Does It Matter If Emily Dickinson Was Gay? It Does To Me.

Last Friday’s episode of Studio 360 was excellent. FUCK YEAH “Emily Dickinson & The Outsiders.” The section on Emily Dickinson was particularly enjoyable for me as I’m kind of a major Emily D. (Insert your, “He wants the ‘D'” joke here.), like a massive fan. For several minutes I happily bopped around, indulging my NPR- and Emily Dickinson-Nerd, and then there was the Billy Collins interview…

To be fair, it wasn’t everything that Billy Collins said. Listening to Mr. Collins talk about his sexual encounter with the removed poet (fictional encounter, just so we’re clear…) was fine but then the interviewer mentioned the fact that Mr. Collins doesn’t regard speculations about Emily Dickinson’s sexuality as important. As a matter of fact he’s quoted as  saying that such speculation is “unprofitable gossip.”

My hackles were instantly raised when I heard that quote and it wasn’t until I reflected on it that I realized why I was so angry. I’m not straight (surprise, surprise) and the fact that I’m a sexual minority makes Emily Dickinson’s sexuality very important to me. Shortly after discovering the 19th century poet when I was fourteen or so I came across a reference to her possible not-straightness. Was I excited to find this? You can bet your candy covered ass I was. Emily Dickinson the Lesbian was so exciting to me because I felt less alone. To a young high school student in rural Vermont with few queer heroes around it was thrilling to see that I could be queer and also achieve greatness. Making me feel less alone and able to achieve greatness? I don’t know about you but I think that’s a pretty awesome thing for a queer teenager.

Of course, Emily Dickinson might have been straight. She might have been asexual. She might have been bisexual or pansexual or, or, or… The point isn’t that I needed (or need) to know one way or the other, the point is that she could have been Not Straight. It was (Why do I keep using the past tense? It still is!) important to me to know that I could have a hero and that she didn’t have to be Intensely And Obviously Straight.

I don’t know Mr. Collins’ sexual orientation and that’s a-OK with me. He could have any sexual orientation and find questions about Emily Dickinson’s sexuality “unprofitable gossip” and I’d still be totally on board with that. Even if we were to hypothetically say that he and I had the same sexual orientation I wouldn’t expect us to agree on the importance of Emily Dickinson’s preferred fucking partners. We’re allowed to have our own opinions, we’re allowed to not vote along party lines. When I started this post I was ready to rip Mr. Collins a new one for disagreeing with me but I’m at peace with it now. Just because something was a major part of my adolescence doesn’t mean that it needs to be important to Mr. Collins.

It’s alright, Mr. Collins, I harbor no ill-feelings to you over this little incident.

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