Queerness in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room
An early passage in James Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, introduces the reader to its protagonist, David, through that character framing himself for the reader.
I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life. I have a drink in my hand, there is a bottle at my elbow. I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane. My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past.
David establishes his physicality and the power inherent in his being a white American male (the ubiquity of his face; the glory of his ancestors). David has fled to France from America in order to find himself. Resonant in that vigorously American phrase is the notion that “the self” is readily identifiable and that the act, the process of discovery, rests powerfully on the will of the individual. And the American expatriate has left America behind on a raft of sexual insecurity (an insecurity stemming in part from a same-sex love affair he had as a teenager). One can then read the actions that unfold throughout the text as David attempting to (and being unable to) frame himself with the normative standards of American male heteronormativity.
To the queer-identified Parisians he has made his acquaintances, David rigidly maintains that he is “queer for girls” (107). He, in fact, actively distances himself from being identified as non-heterosexual. Referring to the crowd at Guillaume’s bar as les folles, they are always “dressed in the most improbable combinations, screaming like parrots the details of their latest love affairs” (104). David describes this congregation of drag queens as resembling a “peacock garden” and sounding as if they belong in a barnyard. By animalizing the gay cohort he surveys, David signals powerful colonial rhetoric whereby the surveyor is presumed to occupy a space of sexual and moral normativity. EL Kornegay in his essay "Queering Black Homophobia: Black Theology as a Sexual Discourse of Transformation," writes, “colonial thought ensured that the abnormally grotesque essence of blackness would come to validate the normativity of whiteness through the racialization of black sexuality and the sexualization of black identity” Though the drag queens are ostensibly white, the dehumanization of their identities reinforces the primacy of David’s presumed status as a white American heterosexual male.
What’s particularly troubling about the drag queens, it seems, is not the determinacy of their sexuality but the indeterminacy of their corporeal beings. David, quite simply, did not “get” drag. During the scene at Guillaume’s bar, he found it hard to believe that anyone would find a drag queen attractive because “a man who wanted a woman would certainly have rather had a real one, and a man who wanted a man would certainly not want one of them” (112).
Further in that same scene, David describes a young man he’s heard of who dresses as a woman at night, who wore makeup and earrings and sometimes “actually wore a skirt and high heel” (112). He goes to opine that:
[H]is utter grotesqueness made me uneasy; perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs. They might not mind so much if monkeys did not – so grotesquely – resemble human beings. Again David defers to summoning racial tropes to re-affirm his position as a white American male, but he also makes clear that the that it is the mirroring of the human condition (or rather, the rejection of the male/female binary) that is particularly disconcerting. In the same way that monkeys make indeterminate the distance between human and