HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
. . . . .
And now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story…
I mentioned some of my initial assumptions about Annie On My Mind — that it would feel dated and must-read-for-school-like, and that it would be sad. Somehow, I must have had the history of LGBT novels ingrained in me, because Annie was actually the first (at least among YAs) novel about a lesbian couple that has a happy ending. As Sarah notes in her post on contemporary lesbian authors (linked on the previous page), earlier novels ended with at least one half of the couple dead, or living a lonely life, or otherwise not allowed to enjoy her relationship in a long-term sense.
Though, in her interview in the 2007 edition of Annie, Garden says that this tendency toward tragic endings may have been about highlighting the injustices gay people suffered. Besides, of course, it being an unofficial requirement, in order to be published, that a book about a gay couple end sadly.
In addition to the happy ending, I was surprised by the number of characters who supported Liza, as well as Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer, after they were exposed. First there’s Liza’s father, who, although not comfortable with the idea of his daughter being gay, has this to say about the teachers:
“I’ve always wondered about those two,” Dad said. Then he slammed his drink down. “Oh, look,” he said. “What difference does it make if a couple of teachers at Foster are lesbians? Those two are damn good teachers and good people, too, as far as I know. Ms. Widmer especially–look at the poems Chad’s written this year, look at how good Liza suddenly got in English. The hell with anything else.” *
Liza’s mom is more ambiguous. On the one hand, she seems desperate to believe that Liza is straight.
“Liza,” she said, “I know what it’s like to have no close friends and then suddenly to have one […] what I think I’m trying to say is that feelings–sexual feelings–can be all mixed up at your age.” **
Right. Because a person can’t possibly identify her own feelings for herself. Because it’s not that you’re actually feeling what you think you’re feeling — you’re just lonely.
Interestingly, though, there’s a sense that maybe Mrs. Winthrop herself is in the closet. She tells Liza about a friend she had when she was around seventeen — “‘Her name was June, and she was so beautiful I had to remind myself not to stare at her sometimes.'” † Mrs. Winthrop admits that she and June “loved each other very much,” that they once slept in the same bed, that they kissed, and that they would take turns pretending they were boys.
But it was all just as friends.
Well, maybe it was. Feelings are very personal and individual, and what seems romantic/sexual for one person might not feel that way to another. See… *gets on soapbox* …sexuality and attraction aren’t always as clear-cut as gay, straight, or bi; there are other orientations, like demisexuality (feeling sexual attraction only toward people with whom you form an emotional bond), and the word “love” can apply to more than just family and romantic partners.
Look at characters like Turk and J.D. from Scrubs, or Troy and Abed from Community, or John and Sherlock — it’s a running gag in each show that people assume, or at least wonder if, the pair is romantically/sexually involved simply because their friendship seems much deeper than other male-male friendships. Most of the time it’s presented as a harmless assumption, just for the lulz, but there was a point in Sherlock where Mrs. Hudson — as much as I love her and think she’s adorable — seriously started to piss me off because she would. Not. Accept John’s word that he only feels romantic/sexual attraction to women. The worst thing was how patronizing she was about it, smiling and shaking her head, saying something like “Live and let live is my motto…” [insert Merida’s are-you-freaking-kidding-me glare]
The point is, when a person says they feel a certain way, it’d be really nice if other people would treat that as valid instead of saying, “No, see, what you’re actually feeling is [thing I wish you were actually feeling/thing that makes more sense to me].”
As for Mrs. Winthrop, it’s just interesting, since Annie shared a similar story with Liza before they both realized they were in love. At first Annie, like Mrs. Winthrop, made a point that it was just girlish play, but later admitted she’d been trying to give Liza hints about her sexuality. But, again, each person and each couple is different.
Now, what was REALLY refreshing was the way the Board of Trustees treated the accusations against Liza and the two teachers. Maybe it shows how little I know about 1980s New York, and maybe I’d made the same assumptions about Foster Academy that Liza senses other people making — that that kind of school is snobby and out-of-touch — but I was expecting the Board members to all be like Mrs. Poindexter. Instead, they (at least the ones with speaking parts) delighted me by totally pwning Her Righteousness and Ms. Religious Indignation (Ms. Baxter) for their overdramatic portrayal of the situation. For even making an issue out of what two girls did outside of school, on their own time. One of the Board members even pointed out what I’d been thinking the moment Ms. Baxter declared she had a duty to report Liza and the teachers to Mrs. Poindexter, and the moment Mrs. P started whining about what a scandal it would be if anyone heard the student council president was gay — that the very decision to hold a hearing was more likely to get people’s attention than if they’d just left the whole thing alone.
And soon afterwards, they fired Mrs. Poindexter for her constant dictatorial behavior and non-common-sense policies.
Which is why I couldn’t believe they also fired Ms. Widmer and Ms. Stevenson.
Yeah. So, even though that one unnamed Board member [I’m going to call her Ms. Awesome for simplicity’s sake] who talked about the ridiculousness of the hearing also said people were becoming more “enlightened about homosexuality,” ‡ certainly implying that she herself was one of those enlightened people, she also implied that there may be a problem with gay teachers affecting their students’ ideas about sexuality. She did look apologetic to Liza as she said this part, but I, too, felt “betrayed” at that moment. It’s as if the Board was only sympathetic toward Liza because she was a minor, and because maybe she was only following her teachers’ example (again, the idea that a person can’t reliably identify her own feelings).
And even though Ms. Mostly-Awesome didn’t seem too concerned about Liza’s classmate Sally Jarrell having seen her and Annie…um…standing together and holding hands (“A very orgy,” as Ms. Awesome quipped) — especially considering it was Ms. Baxter who’d melo-dramatized Sally’s oh-so-traumatization — the other Board members must’ve bought Sally’s
bullsh– testimony re: Liza hero-worshipping the teachers and wanting to act just like them.
Setting aside the total B.S. that teachers somehow harm students just by being gay, not to mention the idea that homosexuality is some bad habit one learns, just look at that part of the hearing from a purely logical standpoint. Even if the other Board members aren’t as enlightened as Ms. Awesome about homosexuality, what actual hard evidence do they have that Ms. Widmer and Ms. Stevenson had ever had sex with each other? Ms. Baxter mentioned their personal reading material as said evidence, but owning a bunch of books about female homosexuality is not absolute proof of a reader’s own orientation. Sure, it could be a source for conjecture, as well as the one bedroom having a large bed vs. the other bedroom having a small and seemingly unused bed…but again, that’s just conjecture. If Ms. Widmer and Ms. Stevenson had wanted to, they could’ve made up any reasons for those things and the Board would’ve had no solid reason to doubt them. That’s NOT, by any means, to say that they should’ve made something up instead of being open about their relationship — either choice is valid. They did what was best for them, and made the best of their situation afterwards.
I just don’t get how the Board could oust both Poindexter and Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer. Ms. Awesome, at least, had seemed somewhat sympathetic toward them, pointing out how long they’d taught at Foster. She must’ve been outnumbered.
Sigh. At least both couples stayed happily together in the end, which Ms. Stevenson argues is the most important thing. For them, “at least we have each other” is a powerful enough reason to be happy despite other people’s hate and ignorance. On the even brighter side, judging from the book’s reception in 1982 and beyond, Annie, Liza, Ms. Widmer, and Ms. Stevenson have at least as many supporters as haters. That’s yet another thing that surprised me — according to Garden, Annie was very enthusiastically accepted by the second publisher she tried, received mostly positive responses when it was published, and even appeared on “Best of” lists soon after. The first challenge Garden knows of happened six years after publication, and the biggest one didn’t happen until the 90s — and it was defeated after some students and parents actually sued their school district for banning the book.
What are your thoughts re: Annie On My Mind? How relatable and relevant does it feel in 2014? Anyone happen to have grown up in New York during the 80s? What are your own memories of the social atmosphere and other aspects of life there?
* Pgs 190-91
** Pgs 187-88
† Pg. 187
‡ Pg. 210