The world is full of binaries. Or rather the world is comprised of an array of spectrums and humans like to simplify them by creating categories—and the binary is our favorite. Are you right or wrong? Male or female? Black or white? And then everything gets shaken when you can’t quite tell which it is. As my professor for a Gender and Sexuality class once put it, to some things, like spectrums, “the answer is yes, yes, and yes.” There is no single “Truth” but rather validity that shines just as bright from one end to the other.
And yet, taking the color spectrum for example, what happens when you are two colors at once? Does your blue half overcome your yellow one, or have you become green and completely lost the essence of these two defining parts of yourself? Both Ramie and Jess from Melody Carlson’s Bright Purple: Color Me Confused and Jeanette from Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit battle between binaries they find themselves in, most notably between the conflicting morality of lesbian identity and conservative Christianity—though other binaries in tandem will help shape each character’s growth in demonstration of how such categorizing affects vulnerable people.
Before dividing the two narrators, Ramie and Jeanette, to their separate fates in each book, it should be noted the seriousness they both place on the dual realities of the physical world and that of the spiritual. While concerns for the people around them are ever-present, Ramie is often narrating off to the side her internal communications with God, “I pray as I hurry to French class. I ask God to forgive me for having bad thoughts, and I ask God to keep working on Jess” (Carlson, 57) and similarly Jeanette’s mother has trained her to keep the ways of God a high priority, “I was lying in bed one night, thinking about the glory of the Lord, when it struck me that life had gone very quiet.” (Winterson, 31) Whether through prayer or mediation or the way they interact with others in their lives, both girls have a high sense for what greater authority they are subjected to and with whom they are keeping in frequent communication. Being “in the world and not of it” is something both girls would probably count herself to upholding, though how they define “the world” may be slightly different.
In bridging towards the more conflicting dual-realities, Jeanette captures the feeling of being torn apart and the impossibility of fully encompassing two realities at once in an internal dialogue which takes place after she has been living away from the only home she ever knew. First an arbitrary speaker asks her “‘Don’t you ever thinking of going back?’” to which she responds:
“Silly question. There are threads that help you find your way back, and there are threads that intends to bring you back… I’m always thinking of going back. When Lot’s wife looked over her shoulder, she turned into a pillar of salt. Pillars hold things up, and salt keeps things clean, but it’s a poor exchange for losing yourself. People do go back, but they don’t survive, because the realities are claiming them at the same time. Such things are too much. You can salt your heart, or kill your heart, or you can choose between the two realities.” (Winterson, 204-5)
The lesbian character of Jess in Bright Purple also goes missing from the novel for several chapters, partly from her own fear of ostracization and then later after being actively ostracized. Unfortunately the book begins where Jess has already come out to Ramie and so it is impossible to have an accurate idea of what their past best-friendship was like, given that all of Ramie’s memories of her are discolored by her abhorrence for her ex-best-friend’s “choice.” It is not until almost halfway through the book that the two girls actually have a second conversation, which climaxes to a yelling match where it is clear, from both Ramie and Jess’s side, that the second reality is taking priority over what they once had and the old Jess has not survived.
“‘I was your friend,’ I say quietly to Jess. ‘But you’ve changed. And that changes everything. Can’t you see that?’
‘No! … You’re the one who’s changed, Ramie! I trusted you! And you outed me! … I don’t care what people think anymore. I don’t have anything to hide.’ Then she turns around and looks at the spectators and yells, ‘Yeah, that’s right, I’m gay! … I’m out of the closet! Are you all happy now? Is this what everyone was waiting for? Do you want to take me outside and beat me up now? Do you want to starting throwing rocks at me? Do you want to—’ And then her face just cracks like she can’t control it, and suddenly she is crying.” (Carlson, 89)
It is clear from this exchange that while the second reality is chosen over the first—that is, the new Jess over the “reality” where Jess was perceived as straight—that even this second reality is not the same for them. To Ramie, our narrator, she sees the dividing line between the two realities as a choice Jess makes, a choice that is morally wrong which “justifies” Ramie’s own ostracization of her former friend. However for Jess, her identity as a lesbian has been with her for years and so the dual realities are instead before and after the closet, with the dividing line being the choice of openly presenting herself as she is, denying herself the privileges of being perceived as straight. She clearly understands the repercussions of this action by her expectations of violence.
All of this is feeding into two realities, two “truths”, which Ramie battles throughout the entire book: 1) God says to love everyone, neighbors and enemies alike; and 2) the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin. Ramie feels the tug-of-war of feeling obligation to both love and despise Jess, and conflict rises when these are incompatible. It is clear from the bulk of the book that the despising overrides the love, though Ramie justifies most of her actions as being out of love, or at least for the greater good. For example, Ramie voluntarily quits the girls’ basketball team essentially to avoid being around Jess—and God forbid having to change in the same locker room—at a point in the book when she is the only one aware of Jess’s lesbian identity. However Ramie’s biases paint her situation differently.
“But I console myself with a Bible verse. ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ And that’s what I think I’ve done today. I’ve laid down my life for Jess. Even if she’s not my friend anymore. I’ve laid down my life for her. Maybe that’s what Nathan meant by loving your enemies. Although, to be completely honest, I don’t feel any love for Jess right now.” (Carlson, 63)
The trouble with this book is that it is unclear how much of Ramie’s hypocrisy is picked up by the target audience as such. Are conservative Christian teen girls trapped in this same muddling of love and hate so that they sympathize with another young girl self-centeredly twisting the love and hate together until she has become a whole new, bitter person? While I may read Ramie as the antagonist of her own book, who will pin that label on Jess instead?
These contradictions between sexuality and religion take on an even more complex head in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. As Jeanette comes to terms with her identity as a lesbian in the second half of the book, there is certainly this similar backlash to what Jess faces in Bright Purple. However, Jess is given hardly any voice throughout the text and is mostly referred to in the projection of Ramie’s thoughts. Oranges, in its first-person narrative, gives a complete view of the inner workings of Jeanette’s mind. We observe that she does not see her sexuality and same-sex relationships as a facet of the world that stands in opposition to Christianity in the binary of the secular vs. the spiritual.
“[Katy] was my most uncomplicated love affair, and I loved her because of it… She was blissful. I took care never to look at her when I preached, though she always sat in the front row. We did have a genuinely spiritual dimension. I taught her a lot, and she put all her efforts into the church, quite apart from me. It was a good time. To the pure all things are pure…”(Winterson, 156)
This relationship takes place some years after Jeanette and Melanie’s scandal has already been found out, condemned, and both girls “healed” from the demons inside them. So while Jeanette sees the disapproval of the church—thus her reasoning for never looking at Katy when she preaches—the precautions she takes are not in an act of secrecy between herself and God but rather between herself and the homophobic people around her. While this is a facet of the “two realities” she speaks of, this does not compromise her relationship with God, which is noteworthy because of the large number of people who reject both the church and God after being faced with the cruel reality that is “love the sinner, hate the sin,” as demonstrated through Jess when she emails Ramie:
“‘being a homosexual is not a choice. it’s how we are made. don’t blame me, blame god. he made me like this. although i’m not sure i believe in god now that everyone who claims to be a christian is turning against me. i don’t know what i believe. but i know it’s no use talking to people like u.'” (Carlson, 106)
The marginalization of the “Other” is an age-old trend that stems from the greed for power by a dominant group, whether through sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, or any other means. Its only counter-actions that don’t involve overthrowing the powers that be are 1) assimilating as is possible into the majority’s culture for safety or 2) immersing oneself in one’s “Otherness” as a way of rejecting any connection to the oppressor. For gay Christians this means pretending to be straight or leaving the church for secular gay culture, because those who hold the power and “rule” the Church will never be converted to affirming same-sex relationships and demand it as the status quo.
Jeanette, in her initial refusal to neither assimilate nor reject her oppressors, begins her own attempts at something like an overthrowing in her refusal of narrow-minded ideas of what it is to be gay. As in Bright Purple where choosing to be gay is seen as contracting some kind of disease from hanging around other gay people and/or appearing too much like the other gender, Jeanette laughs at this idea when her mother remarks “‘Should have been a woman that one’” when a man brings his boyfriend to the church, openly holding his hand:
“This is clearly not true. At that point I had no notion of sexual politics, but I knew that a homosexual is further from a woman than a rhinoceros. Now that I do have a number of notions about sexual politics, this early observation holds good. There are shades of meaning, but a man is a man, wherever you find it.” (Winterson, 164)
While this opinion appears to contradict ideas of the gender spectrum and its fluidity, its main objective of separating ideas of gender identification from sexuality is certainly subverting traditional, conservative ways of viewing the “Other” which tends to lump “Others” all together in a heap of misunderstanding—as well as unwillingness to understand.
Unfortunately this lumping together of the “Other” is something illustrated in an event in Bright Purple that is meant to be read as a sort of epiphany game-changer for the character of Ramie in understanding the need for tolerance of people who profess attractions to the same sex. Upon first glance it may appear harmless enough, because of how both minority traits discussed are used as justification for oppression, but a closer reading suggests otherwise. Ramie addresses Amy, after Amy has jokingly suggested shipping “homosexuals off to some deserted island” (Carlson, 155)
“‘But what if your opinion hurts others? Like I know that people have said or thought the very same thing about me. You know, bigoted people who think that just because I’m biracial, I should go live somewhere else too.’
‘Why should you be offended’ [Kelsey] continues. ‘I mean on one hand you’re saying that we need to accept homosexuals. But then on the other hand, you don’t want to be associated with them. What’s up with that?’
‘I mean, if you haven’t noticed, my skin isn’t exactly the same color as yours. So, I’m curious, do you accept me or not? … I mean you say you accept me, but that doesn’t mean you’re like me… So maybe it’s possible for us to accept Jess without being gay.'” (156-7)
To treat people equally despite differences in race and sexuality seems pretty obvious and is probably what the author is meaning to get at. What the issue is here, is that there is no moral binary for race while there is one for sexuality, according to this book. Homosexuality is, through the end of Bright Purple, seen as a sin that someone can be saved from, which has no comparison to race, which is merely the combination of your parents’ DNA that manifests itself in the physical features of your body. There is no intersection of Ramie’s race with her opinion on homosexuality and religion, while the same cannot be said for Jess, who cannot survive out of the closet long without choosing between the two.
Living lives that force either suppression of dual-identities or choosing between one or the other is a huge factor that drives much of the conflict in both Bright Purple and Oranges. Compromises are either unlawful or possible fatal to a character. It is a testament to humanity’s issue with categorizing people into harmful boxes and the need to move towards more open, spectrum-like ways of viewing people and the world. While having opposing conclusions in each novel’s final chapter, these contemporary novelists have both courageously opened a controversial door to a discussion of how Christians ought to approach homosexuality so that hopefully this harmful suppression of true identity comes to an end.
Carlson, Melody. “Bright Purple: Color Me Confused.” Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006. Print.
Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. 3rd ed. London, UK: Vintage, 2010. Print.