Sonnet for Gay History | Keaton St. James

Along the crimson threads of history must stand one
of my long-dead gay predecessors: rainwater in his hair,
hunger in his eyes, his mouth shining golden with laughter
as he tugs at me, tugs at me to remember him.

I imagine him seated on a half-dry park bench
near the cobblestone streets, his and his lover’s tailcoat-
clad shoulders brushing as they talked Euripides
under the gaslights. He knew too well how they both

savored whatever quiet touches the public allowed
them. And I imagine how, after he had climbed
into their shared bachelor apartment, my predecessor pulled
his lover close and kissed him hard enough to uninvent

the word indecency. Did loving a man feel as warm to him
as it does to me? Like light bursting through stained glass?

 


Writer’s Commentary

When you’re in the closet, it can be a complex process to eke out a space for yourself where you can have that privacy but also have your pride at the same time. For me, one of the biggest sources of comfort I find as a gay man is to read stories of real-life LGBT history, as well as classic literature featuring non-straight characters. This poem is meant to be a loving speculation on the ways in which gay men of another century may found solace in each other, and how we can find traces of ourselves in the legacies of those who have come before us.


Keaton St. James is an American graduate student studying science who loves to write poetry and prose in his spare time.

Dr. Alan L. Hart, Connecticut State Tuberculosis Commission, 1955 | Keaton St. James

The white-haired patient sitting in front of him has three
tiny lesions in her lungs. On the x-ray film they glower at him
like blackbirds poking their heads out of sun-warmed
fields of Oregon wheat. As he prepares to get her the anti-biotics
she needs, she tells him a story of her girlhood, milking
cows on her father’s farm, filling wicker baskets with ripe,
sweet peaches, the back of her neck peeling from sunburn.

What should he tell her of his boyhood? How he crawled
on his belly to reenact Civil War stories and tumbled
back inside with mud smeared all over his heavy jacket
and crusted into his long hair? How he reveled in the sweat
dripping down his back as he chopped wood late into lavender-
tinted evenings, the air crisping as it cooled?

He settles on the pocketknife collection kept under his bed
in an emptied Ovaltine can. He doesn’t mention how he carried
them in skirt pockets, doesn’t mention how his mother
reminded him, her voice as smooth as cold cream, “Maybe
young girls shouldn’t carry those things.” And yet
there they were anyway, the weight of them thumping
through linen against his legs as he ran.

Later, after the clinic closes for the day, he’ll drive
home in his sputtering Chevy, put potato soup on the stove
to heat, and take his wife’s storm-damp coat for her
when she comes through the door. He’ll kiss her blushing
cheeks, her soft jaw, the side of her neck while she laughs,
sound of it as golden as light glimmering on a lake.

And later still, when grasshoppers croon from the moonlit
Hartford meadowsweet and his wife sits up in bed
reading Dickens, he’ll be at his desk, testosterone syringe
clutched in hands. The needle will sink into cleaned,
exposed skin: sharp pinch in the thigh, push of the plunger,
synthetic hormones oozing into the muscle. Evidence,
like the hysterectomy scar on his abdomen, of how far he
journeyed to build in himself this river-swell of confidence.

Then, hormone treatments finished and cleared away,
he will change into candy-striped pajamas, take his place
again at his desk. Rain will gavotte on the roof to autumn’s
burnished music. His typewriter glows with a waiting
page from a half-drafted radiology lecture, and he wants
to stay up working on it.

 


Writer’s Commentary

Dr. Alan L. Hart was an early 20th century radiologist whose pioneering research on the use of x-ray technology to detect tuberculosis would go on to save thousands of lives. And in 1917, he also had the distinction of becoming one of the first transgender men in America to have a hysterectomy. He had to fight to be seen, enduring transphobia, harassment, and being outed in the struggle to be recognized as his true self. But through it all, he remained passionately dedicated to his work, confident in himself, and so generous and kind. As a trans man myself, his story helps give me the pride to stand up and be who I am today, so I wrote this poem in honor of him.


Keaton St. James is an American graduate student studying science who loves to write poetry and prose in his spare time.