Cynthia Barounis

Vulnerable Constitutions: Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood focuses on how twentieth-century writers have used fantasies of infection and bodily damage to reinvent American masculinity and citizenship—and how central queerness and disability have been to these alternative visions. There is a dominant model of masculinity that expects men to perform a kind of hardness and impermeability that is rooted in ideologies of heterosexuality and able-bodiedness. Related to this model is an approach to citizenship that assumes that what makes a nation “strong” is a fortress-like defense. One very clear example of this kind of logic is Trump’s rhetoric about building a border wall to Mexico, which not only promised to create a prophylactic barrier against those defined as outsiders but also functioned as performance of masculine bravado. With a background in literary analysis, Barounis is interested in how various American writers have pushed back against this more “prophylactic” sensibility. In the book, she coins the term anti-prophylactic citizenship to name this alternative model of masculinity, sexuality, and disability and uses the history of medicine to trace the different shapes these anti-prophylactic visions have taken throughout the twentieth century and into the present.

NOTCHES: Can you say a little bit more about what this alternative model of masculinity looks like?

Cynthia Barounis: One of the clearest examples of this model that I discuss in the book can be found in queer barebacking subcultures, where prophylaxis is literally understood to be a barrier to intimacy and community between men—what scholar Tim Dean has referred to as a “bug brotherhood.” Most of the writers that I discuss found more subtle and less literal ways to rebel against medical authority—but what their narratives all embrace is an ethics of contamination and the related notion that we can’t have genuine intimacies or connections without occasionally letting our defenses down. Ultimately, anti-prophylactic citizenship understands contagion as a metaphor for community. It centers a willingness to take risks with your bodily (and sometime psychological) integrity. Of course, this focus on risk continues to emphasize some of more traditional qualities associated with masculinity like courage, toughness, and endurance—the idea of that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger or that you should “take it like a man.” But alongside of this, there is also an embrace of receptivity, vulnerability, and interdependence. This is one of the key tensions that the book grapples with.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book? 

Barounis: A lot of my research was historical. In each chapter, I looked at a different moment in the twentieth century in which queerness was explicitly medicalized. This meant dwelling with a lot of primary and secondary sources related to turn-of-the-century sexology, early twentieth-century eugenics, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) framing of homosexuality as a psychiatric label during the 1950s and 1960s. For my literary readings, I drew from an archive of novels and memoirs that appeared to be actively resisting those sanitizing medical narratives. This included canonical early-twentieth century authors like Jack London, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald as well as the more radical writings of late-twentieth century authors like James Baldwin, Samuel Delany, and Eli Clare. This is a really eclectic group of writers, so some of my most exciting discoveries came from the surprising commonalities I found between them. At the same time, because I was working with writers from such a variety of racial backgrounds, historical eras, and even genres, tracing that common thread while also staying attuned to the nuances of each particular writer’s vision was definitely one of my biggest challenges.

More concretely, one of the most surprising places my research took me was to the letters of Thomas Jefferson where I discovered how involved he was in early debates around inoculation. He was a huge proponent of the cowpox vaccine, which was controversial because the injection included biological material from animals and was therefore seen as contaminating the human body. As a lawyer, Jefferson defended a doctor whose house had been burned down during the Norfolk Anti-Inoculation Riots and it was really fascinating to see how far back anti-vaccination rhetoric extends. Interacting with this history shifted my definition of the prophylactic. Even though vaccines might technically be understood as defensive and protective, I ended up framing them as part of the anti-prophylactic sensibility precisely because of the way they have sparked anxieties around bodily integrity and physical contamination.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

Barounis: As a queer who came of age during the 1990s and early 2000s, I grew up with a lot of remnants of the medical model of homosexuality. The tongue-in-cheek scene in But I’m a Cheerleader where the conversion camp participants are directed to find their “root” definitely speaks to the way this medicalized understanding of queerness was still in the water, despite having been removed from the DSM decades earlier. And, of course, HIV/AIDS was very much still part of the public imagination and very much still tied to the image of the gay man. As I gained a disciplinary background in disability studies, I became very interested in what kind of kinship and/or tensions this shared relationship to diagnosis has produced between queer and disability activists.

Queers have, understandably, spent a lot of time pushing back against these histories that have labeled deviant desire as a source of sickness or disorder. In fact, one of the most striking images I came across in my research was a photograph of gay activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings at the 1972 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in front of a poster exhibit titled “Gay, Proud, and Healthy.” But part of my argument in the book is that we play a dangerous game when we insist that our “health” is what qualifies us for the full rights of citizenship. Just a decade later, the AIDS epidemic forced queers to reckon with this fact. I think one thing that we learned from the AIDS epidemic is that queer activism is most powerful when it emerges from communities of the sick and the chronically ill. Disability should be central to queer politics, not treated as the baggage that queers need to liberate themselves from.

NOTCHES: This book engages with histories of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

Barounis: Race turned out to be a major theme in the book. In all of the histories I explored, it was impossible to talk about the medical construction of physical and sexual deviance without talking about the scientific racism embedded in that literature. Much of what I identify in the book as a prophylactic sensibility is rooted in the protection of whiteness, and so it was particularly interesting to see the way each of these writers negotiated the implicit anti-racism of the anti-prophylactic. For example, in one of the chapters, I discuss the way James Baldwin exposes the ambivalent white privilege embedded in the DSM model of homosexuality. At the same time, I write about Jack London who was explicitly racist and whose work performs some bizarre acrobatics in order to have it both ways—championing the anti-prophylactic while also hanging onto certain commitments to racial purity.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it? What questions do you still have?

Barounis: I think when I began the project, I assumed that I would be sketching a more clearly transgressive history of resistance to medical authority. While transgression is definitely an important part of the story, as the project progressed, I became very attuned to the way that some of these narratives were also invested in replacing one model of heroic masculinity with another. In many of these visions, the cismale body is glorified to the extent that it transforms itself into an archive of injuries sustained, endured, and overcome—and frequently those transformations are staged against a more threatening specter of sickness, frailty, and feminization. As someone with strong feminist commitments, and despite the book’s title, I am still not entirely convinced that it is possible to “remake” masculinity (especially cismasculinity) in a progressive way that doesn’t simply continue to marginalize women, femmes, and nonbinary individuals. In many ways, the book opens these questions but does not resolve them.

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?

Barounis: I would have loved to spend more time exploring what anti-prophylactic citizenship could look like outside of the framework of masculinity. I briefly gesture toward this question in the book’s introduction where I discuss Chelsea Manning’s willingness to leak classified information, breaching national security for the sake of having a nation worth defending. In the epilogue, I also spent some time dwelling on the way that certain “sensitive” femininities were scapegoated in these visions, framed as a kind of fearful prophylactic avoidance that stands in the way of queer resilience. As I concluded the project, I became very interested in thinking about what it would look like to value these forms of sensitivity as anti-prophylactic in their own right. This exploration largely fell outside the scope of the book, but it’s something I’m looking forward to exploring in future projects.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Barounis: I think that the concept of anti-prophylactic citizenship is particularly useful in the age of Trumpism, when so much of the rhetoric coming out of the presidency was about sealing ourselves off against perceived outsiders (the border wall, the Muslim ban, etc). While the anti-prophylactic visions that I sketch are not perfect, they do offer a really crucial alternative to the hyper-defensive and eternally offensive (in all senses of the word) posture of contemporary MAGA masculinity.

Also, given the book’s emphasis on viral transmission as a metaphor for queer community, I think it may offer some counterintuitive insights for our current COVID moment. When the book came out in May 2019, I never imagined that I’d be marking its one-year anniversary during a global pandemic or how differently its arguments would resonate after months of quarantine. I was especially disturbed by the superficial similarity between the anti-prophylactic sensibility I sketch in the book and the rhetoric of people who refused to wear masks or socially distance. But despite this immediate comparison, I would maintain that there is nothing more prophylactic than anti-maskers’ unwillingness to see themselves as part of a larger epidemiological ecosystem—or their insistence that the bounded self (expressed through the rhetoric of individual freedom) is the most important unit of measurement during a global pandemic. The visions that I sketch in the book, despite some of their political shortcomings, are all committed to forms of collective thinking that break down the boundaries of the body and prioritize networks of interconnection. As the pandemic forces us to think about anti-prophylaxis in ways that are both figurative and literal, I think my book may offer some resources for navigating these charged political debates.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

Barounis: Right now, I’m working on a new book, tentatively titled The Biopolitics of Camp, that reevaluates the camp sensibility through the lens of disability, chronic illness, and carework. This definitely grew out of my commitment to some of those feminized affects (like sensitivity and nurturance) that I didn’t have space to explore more deeply in the first book. I’ve been especially interested in returning to Sontag’s definition of camp as a “tender feeling.” As camp moves further into the mainstream, we’ve increasingly associated it with mockery, irony, and irreverence. This approach has been crucial for much of the queer work that camp has performed, but the more our political reality has come to resemble absurdist theater, I think there’s a lot of value in moving away from, or at least decentering, ironic detachment. In this new project, I’m trying to assemble a different camp archive that centers intimacy, empathy, and care without abandoning camp’s rejection of moral seriousness.

Cynthia Barounis is a lecturer in the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Her book, Vulnerable Constitutions: Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood (Temple University Press, 2019), was the winner of the 2020 Alison Piepmeier Book Prize, awarded annually by the National Women’s Studies Association. Her writing on queer theory, disability studies, and American literature and culture has appeared in GLQ, Women’s Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Visual Culture, the Journal of Modern Literature, and others.

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