“The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter


“When Zeus fashioned man he gave him certain inclinations, but he forgot about shame. Not knowing how to introduce her, he ordered her to enter through the rectum. Shame baulked at this and was highly indignant. Finally, she said to Zeus: ‘All right! I’ll go in, but on the condition that Eros doesn’t come in the same way; if he does, I will leave immediately.’ Ever since then, all homosexuals are without shame. This fable shows that those who are prey to love lose all shame.” –Aesop, Fable 118: “Zeus & Shame”

“The veil of modesty torn, the shameful parts shown, I know—with my cheeks aflame—the need to hide myself or die, but I believe by facing and enduring this painful anxiety I shall, as a result of my shamelessness, come to know a strange beauty.” – Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal

February imageOn the one hand, a good deal of the literature on shame and LGBTQ people reflects the broader psychological and popular literature that I tried to outline to some extent in my last post: highlighting the negative effects of shame and offering resources and advice on how to heal from it or let go of it—to “come out” of it, as one book title puts it.[1] On the other hand, however, there’s queer theory, with its persistent tendency towards nonconformity and its unabashed affirmation of deviancy. When I started doing a little research on shame, I remembered a book that I had been familiar with for a while but had never read, Gay Shame.[2] I had remembered it, in part, because of the cover is very…. memorable, and also because it intrigued and confused me—I couldn’t quite understand, conceptually or psychically, how shame could be embraced, in light of the abundance of literature on its ills, and in light of some of my own experiences of and because of shame. Gay Shame, though, along a host of other thematically and theoretically related texts, was persuasive….

I. What we lose when we try to rid ourselves of shame (and what embracing shame is not)

While I started reading Gay Shame with a more-than-healthy dose of skepticism, the editors’ introduction immediately put me at ease. Giving some context of how the edited volume came out of a conference, also titled “Gay Shame,” David Halperin and Valerie Traub explain:

“No one involved in this conference wished to return gay people to a state of shame about their sexuality or its emergence onto the scene of public visibility. But it was the premise of the conference that the risk of shame should not prevent us from exploring any aspect of queer life, no matter how embarrassing or discreditable” (11).

Halperin and Traub go on to talk about how shame is a paradigmatic affect, especially for queer people, and that it’s inescapable (more on that in a minute). Given its unavoidable presence, they wonder, “how can shame be used not as a moral reproach but as a goad for action,” and how can it do so, particularly, “without shaming the objects of that shame” (33)?[3]

Later, in his essay “Why Gay Shame Now?,” Halperin reiterates this point, and roots pride precisely in shame. He writes:

“The purpose of this conference is not exactly to demolish gay pride, even less to return us to a state of shame or to promote shame instead of pride. Rather, it is to inquire into those dimensions of lesbian, gay, and queer sexuality, history, and culture that the political imperatives of gay pride have tended to repress and that Gay Pride as it is institutionalized nowadays has become too proud to acknowledge. It is my belief that the only kind of gay pride that is endurable—and since my life has been transformed beyond imagination by gay pride, I’m not about to renounce it—the only kind of gay pride that is endurable is a gay pride that does not forget its origins in shame, that is still powered by the transformative energies that spring from experiences of shame” (44, emphasis mine).

Shame, then, grounds queer identity, and grounds queer pride.

II. The inescapability and formative effects of shame

Even Brené Brown consents that shame is something we all deal with. “Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions we experience,” she writes, and the “only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection.”[4] What queer theorists have picked up on and ran with is that shame is a particularly salient amongst, and particularly formative to, queer people/identity. In his text Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, Didier Eribon (most known for his spectacular biography on Michel Foucault) explores in great depth how shame shapes queer identity—how insult create gay subjects.[5] Building on Althusser, Eribon argues that homosexuality does not simply designate a class of individuals defined by sexual preferences and practices. It is also a set of processes of subjection. Insult has preexisted individuals, and has already subjugated the gay and lesbian to the social and sexual order that it expresses and recalls. In language and action, insults mark out, make known, and reinforce the hierarchies between various identities—socially, culturally, racially. The world is insulting—and interpellates the homosexual—because it is structured according to hierarchies that carry with them the mere possibility of insult. “Insult is more then a word that describes,” he writes. He continues, explaining that insult:

“…is not satisfied with simply telling me what I am. If someone calls me a ‘dirty faggot…that person is not trying to tell me something about myself. That person is letting me know that he or she has something on me, has power over me….[Insult’s] function is to produce certain effects—notably, to establish or to renew the barrier between ‘normal’ people and… ‘stigmatized’ people and to cause the internalization of that barrier within the individual being insulted. Insult tells me what I am to the extent that it makes me what I am” (16-17, emphasis mine).

The insult, whether ever uttered at us directly or not, shames us, and forms us as shameful, shamed individuals.[6] But for Eribon—along with Eve Sedgwick, Virginia Burrus, David Halperin, and a host of others, this inescapable, formative aspect of shame is precisely what gives shame it’s transformative potential…

III. The transformative effects of shame: identity, performativity, and politics

Because shame and insult indelibly shape and form us, Eribon explains that it is only by accepting and assuming our shame “can an individual come to constitute himself or herself as the subject of his or her own history” (60). In this way, then, shame and insult “form a near-inexhaustible source of transformational energy” (29, n1). Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Eribon is citing Eve Sedgwick’s essay on “Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity” that was reprinted in Gay Shame.[7] For Sedgwick, shame is transformative and politically significant/interesting/useful because of how it shapes and constitutes identity. As she puts it:

“Shame interests me politically, then, because it generates and legitimates the place of identity—the question of identity—at the origin of the impulse to the performative, but does so without giving that identity space the standing of an essence. It constitutes it as to-be-constituted…” (60).

Shame, then, offers a way to embrace the politically and psychically significant affirmation of identity while avoiding the problematic reifying and essentializing of identity that poststructuralism has called into question/critiqued. As Warner reiterates in his essay later in the volume, “Shame is seen…as foundational to the sense of self, but in a paradoxical way, for it is both individuating and obliterating. It is an essentially social affect…yet it is fundamentally an experience of the separateness of the self, a broken exchange” (289).

In light of how shame works—how it “floods into being as a moment, a disruptive moment…at once deconstituting and foundational…both peculiarly contagious and peculiarly individuating”—Sedgwick suggests that “Shame, it might finally be said, transformative shame, is performance. I mean theatrical performance. Performance interlines shame as more than just its result or a way of warding it off, though, importantly, it is those things. Shame is the affect that mantles the threshold between introversion and extroversion, between absorption and theatricality, between performativity and—performativity” (50, 51-52).[8]

This performative “double movement shame makes: toward painful individuation, toward uncontrollable relationality,” makes it especially useful for political and social transformation (Sedgwick, 51). Jennifer Moon, in her essay in the same volume on “Gay Shame and the Politics of Identity,” makes explicit the political connection when she writes that “Shame distinguishes the queer from the normal, not because there is anything inherently shameful about having deviant desires or engaging in deviant acts, but because shame adheres to (or is supposed to adhere to) any position of social alienation of nonconformity” (359).

Moon goes on from there to suggest (and helpfully summarize) how shame is “especially useful to a radical queer politics” for three key reasons: 1) its “potential to organize a discourse of queer counterpublicity, as opposed to the mainstream discourse of pride,” 2) it provides a basis for “collective queer identity” spanning differences in age, race, ability, gender, etc… even sexual practice, and 3) it “redirects attention away from internal antagonisms within the gay community to a more relevant divide—that is, between heteronormative and queer sectors of society” (359).

Warner too speaks to the “potentially productive and powerfully social metamorphic possibilities” of shame and it’s performances, explaining:

“Queer culture has practices in countless ways the complexities not just of shame but of performances of shame, of formally mediated imitations of shame that objectify counternormative experiences, of squirm-making disturbances in the social field that bring counterpublics into a kind of public co-presence while also deploying shame to mark a difference from the public. Staging shame as disruptions of relationality, we paradoxically create new relationships insofar as we can school ourselves not to be ashamed of our shame—a project that of course disappears the second we persuade ourselves that being ashamed of our shame requires us to be proud” (295-296).

Shame remains somewhat illusive, hard to define, certainly hard to pin down, but what these theorists point to is the subversive, transformative potential within it and through it—shame, they show, can’t be escaped, but it can be used productively and creatively.

So, what might it mean to think of a theology of shame, in light of these insights? I’ll talk about that in my third, and final, post on this topic…

[1] See also Karen A. McClintock, Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2001); Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World (Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, 2006); Patrick Moore, Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004). In addition to a number of essays and books focused on this theme, many of the mainstream psychological and popular texts on shame reference and/or speak to the shame experienced in particular by LGBTQ folks (too many to cite, really—a quick google scholar or amazon.com search will reveal an abundance of results) and a number of texts addressing homosexuality and the church include shame as a reality to keep in mind when pursuing dialogue on the topic, and as a factor to consider in the support of inclusiveness. See Beth Ann Gaede, ed. Congregations Talking about Homosexuality: Dialogue on a Difficult Issue (Betheseda, MD: The Alban Institute, 1998); Dawne Moon, God, Sex, and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), especially the chapters on “The Truth of Emotions in Everyday Theologies” (180-205) and “Gay Pain and Politics (206-228).

[2] David M. Halperin & Valerie Traub, eds. Gay Shame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[3] They’re citing Elsbeth Probyn, Blush: Faces of Shame (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005),101 here.

[4] Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 68.

[5] Didier Eribon, Insult and the Making of the Gay Self. Translated by Michael Lucey. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[6] Eribon explains: “Stigmatization works even before I become its direct victim. A given individual does not need to be actually discredited, if he is already discreditable. The very fact of being discreditable (and of knowing one is, and of fearing being discredited) acts on individuals both consciously and unconsciously as a subjectivizing force, a force of interiorized domination, all the more effective given the fear of being discovered and the self-censoring necessary in order to avoid being so” (66). Eribon goes on to speak at length about how the logic of the “closet” and coming out fits within this frame of stigmatization and shame. Quoting Henning Bech’s When Men Meet: Homosexuality and Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), Eribon notes that, when you make the choice no longer to pretend, you move “from the uneasiness of not being able to be yourself as a homosexual… to the uneasiness of having to be yourself as a homosexual” (114, n2).

[7] Sedgwick’s piece reprinted in Gay Shame, originally titled “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel,” first appears in GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies, November 1993 1(1), 1-16.

[8] She goes on to explain how this further shapes identity, and in doing so, implicates the literature that suggests shame is something we can heal from or eliminate. She writes: “Shame, like all other affects….is not a discrete intrapsychic structure, but a kind of free radical that… attaches to and permanently intensifies or alters the meaning of—of almost anything: a zone of the body, a sensory system, a prohibited or indeed a permitted behavior, another affect such as anger or arousal, a named identity, a script for interpreting other people’s behavior towards oneself. Thus, one of the things that anyone’s character or personality is is a record of the highly individual histories by which the fleeting emotion of shame has instituted far more durable, structural changes in one’s relational and interpretative strategies toward both self and others. Which means, among other things, that therapeutic or political strategies aimed directly at getting rid of individual or group shame, or undoing it, have something preposterous about them: they may “work”—they certainly have powerful effects—but they can’t work in the same way they say they work” (59, emphasis mine). It’s also important to note that, like Sedgwick, Eribon emphasizes the performativity of shame, speaking about insult as a “performative utterance” (see Insult, 16ff).

4 thoughts

  1. Shame is connected to performance and theatricality – how fascinating. This concept puts some light on the “wild Catholic schoolgirl” stereotype – hyper sexual expression as a reaction to shaming, a way of reclaiming pride and worth.

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