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Cross-Dressing 101: A profile of Marjorie Garber

Boston Magazine, June, 1995

Marjorie Garber with her dogsCamille Paglia says Harvard’s Marjorie Garber symbolizes everything wrong with academia.

ON A COLD, WET AFTERNOON, MARJORIE GARBER, a professor of English at Harvard and director of its Center for Literary and Cultural studies, sat in her large book-lined office explaining her rather unusual academic career. Once a highly respected Yale-trained Shakespeare scholar, Garber has in recent years, become an expert on, of all things, transvestism and bisexuality. Indeed, she has spent her 14 years at Harvard transforming herself into the Queen of Cultural Studies, trolling through novels, magazines, musicals, and other intellectual flotsam and jetsam normally ignored by the more traditional scholars–and coming up with some unsettling conclusions. Her increasingly frequent public appearances are as likely to be on Geraldo as on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

A brilliant red velvet dress clinging to her long, sinewy frame, Garber, 50, gesticulates dramatically as she offers a lengthy account of the Elizabethan roots of cross-dressing. “Most people don’t realize that all the female roles in Shakespeare were originally played by boys, so that when you went to Stratford-upon-Avon to see a play, you would see lots of men dressed up as women,” she says. “Women weren’t allowed on the public stage in England at that time, which was odd since there were no similar prohibitions in other countries.”

Garber’s approach becomes more quizzical as she gradually transforms herself from a lecturing scholar into a cultural detective: “So, you have to ask how this situation came to be,” she goes on. “Was it about power? Traditional prejudice against women? Or”–she pauses, her narrow face breaking into a broad smile-“was it because the people who went to the theater really wanted to watch boys rather than women?”

GARBER, WHO HAS ANALYZED A DIZZYING ARRAY of cultural artifacts from Shakespeare to L.A. Law, first garnered wide public attention in 1992 with her crossover hit, Vested Interests, a history of cross-dressing in which she investigates Madonna, Tootsie, , M. Butterfly, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and Marlene Dietrich. Cross-dressers have always been there, she argues; they just made us so uncomfortable that we chose to ignore them.” The tendency of the critic has been to look through rather than at the cross-dresser,” she writes. Cross-dressing has commonly been considered a marginal and ambiguous phenomenon, but Garber’s book examines literature, film, and popular culture to show that in fact it is far more widespread, even going so far as to argue that it is the foundation of culture itself.

Critics hailed Vested Interests as a provocative piece of cultural criticism; The Nation called it the “comprehensive bible on the subject.”

Now, Garber is back at it again. With the June 8 release of Vice Versa (Simon & Schuster), she takes on the fundamental power of eroticism itself. While Vested Interests established Garber as an intellectual with a large nonacademic readership, Vice Versa (for which her publishers paid a reported $180,000) places her in an even more elevated position–that of a reflective scholar with the potential to climb on the bestseller lists. “Unlike most of us, Marj has been able to address two different audiences extremely well,” says Stephen Greenblatt, professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. “I guess you could call her a kind of intellectual cross-dresser.”

Not everyone, however, is so pleased with Garber’s bisexual revolution. In fact, her fiercest critic is the woman to whom Garber is most likely to be compared. That, of course, is Camille Paglia, the adamant high-octane defender of the absolute differences between men and women, who is highly skeptical of Garber’s argument that sexuality is a protean social construct.

This is not the first time the two women have clashed. Back when Vested Interests came out, Paglia took after the book in a much-discussed review in the Boston Globe. “It is symptomatic of the bankruptcy of the humanities, whose custodians now seek instant hipness and career cachet rather than deep knowledge and lasting scholarly achievement,” Paglia wrote.

As it happens, Paglia was not exactly writing from a position of scholarly detachment. When the two women were at Yale in the early seventies, Garber, then an associate professor of English, had been a mentor to Paglia who was then a graduate student. The two women even had a brief dalliance. Today, however, Paglia accuses Garber of being little more than a “Jenny-come-lately, a Paglia wannabe” in deciding to write about human sexuality.

In a series of lengthy and increasingly heated phone conversations, Paglia was barely able to contain her rage, and railed at a breathless rate against Garber. “Marj suffers from terminal archness and fails to recognize that not everything in life is merely ironic wordplay,” she said. “She is the ultimate symbol of what has gone wrong in academe, and of the bankrupt university which has a moral vacuum at its center. Everything is back-scratching and cronyism with her. No one would call her work brilliant, she has had no impact whatsoever and is completely corrupt.”

For all that, the buzz surrounding Vice Versa has been quite positive. Calling it “dazzling and provocative,” Kirkus gave it a rave early review: “Garber’s playfulness with language, concepts, and scandal makes this both a delightfully entertaining and a formidably important work of cultural criticism.” “It is a truly revolutionary book that shows how muddled our sexual categories are,” says Diane Middlebrook, a Stanford University professor of English. “It enlightens us to something that is already with us, which is the multiplicity of our sexual identities.”

Gore Vidal, whose belief in universal bisexuality dovetails neatly with Garber’s thesis, is dryly enthusiastic: “The book is about three centuries overdue, of course,” he laments from his villa in Ravello, Italy, “but then again, all statements of the obvious are important in countries like the United States.”

In Vice Versa, Garber details our culture’s desperate attempts to reject bisexuality in favor of sturdier, and more exclusive notions of hetero- or homosexual identity. Why is it that we must be either straight or gay? she asks. Why is it so important for us to place someone in one category other than the other when it has been shown time and again that our erotic desires and fantasies know no bounds? Why, finally, does our culture even require us to codify our sexuality in the first place?

For Garber, the paradox of bisexuality is that it is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Although we see bisexuality all around us, it is rarely in the interest of anyone (whether gay or straight) actually to claim it. “Bisexuality is known first and foremost for its invisibility,” says Garber, “and the aim of this book is to bring it out into the foreground.”

To this end, Vice Versa is both an exhaustive chronicle of the evidence for bisexuality’s omnipresence and an analytic account of the complex ways we have hidden it. There were an abundance of bisexuals throughout history, Garber says: Alexander the Great had both male and female lovers, as did Julius Caesar, Sappho, Socrates, Frida Kahlo, and John Maynard Keynes. More recently, celebrity biographies have revealed the bisexuality of Marlon Brando, Leonard Bernstein, and John Cheever. By moving these “lapses” in sexual consistency from the margins to the center, Garber shows us what the world looks like viewed through the bisexual lens.

“We are all surrounded by sexual ambiguity. Desire runs its course in all sorts of messy ways which is, of course, why we try so hard to rein it in,” explains Garber. “For instance, when I go to a classroom, I often find it hard to determine what race somebody is, and even harder to determine their gender until I hear them speak or watch them walk.”

Bisexual images, she notes, are now virtually commonplace in advertising, used to sell everything from Scotch to perfume. When Calvin Klein announced his gender-bending unisex line of boxer shorts for women, 80,000 pairs were sold in 90 days. “We are in a Cultural moment in which all of our norms are in crisis. What we have are more like paranorms.”

A DISTINGUISHED SHAKESPEARE scholar who received her Yale Ph.D. in the record time of three years (seven is the average), Garber raised the eyebrows of some of her Harvard colleagues when she first began writing about outré subjects like transvestites. Taking advantage of the academy’s recent openness toward nontraditional subjects, which have been admitted under the rubric of “cultural studies,” Garber likens her work on popular culture to “intellectual cruising.” A lifelong bisexual who has been living with Harvard professor of English and comparative literature Barbara Johnson for the last 10 years, Garber has a longstanding fascination with the varied ways our eroticism guides us through our sexual and cultural lives.

Raised in a liberal Jewish family in Rockville Centre, Long Island, Garber was a literary bohemian-in-training, taking frequent trips into New York City to wander through bookstores and cafés with a coterie of friends trying to buck the conformism of the Eisenhower years. “Having come out of the fifties, I am struck by the nostalgia we have for nostalgia right now. We have a tremendous desire to go ‘home,’ and that home for a lot of people who are in their midforties or early fifties is the fifties. It seems like a comforting period: mommy at home, milk and cookies after school,” she says. “Of course,” she adds dismissively, “for most people it wasn’t like that at all.”

Like many smart Jewish girls on Long Island, Garber was encouraged by her parents to pursue her intellectual passions. Over dinner, her father, a pharmaceutical exporter, would frequently engage his daughter in Latin conversations. The family was fiercely loyal to the New York Yankees, and Garber even managed to find a sexual metaphor in her favorite player. “Mickey Mantle was the cleanup hitter, he was the home-run hitter, he was indeed a switch-hitter, and he was my hero,” she says. “It was always clear to me that switch-hitting had a genuine value even in the fifties.”

After receiving her doctorate from Yale, in 1969, Garber taught there for the next decade. “It was a very heady moment to be at a traditional university,” she recalls. “The Bobby Seale/Black Panthers trial was going on, so classes were suspended and there were no final exams during my first semester teaching. It felt like a huge carnival.”

In 1974, Garber was named one of the 10 best teachers at Yale, but she was later denied tenure. After two years of teaching at Haverford College, Garber was recruited by Harvard whose aging English department had no women–circumstances that have caused some of Garber’s critics to snipe that she has been the beneficiary of affirmative action.

VICE VERSA IS LIKELY to arouse controversy not just among the Camille Paglias of the world, but also among those who have been part of Garber’s constituency. With various minority groups-gay, ethnic, and otherwise-asserting their power in terms of their identities, identity politics has come forth with a vengeance in recent years. But Garber’s notion of bisexuality challenges the idea that we must be one thing or the other. In a world of rigid identity politics, to be bisexual is, in effect, to have no political or cultural clout. Bisexuality, she has written, “is an identity that is also not an identity; a sign of the certainty of ambiguity… a category that defies and defeats categorization.”

Garber sees herself as trying to revive a more humanistic tradition and hopes that the notion of exclusive sexual orientation will recede into the background. “It used to be that intermarriage between blacks and whites was called miscegenation and was against the law,” she says. “Now we simply call it marriage much in the same way that I believe we are eventually going to be calling bi-, homo-, or heterosexuality simply ‘sexuality’ or ‘life.'”

Gay and lesbian studies, she says, has played an important role in giving its subjects a place in the canon. That said, Garber now detects a certain rigidity in these groups that, she believes, has unintentionally excluded bisexuals. “It was important to establish Oscar Wilde as a gay author, but it is also important to recognize that he was married, had children and actually wanted to go back to his wife at the end of his life,” she says. “Contrary to popular belief, marriage was an important social institution for him, while eroticism was something else entirely. But the Important thing to remember is that these two things coexisted during his life.”

Garber also offers NOW head Patricia Ireland, who is married to a man and has a relationship with a woman, as a cotemporary example of someone who attempts this sexual juggling act.

The attempt to develop a more nuanced conception of sexuality has had many nemeses, among them modern science. Studies of human sexuality have consistently excluded bisexuality from their results, diligently herding any ambiguous responses into the hetero- or homo- sexual camp. That participants in these studies might be genuinely bisexual was rarely considered a possibility. After reviewing decades of such biased sexual classification schemes, Garber suggests an alternative model that includes bisexuality as a viable option. Arguing against any attempt to “fix” sexuality forever in time and space, Garber insists that eroticism is best described as a complex, fluid narrative that changes over time. Bisexuality, she sass, is not so much an identity as a narrative, a story of the crucial landmarks that, taken together, define our erotic lives.

“A genuinely bisexual culture would lead to an expanded sense of freedom,” she says. “It would encourage us to build erotic polity in which we could value what it means to be human in a common culture, although in a more sexually and racially inclusive way than the old humanism-which conservatives are nostalgic for-ever was.”

For all its erudition and scope, Vice Versa often leaves its reader wishing Garber were less abstract in her prescriptions. If all she insists upon is the revival humanism or the universal possibility of bisexuality, then what’s the big deal? On the other hand, by arguing that even the slightest deviation from one’s self-proclaimed sexuality is evidence of bisexuality, she conjures up a definition that is so general as to be nearly useless.

Garber’s next book will be on the relationship between humans and animals. The owner of two dogs herself (Wagner and Yoffi), Garber is convinced that the best place to find the humanistic values we idealize–fidelity, family, marriage, beauty, romance–might be with dogs and the literature about them.

Handing me an unpublished essay on the topic called “Heavy Petting,” Garber is nevertheless reluctant to talk about the new book as a whole. “I call it my exploration of the final final frontier,” she says with a laugh.