Friday, June 21, 2024

My Queer Stutter by John Whittier Treat

Lisps, stutters, stammers…is this a gay thing, and if so, why? Author John Whittier Treat shares his own story.

“You always did stutter when you were excited.” — Jimmy Stewart to John Dall, Rope

We’ve long been notorious for lisping. David Sedaris, taken out of his fifth-grade classroom for an hour with a speech therapist, remembers that “None of the students were girls. They were all boys like me who kept movie star scrapbooks and made their own curtains.” In my case, it wasn’t the hyper-articulation of /s/ that got me pulled out of the class once a week, it was the rat-tat-tat of initial consonants followed by a schwa: my stammer, in other words, but in hindsight just as gay as a lisp. Stutterers are nearly always boys, too.

Somerset Maugham said it’s difficult to describe a stutterer in print without making him comic, but, like gay characters in literature, we commit suicide surprisingly often. We are funny and tragic all at once. Who didn’t giggle when Porky Pig said “Th-th-thats all, folks!”? Who wasn’t moved when Melville’s Billy Budd was hanged? If most adult stutterers are male, we are—regardless of sexual orientation—nonetheless perceived as girlish. Billy, that “Handsome Sailor,” was his crewmates’ feminized object of homoerotic longing. His desirability, gay theorist David Halperin has pointed out, “is exactly commensurate with his inability to speak.” Nota bene: both the stutterer’s stutter and one man’s desire for another are stigmatized as social and moral failure: the former without the wherewithal to speak properly, the latter without progeny to succeed him.

As many say of homosexuals, perhaps stutters, too, are just born that way. If so, what we make of our stuttering, like our sexuality, lies in our own hands. Both the stutterer and the gay person fashion roles we can play to pass as other than what we know, or suspect, we are. Gay American literature is full of us and a shared bad faith in ourselves. The stutterer among Terrence McNally’s eight men in “Love! Valour! Compassion!” is the stupidest. Kevin in Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony can’t “get out two words in a row without a struggle . . . Huge silences would hover over us as Kevin gulped and tried to spit it out.” In Tom Spanbauer’s In the City of Shy Hunters, East Village drag queen Rose tells a stammering gay man that “You will forget to stutter when you’re drunk”—scoring a hat trick of queerness, booze and stuttering. All that’s missing is a reference to our common left-handedness—“sinistrality”—but the Freudians among us have not let that one pass unnoted. Psychoanalytic theories often placed the stutterer and the homosexual adjacent and even overlapping: stalled at the oral stage if not already the anal, we are stuck with an Oedipal complex that makes speech as problematic as is Oedipal resolution. Suffering from the castration complex, the tongue is the displaced phallus that fails us. In gay novelist Yukio Mishima’s account of a stammering adolescent in his novel The Golden Pavilion, the boy’s mouth is called “that silly little dark hole.” Need any homosexual say more?  

Like homosexuals, we stutterers grow up thinking we are born into a world into which we do not quite fit. My 1960s high school guidance suggested I think of a career in long-distance truck-driving, since I wouldn’t have to talk much. I was never going to campaign for class president. In the plus column, a bad stutter got you out of the military  draft. Charles Dickens observed that “stammering rises as a barrier by which the sufferer feels the world without is separated from the world within.” There are baneful consequences. Soviet spy Kim Philby was a stutterer and a homosexual, and somehow that “makes sense” to his biographers. But the consequences can be freeing, as well.

In my novel about a family of stutterers, First Consonants, the main character’s younger brother, Bam, comes to grips with his newly reemerged stutter and his newly emerging sexuality at the same time. In an alley behind a Los Angeles gay bar, having picked up a man for the first time, Bam realizes if he stops stuttering because of this, if this is the cure, his submission to another male will have been worth it. The man in front of him, just a penis with a body attached to it, places his palms on either side of Bam’s head to hold it still. He rams his prick in and out of his face. Then the piston action slows. Bam hears a moan as if the earth is rumbling. Something shakes. Here comes the gift, the drowning, the dying, the cure. His mouth fills with warm spunk, it drips out of his mouth and some falls, wasted, onto the wet asphalt between his knees. It glistens in whatever scant light this alleyway offers. There isn’t enough jism for this to work. Bam panics. Fuck me, he says to himself. Fuck the stutter out of me. Don’t stuh-stuh-stop.

Fellatio does not cure Bam’s stutter, but now he knows what he is. Nothing cures his or any of his kin’s stutters. Nothing has cured mine. Stuttering was no more a “phase” for me than my queerness has been. But now I know who I am. My stammer as much a part of me as my gender, my race, my sexuality, my character. Looking back, why would I ever have wished it otherwise?

First Consonants by John Whittier Treat is out now.

About the Author

John Whittier Treat has lived in the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska, for forty years. His fiction has won the Christopher Hewitt Prize, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His novel The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House, was a finalist for the 2016 Lambda Prize for Best Gay Fiction. A novella, Maid Service, was published in 2020 and his second novel, First Consonants, is forthcoming from Jaded Ibis Press in 2022. His opinion pieces have appeared in the New York Times and the Huffington Post. Treat is currently at work on his third novel, set among survivalists in rural eastern Washington State, entitled The Sixth City of Refuge.

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