Heterosexual Hypervisibility and Depravity

Baldwin creates conflict between spirituality and sexuality as he shows the church’s suppression of homosexuality visibility next to the hyper-visible, yet brutal, indecency of heterosexuality. The story is framed around John’s struggles with homosexuality and the church’s narrative of homosexuality as an indecent and obscene sin saying, “in spite of the saints, his mother and his father, the warnings he heard from his earliest beginnings, he had sinned with his hands a sin that was hard to forgive” (16). The visibility of same-sex attraction has been universally suppressed under the guise that it was too vulgar for children to see. However, Baldwin pushes back against this and opens Go Tell it on the Mountain with young John and Roy witnessing crude and violent instances of heterosexuality, with the couple that, “did it standing up. The woman had wanted fifty cents, and the man had flashed a razor” (10). John also describes the intimacy of his parents with equally dirty descriptions as they did it, “over the sound of rats’ feet, and rat screams, and the music and cursing from the harlot’s house downstairs” (10).

The critique of homosexuality being hyper-visible and “flamboyant” is challenged as heteroerotic displays are prevalent everywhere for children, while John’s sexuality is deeply hidden and manifests in more pure displays like wrestling with Elisha. Not only are the displays of heterosexuality made visible for children but the expectation of their fulfillment is placed on them far too early in life, as Florence tells Elizabeth that “when [John] get big enough to really go after the ladies you going to have your hands full” (173). Even chaste displays of heterosexuality singled out as Elisha and Ella Mae are chastised for simply “walking disorderly” together (14). There is also the physical visibility of female sexuality seen in pregnancy that allows men to hide from their guilt, like Gabriel refusing to claim Royal, while women have to admit to their actions.

Heterosexual sex is also consistently used to oppress and enslave women. This is most evident in the white men’s assault of Deborah followed by the continued assault of Black men that degrade her with this memory. Baldwin writes, “when men looked at Deborah, they saw no further than her unlovely and violated body. In their eyes lived perpetually a lewd, uneasy wonder…lust that could not be endured because it was so impersonal” (69). Even Frank who loves Florence has an expectation for sex as something that he can demand as a husband from his wife and does not listen to her refusal. Even when men are not assaulting women during sex, they are passing judgment on their sexuality in a degrading manner. Gabriel demeans Deborah’s sexuality as “he thought of the joyless groaning of their marriage bed; and he hated her” (113). There is the double standard of Gabriel hating Deborah for not being sexually attractive enough and hating Esther for being sexually promiscuous. This adds to the hypocrisy of Gabriel for shaming John’s sexuality and finding the devil in him when Gabriel has sinned and cheated on his own wife with Esther.