was the story we heard a love story or a ghost story? Ultimately, the queer love story cannot be separated from the ghost story, but it goes the other way around too: The ghost story cannot be separated from the love story. Every love story is a ghost story. After watching nine episodes where I came to know people who hope to never be haunted again, whether they were the residents of the haunted Bly Manor or Dani, who throughout the show is haunted by the ex-fiancé she left because of her queerness, the final montage of the show detailed to me the ways in which someone hopes to be haunted. And that someone was Jamie, and her ghost was Dani. I was floored by this utilization of the haunting and haunted qualities of queerness to tell a story that is gentle, hopeful. A story where the ghostly nature of queerness is also its advantage.
For the finishing touch, I want to set the mood once again. I want you to read this when something beautiful feels within your reach, and I want you to imagine that you’re grasping that something. That where someone told you there is nothing of worth, you found gold.
I don’t go a day without thinking about the finale of my favorite show, Black Sails. It’s a prequel to Treasure Island,but it’s also a queer cult show at this point. A show where queer histories are reclaimed, where queer freedom is imagined, where queer reality is explored through the vantage point of queer people’s visible invisibility. I don’t go a day without thinking about one of the most beautiful lines of the show, one that encapsulates it all so well: “It’s the stories we want to believe, those are the ones that survive.” So, believe in those queer ghosts. If you do, they will forever survive.
Michael Elias is a writer of prose, poetry, essays, plays, and anything in-between. You can find them published in Homologylit, Gold Flake Paint,Jewish News Detroit, The Niche, Harana Poetry, Pass The Mic, and elsewhere. They are currently studying comparative literature, history, and arts at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.