An allusion to Jonathan Swift’s 1729 work “A Modest Proposal,” David Sedaris’s 2015 work by the same title invokes themes of queerness that demonstrate queer as an evolutionary term and a political, collective call to action while satirizing the heteronormative institution of marriage. By putting Sedaris’s work in conversation with Swift’s “A Modest Proposal, Roxane Gay’s “Confessions of a bad feminist” TED Talk, and Yasmin Nair’s “Gay Marriage IS a Conservative Cause,” I will illustrate how Sedaris’s “A Modest Proposal” invokes the aforementioned themes of queerness through its satirical form. Sedaris’s choice in satire, an exaggeration of reality that critiques society, allows him the necessary flexibility to critique, but also succumb to, the institution of marriage, while also critiquing the standards set forth for and by the queer community.
Like Sedaris’s “A Modest Proposal, Swift’s focuses on economics and finances while satirizing the institutions that emphasize the importance of those monetary gains. Writing in 1729, Swift urges the government and society to end the rampant hunger in Ireland by legalizing the consumption of Irish children. This proposal, as Swift writes, serves two purposes—to “Prevent[…] The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being Aburden to Their Parents or Country,” thereby “Making Them Beneficial to The Public”. Consuming children would not only prevent them from eating food that could nourish adults, but it would also nourish the adults, solving the issue of hunger. Swift published this, demonstrating to the Irish government what their failure to acknowledge or help the food deprivation could devolve into with more time.
Sedaris also criticizes the government, although his satire proves timider than Swift’s castigation. A self-described gay male, Sedaris begins his essay with an acknowledgment of his geographic position, London. He expresses surprise about the legality of gay marriage in London while Washington, D.C. and the United States had yet to legalize it, initially stating that in the “case” of gay marriage, London is “two years and five hours ahead”. This assertion that London is “ahead” of the United States is the first indication that Sedaris would or is entertaining the idea of marriage for himself, foreshadowing Sedaris’s concluding nuptials. Sedaris’s feelings towards marriage are complicated as the essay progresses with his inclusion of flashbacks to his childhood, prior to him owning his sexuality.
In his “young[er] years, “the early seventies,” to be exact, Sedaris says that living in Raleigh, North Carolina made “being gay [feel] like the worst thing that could happen to a person.". This feeling again alludes to Sedaris’s change in his views towards marriage by its emphasis on the “worst thing” being queer, outside of acceptable societal norms. The implied “best thing” would, therefore, be conforming to heteronormativity. Due to his normative-deviant sexuality, a way Sedaris sees as a way to avoid the “worst thing” is marriage, an institution established by the government for heterosexual couples to foster families and receive benefits for fostering those families.
His mother perpetuates his perceived societal difference with her questioning if he is “a queer." The article “a” further emphasizes Sedaris’s difference. His mother would not have used this article to question if Sedaris was “a” heterosexual, as the article emphasizes the succeeding identity and heterosexuality, in most of the society, is assumed and would require no question or emphasis, while a sexuality that deviates from that norm would require an emphasis to demonstrate its difference. Sedaris’s choice to italicize the word “queer” maintains that his mother emphasizes this difference with her question, “What are you, a queer?” and demonstrates the likely disdainful tone with which she asks this question. His mother’s use of the word “queer,” coupled with his gay identity at the time of writing this essay, exhibits the generational gap surrounding this term.
Having grown up in “the early seventies,” as noted in his essay, Sedaris experiences the generational change in which the descriptor “queer” evolves from meaning weird and outside of the norm, as it did in the Baby Boomer Generation, to being a derogatory slur for people who have sexualities or gender that deviate from heteronormative standards, those standards being heterosexuality and cisgendered-ness, when a person’s gender matching his or her sex. Penning this essay in 2015, Sedaris has also witnessed the LGBTQ+ community’s reclamation of the term “queer” as an identity marker, evident by its inclusion in the iconic acronym LGBTQ+. By this reclamation, “queer” now means any sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender performance that subverts heteronormative standards. With this reclamation and a new definition of the term and identity “queer,” comes a call to political, collective action, a banding together of the queer community for equal legal rights and protection.
Because of this politicization of the term “queer,” and its implicit call to action, there have been many social issues at the fore of Western politics, as noted in Sedaris’s acknowledgment of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. The queer community, both within the United States and outside of it, reacted in two distinct ways to the prospect of marriage equality. One sector of the community reacted as Saderis later demonstrates in his essay with his “eighteen” proposals, as accepting and even desirous of engaging in marriage. I would argue that this acceptance, at least on the part of Sedaris, stems from society’s alienation of the queer community as “the worst thing that could happen to a person”. The state and government perpetuate this othering, or discriminatory, behavior towards the queer community through their providing benefits to married couples and not to cohabitating, equally committed couples. As Sedaris notes when trying to convince his partner to accept his “eighteen” proposals, marriage prevents the surviving partner from “be[ing] clobbered with taxes”. Marriage, to Sedaris, becomes a “financial contract” that provides each partner with surviving, monetary benefits from the government. At this point in the essay, Sedaris ignores that these benefits apply to marriage, an institution created for more formal, heterosexual coupling. Prior to the concluding pages of the essay, however, Sedaris suggests that his views on marriage equality rest with the other significant portion of the queer community, those people who oppose it.
Perhaps best known in LGBTQ+ studies for her informal essay “Gay Marriage IS a Conservative Cause,” Yasmin Nair stands as a sort of icon for the member of the LGBTQ+ community who advocate against the legalization of gay marriage. Through this essay, Nair argues that the push for gay marriage is conservative in that it, as Saderis puts it, “in essence, the fight to be as square as straight people,” square meaning to be further pushed into the box of heteronormativity. Before the end of the essay and Sedaris’s eventual desire for marriage, Sedaris’s views appear to align more with Nair’s, at least at first blush. Sedaris writes that he “wanted gay people to get the right to marry, and then [he] wanted none of [them] to act on it. [He] wanted it to be [theirs] to spit on."
While Nair never says whether or not she believes people should have the option to marry, gay or otherwise, she does believe it is a right that would defeat the purpose of being queer. As queer is recognized as something subversive to society’s heteronormative standards, a truly queer person would not want to be married because that would be relinquishing the undermining nature of the identity. A truly queer person would, therefore, not even want to have the right to marriage “to spit on” it. Nair also insists that the phrase “marriage equality” perpetuates the idea that assimilation to marriage’s heteronormativity is necessary; she makes a deliberate choice in speaking to “gay marriage,” as it invokes the idea of queerness as political. Using this politicized phrase allows Nair to speak more directly to the idea that “marriage has been the antithesis of everything queer people have wanted” due to its insistence that the queer community is no longer outside of the norm, that they conform to society as married, gay couples who don’t threaten heterosexual marriages or relationships with their sexuality. Nair’s essay establishes what a good queer person should advocate against, gay marriage, implying that a bad queer person would be in favor of marriage equality, just as Roxane Gay’s “Confessions of a bad feminist” establishes criteria for a “good feminist."
Like Yasmin Nair, Roxane Gay is iconic in the field of LGBTQ+ studies. Her book Bad Feminist: Essays is unavoidable in the field. Gay’s TEDTalk, “Confessions of a bad feminist,” is also a pillar of feminist discourse. In this talk, and in her book, Gay confesses her “fail[ures] as a woman” in her “failing as a feminist” by her listening to “thuggish rap at a very loud volume” on her way to work, “belie[f] in man work” as stereotypically masculine chores, her ability to “enjoy fashion magazines and pretty things,” and additional “flagrant” “transgressions." In her noting these “transgressions,” Gay highlights the expectations of a feminist and terms herself a “Bad Feminist” because she fails to stand in opposition to those who write rap music, watch romantic comedies, and produce fashion magazines. The only resolution, at least for Gay, is to “[try] to become better in how [she] think[s], and what [she] say[s], and what [she] do[es]” for the greater good of feminism. In terming herself a “bad feminist,” Gay establishes standards for feminism, just as Nair establishes standards for queer people. Sedaris grapples with similar standards to these, but ultimately, all three works beg the question of if there is such a thing as a “bad queer person” or a “bad feminist."
Yasmin Nair argues that being in support of gay marriage, something that “has been the antithesis of” queerness, makes a person a bad queer identifier or a bad queer ally. Roxane Gay has a more forgiving argument in acknowledging her own faults, but also providing a template of what feminism is supposed to stand against and how true, good feminists should oppose institutions that perpetuate discrimination. Although Sedaris acknowledges Nair’s argument that a good queer person would oppose marriage by “spit[ting] on” it, he succumbs to its “financial” allure, making his essay more similar to Gay’s “Confessions of a bad feminist." Unlike Gay, however, Sedaris neglects his desire to conform to heteronormative society, to avoid being a “blatant homosexual." Instead, Sedaris uses the view of marriage as a simple “financial contract, nothing more” to distance himself from his desire to not be seen as a “blatant homosexual,” or “a [subversive] queer,” as his mother says. With his inclusion of previous experiences in which he was ostracized for his sexuality, David Sedaris draws attention to this desire, which, as Nair acknowledges, would be subversive to the queer community.
Insisting that marriage is a financial decision, not one to be made due to a person’s love for another person as the media and every romantic comedy in theaters would have one believe, Sedaris can avoid terming himself a “bad queer.” He does not have to admit his desire for complete societal and familial acceptance because the focus on finances allows him to reposition the “veil [that] had been lifted” by his mother “in the early seventies." It also allows him the ability to prefer his individual desire, to marry his partner, over the political, collective call to action that a “good queer” is supposed to prioritize, just like a “good feminist” is meant to prioritize his or her collective call to oppose all discriminatory institutions.
The repositioning of this aforementioned “veil” serves as another tactic in Sedaris’s use of satire in that it not only allows him to satirize the government’s insistence on heteronormative assimilation but also to satirize the insistence that in order to be fully queer, a “good queer,” one had to meet certain criteria. Through this satirical tactic, Sedaris directs attention to the insistence on the criteria for a “good queer” that Nair details in “Gay Marriage IS a Conservative Cause” resembling the insistence that society live up to the established standards of heteronormativity. Sedaris’s satire then functions on two levels: first, by critiquing the government’s providing benefits only to married couples; second, by there being standards for being a “good queer” when establishing said the standard is inherently non-queer because it diminishes its subversive power. Queer, by Sedaris’s standards put forth in “A Modest Proposal,” should be up to the interpretation of the person who identifies as queer, not regulated by his or her ability to resist heteronormative and discriminatory institutions, like marriage. Like Roxane Gay, Sedaris concludes his essay acknowledging his fault in getting married, that he “thought there should have been another option,” but, also like Gay, he is human, and, to him, desiring marriage is a human desire and he believes being queer should not require a person to “[abandon] everything that makes [him or her] human." Being queer should mean that a person strives to have a “box” that has “another option,” but until that point occurs and that option allows for the same financial benefits, marriage is the only route. David Sedaris, and his satirical essay, therefore, queer the idea of queer as an identity and identifier by undermining its established standards.