Twinkdom Has an Expiration Date, But Spinsterhood is Forever
For me, homosexuality is an invitation to opt out, to abstain from the trappings of heteronormativity, a gift of eternal boyhood.
Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
The Real Housewives of Beverly HillsThe Real Housewives of Orange County
The Country of the Pointed FirsThe Country of the Pointed Firs
In lieu of a conventional plot is a sustained sense of obsession. These outcasts—bird-watchers, gardeners, entomologists, herbalists, Queen Victoria-admirers—cultivate such intense interests that their fixations take the place of a normative romantic or interpersonal life. Regionalism is a reaction against sentimentality. Jewett and her peers were writing in the wake of the sentimental novel—cloying, page-turning love stories, like The Wide, Wide World and The Lamplighter, that dominated mid-nineteenth-century popular culture. They replaced excess emotion and marriage plots with the strange stories of spinsters and widows on the fringes of society.
The narratives that resisted sentiment stirred in me a deep love. I went head over heels for Hetty Fifield, the plucky spinster in Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A Church Mouse,” who locks herself inside the town church on Christmas Eve. I worshipped the nutty bug-collector of Annie Trumbull Slosson’s “Aunt Randy,” who prefers the company of insects to that of people. I cheered when Celia Thaxter declared that no one else could touch her flowers on her tiny plot of soil off the coast of New Hampshire in her memoir, An Island Garden.
I was an indoors-only spinster. I preferred suburban strip malls to Nantucket ponds, reality-TV establishing shots of LA traffic to mountaintop vistas, and the vocal fry of Britney to the chirps of birds. But the spirit of obsession, and singlehood, romanced me. I admired their quiet queerness, their resistance to fulfilling the heteropatriarchal roles thrust upon adult women in their milieu. These sexless elderly women’s all-consuming love for nature gave me life.
Studying forgotten women, I became a seasonal shut-in myself. In the fall, I got drinks once a week and went to two parties a month. In the winter, I stayed in my apartment texting my girlfriends, rereading my spinsters, calling my mom, binging my Real Housewives, wondering if I was a parasite, living off these women across time, or if they were living off me.
Steeped in old ladies, I apprenticed myself to the man who might’ve held the key to male homosexuality. At the end of his Theories of Love seminar, David Halperin announced he was looking for a research assistant. I emailed him right away. I wanted the extra money, but I also liked the sound of the book he was finishing, the book he wanted his assistant to proofread, How to Be Gay—a meditation on where the behaviors associated with gay male culture, like the obsession with pop queens and dramatic femininity, really come from. As a gay man more interested in Britney Spears and The Real Housewives and, now, The Single Ladies of New England, than I was in other boys, I was intrigued by the project.
Part of me wondered if I could learn how to be a better, practicing gay man myself. Though I was having the time of my life plumbing a deeper, weirder hole of diva-worship with spinsters of two centuries ago, I had the feeling I was missing out on the “real” fun of being a young gay boy. I’d come out three years earlier at nineteen and had never questioned my sexuality. But I worried I was holding onto the repression and self-hate of my closeted years, that there was something wrong with me for not craving sex, that I was, despite being nominally out, still in the closet, since I’d only had sex a handful of times. Was I, in some twisted way, addicted to the sick comforts of the closet?
It turned out that a love of dramatic women is gayer than anal sex. In How to Be Gay, David argues that gay men’s admiration for Judy Garland and Joan Crawford and Whitney Houston and Beyoncé is not just a shared cultural experience, but a fact of identification and expression at the core of homosexuality. David describes the way that queer men take mainstream pop figures—almost always powerful, emotionally vibrant women—and remake them in their imaginations as camp icons.
He shows how gay men relate to the excess femininity that normative culture dismisses as unserious, insisting that gay men are not making fun of women, that we find solidarity in their plight. David presents diva-worship and the queering of straight culture as a process so endemic to gayness as to take on something that transcends erotics. As I proofread the manuscript, his thesis spoke directly to me: Male homosexuality is a cultural act even more than it is a sex act.
If David was right, I was the real thing. My whole inner life revolved around fabulous, misunderstood women.
My whole inner life revolved around fabulous, misunderstood women.
But glamour doesn’t do it for me. I’ve had brief flings with the typical figures of gay male diva worship—tantrum-throwing starlets and wildly demanding pop stars (Lady Gaga and Mariah Carey and Lindsay Lohan, to name a few)—yet I’ve never been completely seduced by them in the way I’m ravaged by decidedly unglamorous women: housewives in Orange County and spinsters in New England and dental hygienists on Long Island.
Denise, Jill, and Marlene were my gateway divas. They were my mom’s friends and, as a kid, I was desperate to know everything about them. I loved hearing about the turkey burgers Denise ordered at diners, the trips to the public library Jill made to read old issues of Soap Opera Digest, the labyrinthine stories Marlene told about her coworkers. My mom’s standing phone calls with her friends were the highlights of my week. I’d beg my mom to repeat all the things she heard about them as soon as she hung up. I found a beauty in their unremarkable, yet somehow totally juicy routines. I pleaded for the news on Denise, Jill, and Marlene the way other boys whined for a 10 p.m. bedtime or a Nintendo 64.
As I got older, I looked hard for new sources of hypnotic mundane middle-aged women. I taped jewelry hours on QVC for the magnetic hosts with big hair. I had a thing for the fierce army of teachers in my high school math department, who had backpacks on wheels and wore stunning blazers. Then, a couple years later, The Real Housewives of Orange County premiered. I had curated, telegenic moms and their lunches and car-rides and shopping trips forever. Today, I can get my queens all day and night, from whichever three of the Housewives franchises are airing at any given time, to the scented candle vlogs and the Dollar Tree hauls from my favorite single moms on YouTube, to phone calls with my own mom, checking in on her old friends.
Now, I’d found the strangest, unlikeliest object of gay fixation, long past the point of no glamour: the kooked-out spinsters of late-nineteenth-century fiction. I thought: This is my crowning moment, this is me living my best self. My copy of Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs might as well be a rainbow flag.
I felt emboldened by my new understanding about diva-worship and the place of femininity in my subjectivity. I thought about what all these women had in common—my pop divas, my spinster sisters, my boozed-up divorcées-turned-reality stars. There was their self-possession, grit, and charisma, but what reigned supreme was their commitment to having fun, their rejection of the seriousness associated with the heteronormative responsibilities of marriage and procreation and, ultimately, growing up.
Katy lives out her teenage dream, the Housewives party and argue like they’re still in high school, yet it’s the 19th-century spinsters who are the youngest at heart. In “The Queen’s Twin,” 60-year-old widow Almira Todd carries her basket “to and fro like a schoolgirl.” There is a sprightly vivaciousness that lights up all these elderly single women.
According to the logic of belated queer adolescence, coming out delays personal development. Since you don’t announce your identity until most straight people have already at least partly grown up, your own coming-of-age, naturally, comes later. My boyhood felt destined, built into my constitution, my little, scrawny body persistently prepubescent, poised for belated twinkdom. But the narrative of happy, healthy, out-of-the-closet gayness has a future in mind, maturation, finding love, and, even possibly, having children.
Twinkdom had an expiration date. Spinsterhood is forever. Spinsterhood rejects the concept of maturity entirely. Hooking up and falling in love had an eye to the future. Spinsterhood had eyes elsewhere. For me, homosexuality is an invitation to opt out, an exemption from the responsibilities of procreation and home-owning and the trappings of heteronormativity, a gift of eternal boyhood. In this way, I had more in common with spinsters than I did with twinks or the guests at the “homo potlucks.”
My plan was more a perpetual adolescence than a belated one. In the only two days of actual spring in southeast Michigan, at the height of Britney’s fourth comeback, I convinced myself that spinsterhood was even queerer than twinkdom. Stay in the moment, my queens told me. Resist futurity. Under the spell of girly wonder sprees, I pledged to be a boy forever.