What are we writing onto Langston Hughes and others like him when we use them as canvases to paint our own frustrations about queer (in)visibility and closets?
“Unfortunately (and to John’s distrust of God) it seemed his son was turning out to be a queer. He was a brilliant queer, on the Honor Roll in high school, and likely to be graduated in the spring at the head of the class. But the boy was colored. Since colored parents always like to put their best foot forward, John was more disturbed about his son’s transition than if they had been white. Negroes have enough crosses to bear.“
— the opening passage of “Blessed Assurance” by Langston Hughes
I was nearly 30-years-old when I learned that Langston Hughes may have been asexual. I had only ever heard and read that he was a gay Black man, prominent writer, and important figure of the Harlem Renaissance. But there is “mystery” surrounding his sexuality, apparently. It has been said by some that he and his sexuality were “guarded” and “obscured”—and said so in a way that suggests that his unwillingness to divulge more details about his life inherently translates to a cagey dishonesty.
Hughes’ primary biographer, Arnold Rampersad described his sexuality as a murky and imprecise subject, cloudy with “rumor and suspicion.” In The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume 2, he writes, “No one could offer the name of a man who had been involved with Hughes, or recall an incident, even at second hand, involving Langston’s presumed homosexuality.” This conclusion was heavily critiqued by those who recognized the “open secret” of Hughes’ queerness since the 1940s, though he never publicly acknowledged or admitted to any rumors about his sexuality.
James Baldwin criticized Hughes for what he perceived to be a secretive nature. Though he, and others, seemed to attribute it to Hughes presenting himself as a palatable vision of social acceptability, even in his work. Writer and theater critic Hilton Als speculates,
“Possibly, Baldwin—the author of the landmark gay love story ‘Giovanni’s Room’—was upset less by Hughes’s failures as a poet than by his refusal to reveal the truth behind his own hieroglyphics: his sexuality… Even Rampersad’s biography, which is as rich a study of a life as one could wish for, was criticized by gay readers… In Rampersad’s work, Hughes emerges as a constantly striving, almost asexual entity—which is pretty much the image that Hughes himself put forth.”
Baldwin wasn’t the only Harlem Renaissance peer who seemed to resent Hughes for not being forthcoming about his intimate life. Wallace Thurman also wrote of his own grievances with Hughes in a letter to the poet. In “Closing Time: Langston Hughes and the Poetics of Harlem Nightlife,” Shane Vogel offers a close reading of Hughes’ 1951 poem “Café: 3 a.m.” and also writes about how others contemplated on his sexuality amongst themselves, but Hughes himself refused them an easy reading.
“Rumor has it Langston Hughes was gay. Such speculation began early in his career—when less ambiguous homosexuals like Alain Locke and Countee Cullen traded clandestine letters about the young poet’s potential seducibility—and tip-toed around him throughout his life… Hughes himself refused to indicate a sexual identity, preferring to cultivate a sexual ambiguity and doing little to end conjecture about his intimate life.”
All in all, it appears that scholars, historians, and writers have committed to arguments that he was either one or the other—either gay or asexual—always citing a lack of “concrete evidence” to definitively name him as either. The possibility of his asexuality seems to often be brought up in an attempt to negate the possibility of him being gay or to diminish his queerness and pedestal others around him as more noticeably or unambiguously queer. At the same time, the insistence that he was gay and only gay is yet another instance of acephobic erasure.
Recommended: ASEXUAL IS QUEER AND GATEKEEPING IS NOT LIBERATION
Asexuality is queer, and it is as wide of a spectrum as allosexuality. Hughes’ asexual leanings could never negate the possibility of his queerness because those on the asexuality spectrum are subversions of heterosexual “normalcy” as much as any other non-heterosexual oriented folks. At the same time, his homoromantic relationships, attractions, and experiences could never negate the possibility of his asexuality.
This is why the highly-debated Split Attraction Model is valid, especially for folks on the asexuality and aromantic spectrums, despite the objections of many allos, aphobes, and exclusionists. Sometimes, our romantic and sexual orientations do not align—and this is true for many ace, aro, and allo people alike—and we need to understand that this divergence does not make any of us who experience it any less queer. Split attraction does not limit or obscure us, it does not make us into liars, cryptics, or enigmas. It creates more possibilities for us to better understand ourselves, our own needs and desires, and the multifarious ways we are able to make connections with each other—even and especially beyond sexual and romantic connections.
Decades of writings about Hughes are riddled with frustration about the inability to categorize him as either one thing or another. There are so many who are frustrated with him for remaining in his closet, as it were, for not leaving enough breadcrumbs to lead them to a clear, easy conclusion about his sexuality. For some, his complicatedness makes him “not queer enough,” it would seem. Even in his death, Langston Hughes cannot be rid of the prying eyes and prodding questions of those who feel entitled to know him more deeply than he was comfortable with allowing.
I want us to interrogate what we demand of our queer icons—and more, what kind of performativity we demand from our own queer siblings and fellow queer humans in our lives. What are we writing onto Langston Hughes and others like him when we use them as canvases to paint our own frustrations about queer (in)visibility and closets? I want us to respect the poet’s closet of his own making, to respect the utility of the closet or any other rooms we might hold ourselves up in.
A closet can be a cage, but it can also be a sanctum. It can be an entire hidden world, decorated with meticulously curated art and furnitures that speak to us in a language that only we know. There, we can bloom in our own soliloquy. At times, we may want to grant others entry into our secret garden, but whether or not we share these parts of ourselves, and how much we share, should always be our own choice.
Opening the closet door, and maybe even stepping out of it, is a decision that we have every right to commit years of appraisal to—even a lifetime if we deem it necessary. The door to Langston’s closet does not need to be opened any wider than where he left it when he departed this earth. His “open secret” should be enough. He gave us as much of himself as he was willing to share while he was here, regardless of the reasons for keeping the rest, and that should be enough for us. He owes us nothing more, and we should be humbly grateful for what we have received.