Cher, Barbara Streisand, Janet Jackson, Natasha Lyonne, Angela Bassett, Cate Blanchett, Rachel Weisz…what makes some celebrities so popular among queer and trans audiences? How come so many LGBTQ people worship divas, pop stars, and tragic Hollywood figures? How do LGBTQ readers, viewers, and listeners find queer pleasure in media targeted to the mainstream?
Queer writers have been exploring these questions for generations, from analyzing all of Disney’s queer-coded villains to ranking various straight movie characters by lesbianism. Influential queer scholar Alexander Doty called this practice “queer reading”: how audiences find queer resonances in mainstream media that are not necessarily made to be interpreted that way. In his 1993 book Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture, Doty wrote, “Queer readings aren’t ‘alternative’ readings, wishful or willful misreadings, or ‘reading too much into things’ readings. They result from the recognition and articulation of the complex range of queerness that has been in popular culture texts and their audiences all along.wp_postsIn other words, straight media can be super gay! And LGBTQ audiences are often particularly attuned to picking up on the subtextual clues, coding, or queer themes in mainstream media that resonate with our experiences.
Why Tammy Wynette Matters, by writer, artist, and scholar Steacy Easton, is one such queer and trans reading, a deep dive into the life and persona of country music icon Tammy Wynette. Born in Mississippi in 1942, Wynette rose to fame after her signature hit single “Stand By Your Manwp_poststopped charts in 1968. Up until her death in 1998, Wynette had a long and influential career as a country music star in an era when the industry was wholly dominated by men. Married five times to abusive men, Wynette crafted her virtuosic performances in the face of her own unstable romantic and familial relationships as well as her mental and physical health issues.
While other (ostensibly cis and straight) country music icons — Dolly Parton in particular — have long been celebrated by LGBTQ fans, Wynette’s legacy is less well known. Easton, a longtime music journalist and fan of Wynette, was curious to explore why this is the case.
Easton argues that taking Wynette seriously “means taking seriously that which is thoughtlessly devalued in our misogynist culture”: femininity, sexuality, domestic life, and heartbreak. They demonstrate how Wynette’s life “reflects the domestic and social politics of women in America after World War II,wp_postsboth the rise of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and the emergence of the conservative religious right in the 1970s and 80s. Wynette’s songs typically explore the pain of love lost: Easton writes her work forms “an explicit canon that argues in favor of heterosexual marriage despite obvious traumas.wp_postsEaston’s queer reading of Wynette emerges from this exploration of loss, trauma, abandonment, and the failure of heterosexual relationships.
“As somebody who is non-binary, who’s trans, who’s queer, I think part of it is diva-ship, right? All of our divas are problematic faves, and we stan a messy bitch!wp_postsEaston jokes when we talk in June. “So that’s a huge part of it, but I also think there is always gonna be queer interest in some capacity [in] domesticity and the home life that we’ve been traditionally excluded from. And so that’s one of the things that I was really interested in. Something that I write about in the conclusion is that isolation, knowing that we are othered and how we are othered.”
Wynette’s “high femme armorwp_postsis central to Easton’s writing about her as well. “I was fascinated by how she performed gender, how she constructed her femininity,wp_postsEaston tells me. The wigs, the rhinestones, the heels, the earrings — all of this helps constitute Wynette’s persona. “There is an assumption that the only people right now who are doing high femme presentation or gender performance in that capacity are trans women, and trans women are attacked for not being “realwp_postswomen. And if you look at Dolly and Tammy, how they perform femininity, how they act as women, how they construct womanhood as a set of actions in a theatrical context…if we want to have serious conversations about what performing gender looks like, or how it functions, then we should look at how cis people do it as well as how trans people do it.”
In the book and in our conversation, Easton offers a trans reading of Wynette’s song “Womanhood,” zeroing in on the chorus:
I am a Christian Lord, but I’m a woman too
If you are listenin’ Lord, please show me what to do
I’ve tried hard to be what mama says is good
As I slip into my womanhood.
“Womanhoodwp_postsis often interpreted as a song about a woman who wants to lose her virginity, or about a woman asking permission from God to have an affair with a married man. But the line “As I slip into my womanhoodwp_postsstuck out to Easton, who tells me, “I heard that and I was like, yeah, this is a trans song!”
In the book, they elaborate: “as a nonbinary artist and critic who is deeply committed to Wynette as a performer and a writer, the idea of putting on your womanhood has a tender resonance. There is a subversive, queer potential to knowing that drag can come in all feelings, that the hard, longing melancholy for a lover that Wynette posits here can also be the longing for a performative gender that functions, that allows her desires to be absorbed.”
The book is full of beautiful sentences like this, as Easton waxes poetic about why Wynette matters. Easton is interested in the broader politics of queer and trans readings like this one: “I think [queer readings] widen our vision…There’s always this assumption that queerness is an Other, that queerness is just for us, and the only strategy to make it public is assimilationist. And I think if we recognize that queerness is a set of rhetorical strategies, or uses of language, or uses of space, that can move outwards. That can explain ambivalence about domesticity, or can explain feminism, can explain country music, without that assimilationist charge.wp_postsPut differently, queer readings can allow us to see “how heterocentrist texts can contain queer elements,wp_postsas Alex Doty writes.
It is worth adding that Wynette’s politics were very likely conservative. Easton writes how Wynette performed at campaign events for segregationist candidate and Alabama governor George Wallance in the 1970s. Easton doesn’t mince words about this: “her work on these campaigns added a chapter to the long history of white women’s self-selected, politicized docility being weaponized against African Americans…Standing by your man as a white woman — be it a husband, or George Wallace, or the history of the Confederacy, or the patriarchy — has economic and social power in the South.wp_postsPerhaps Wynette still matters in part because she can help us understand how white femininity has historically been mobilized for violent, conservative politics goals. Yet Easton doesn’t believe her conservative politics necessarily takes away from the queer readings of her work: “As with much in Wynette’s life, it’s a thicket of both/and,wp_poststhey write.
Easton, now working on a PhD in critical disability studies at York University, is pursuing an academic project on the intersection of trans and autistic histories. In our conversation, Easton and I talk about the similarities and differences between academic and public-facing writing (“I’m interested in the systematic dismantling of those categories,wp_poststhey tell me), the queerness of monsters in popular culture, and the financial cost of freelancing. The topics, seemingly disparate, all relate back to Easton’s analysis of Wynette and how class, gender, sexuality, disability, race, and capitalism impact someone’s life, relationships, and career. This, in the end, is the most productive kind of queer and trans reading: As Easton explores all the layers to Wynette’s gendered, larger-than-life persona, they allow us to expand the way we interpret and understand the world, and to expand our understanding of queerness itself.