As Pride Month commences with a rocky start in the U.S. thanks to various corporations getting spooked by a conservative backlash against parading any “rainbow merchandise,” one book that bears a revisit amid this climate is Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller’s Bad Gays. While some would be hesitant to dredge up this title at a moment when the LGBTQIA+ community is already being maligned enough as it is (to the point where the Human Rights Campaign has declared that LGBTQIA+ people are living in a state of emergency), Bad Gays has its subtitle, A Homosexual History, for a reason. One that seeks not only to debunk the myth of the solely “noble, martyred” gays of the past, but also the myth of any “staunch” sexuality at all. As for the current threat against the community in the so-called Land of the Free, it’s in large part due to “an unprecedented and dangerous spike in anti-LGBTQ+ legislative assaults sweeping state houses this year.” Needless to say, the Ron DeSantis-controlled state of Florida is at the forefront of those anti-gay (Auntie Gay, if you prefer) legislative measures. The type of measures that have been implemented since time immemorial. Or at least since those in power recognized the political clout that could be gleaned from persecuting “the gays.” A term that would not really exist or mean what it does today in terms of carving an entire identity around it until the dawn of modern capitalism in 1800s London. Known to some as: Oscar Wilde’s time.
Indeed, this is where Bad Gays initially sets its stage, reminding readers of “the role Wilde played within an otherwise staid and repressive Victorian culture, as well as the important, pioneering work he did describing, in public, a form of same-sex desire that otherwise lay hidden and criminalized on the margins. Wilde was one of the first men…to give a creative form to a sexuality that barely yet understood itself… For that, conservative forces succeeded in destroying him.” Just as conservative forces continue to succeed in such endeavors today. But one would be remiss if they didn’t mention that the catalyst for Wilde’s destruction was the very object of his affection that put him on trial: Bosie. Christian name: Lord Alfred Douglas. Easily one of the most vilified homos in gay culture, complete with his very conservative leanings later on in life, it was Bosie who pushed Wilde to sue the former’s father, the Marquess of Queens-berry (yes, it’s an uncanny title to have when your son is getting buggered by an older man). Like Johnny Depp trying to sue The Sun for libel after they called him a “wife beater,” so, too, did Wilde sue the Marquess for accusing him being a sodomite. Or, as the Marquess ignorantly spelled it on the calling card he left for Wilde at the Albemarle Club in London: “somdomite.” With that single card, a chain of events would be set in motion to alter the course of not only Wilde’s life, but the lives of so many gay men after him who would rather spend their days (and nights) living a lie than risk enduring a fate like the “disgraced” writer.
In fact, many men found it more, let’s say, “thrilling” to live in secrecy, on the fringe. As Wilde himself described during the trial (which he lost thanks to the many available male prostitutes that could testify to being buggered by “old Oscar”), “It was like feasting with panthers. The danger was half the excitement. I used to feel as the snake-charmer must feel when he lures the cobra. They were to me the brightest of gilded snakes [innuendo intended?]. Their poison was part of their perfection.” Who among the gays getting railed somewhere within the eighteenth century-era Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens wouldn’t agree? The titillation was in the threat of getting caught. Something put into words by Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) in Hollywood when he says to Ernie West (Dylan McDermott), “Holding a guy’s hand in public, walkin’ down the street, you know, you wait for a brick in the back of the head. It doesn’t come, well, then before you know it, your guy wants to play house. Have you ever spent a Saturday picking out some cheerful, daffodil-colored linoleum for the kitchen? I have, Ernie. And it is enough to make you wistful for the days of secretive sodomy.”
In other words, the carnal desire for another man used to come from, in part, knowing that he could never truly be “had.” That it was so often going to be “one and done.” There’s a reason New York in the 70s has been called “like living in the last days of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Before one of the most major “retributions” for all that gay male pleasure came to roost in 1981, with an illustrious New York Times headline: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” In Wilde’s homeland of Britain, of course, no attention at all was given to the matter (read: AIDS), not even some arcane headline in a major newspaper. For if the Establishment wasn’t criminalizing homosexuality, then it was actively trying to facilitate the death of “a race.” This catering to the notion that sexuality is somehow a choice as opposed to something innate, a feeling that can’t be ignored. In some cases, however, it’s merely as cut-and-dried as going with whatever attraction to another person one has in the moment.
This seemed to be the case for Hadrian, the “bad gay” who comprises the first chapter of Lemmey and Miller’s book. Living in a time when homosexual behavior was deemed “okay” if it was between an older man and a younger one under the guise of something like “imparting wisdom,” Hadrian took full advantage of that with Antinous. For “the philhellenic Romans took up many of the same concepts and attitudes towards homosexuality [as the Greeks], but with an important difference. While for the Greeks, the pederastic relationship had a pedagogical and philosophical basis—to ensure the induction of noble males into the intellectual and political society they were to dominate—for the Romans the focus was instead on the sensual.” So yes, the pederastic homosexual dynamic originates from classical Greece, which the Roman Empire modeled itself heavily on (even despite knowing how it turned out for the Greeks).
Hadrian himself was an ardent lover of all things Greek, which of course extended into their “philosophy” surrounding same-sex relationships. As Lemmey and Miller mention, “In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes uses a myth to demonstrate the nature of love, explaining that lovers are the two reunited components of single souls split in two by Zeus. This myth of soulmates is not as structured around ideas of heterosexual compatibility as you might presume. Aristophanes explicitly mentions same-sex relationships, but the important qualification is that they are between men of different ages.” That was certainly the case for Antinous and Hadrian, who met the former when he was in his late forties. Antinous, instead, was in his early teens. The perfect pederastic relationship was formed, culminating with Antinous’ suspicious death on the Nile. Lore would eventually posit that he had voluntarily surrendered himself as a human sacrifice to help miraculously heal Hadrian’s failing health. Whatever actually happened, the result was the utter deification of Antinous, complete with a literal cult following. So, as usual, a tragic ending for two “forbidden” male lovers, especially as Antinous was becoming too “old” for the Roman hierarchy to view his relationship with Hadrian as “normal.”
After this ill-fated conclusion, Lemmey and Miller move on to a chapter about that Italian rapscallion, Pietro Aretino. Known for being an openly-declared sodomite, a writer of perverse, satirical prose and a master extortionist, his tale provides an important context for understanding why sodomy was “permitted” more freely in his time and place. It’s here that Lemmey and Miller make a key argument about how the “tolerant position” was a result of how “the Medicis’ hold on power relied upon a high degree of popular consent in a city where sodomy was a regulated civic norm.” Quoting Christopher Chitty, they summarize, “Too many convictions, seemingly disproportionate convictions of poor rather than rich men, and punishments that might be perceived as excessive threatened to turn the lower strata of the city against the regime.” In short, “Let them do anal.” A far more useful ruling philosophy than “Let them eat cake.” If only gays of the present could take a cue from the Medici dynasty’s fear of a public uprising should they try to intervene with criminal punishment for one’s sex life. Instead, so much posturing about “dignity” and not doing anything to disrupt the status quo is made when it comes to homo revolt against regimes like DeSantis’. In the time of Aretino and the Medicis, however, it did become evident that “the rise of both cultures of sodomy and its persecution…suggest[ed] an intimate relationship between homosexual sex, class struggle and the development of capitalism.”
Which brings us to the chapter on James VI and I, whereupon the question of what “sexuality” actually is comes into play again. As stated in the introduction, “Can you call someone like James VI and I, a man who almost certainly had sex with other men, a homosexual, when that identity did not even exist as a concept at the time? When he was ruling England and Scotland, and beginning his campaigns of colonization in Ireland and America, nobody thought who they fucked had anything to do with who they were.” Now, that’s all it has to do with. No one can separate the one from the other—the fucking from the “being.” With regard to the invention of terms, as well as their evolution, even the meaning of “sodomy” has altered since the Middle Ages. For it originally referred to any form of sex that didn’t adhere to “God’s will” a.k.a.: “be fruitful, and multiply.” But apparently, butt fucking became the most patent nose-thumbing toward God in terms of types of sex that couldn’t yield children. James VI and I, “at least,” knew he had to “take a wife” in Anne of Denmark and bear a viable successor in Charles I. And yet, James VI and I seemed more well-known for fawning over certain male courtiers than over his family. The first was to be then thirty-seven-year-old Esmé Stewart, a French nobleman who came to James’ court when the young king was still a teenager. So here, again, we have the traditional Greek pederasty model, with the subversive element being that James technically had all the power as king—but Esmé was more powerful as an “instructor” to James in the carnal ways of the world.
And many in James’ court were concerned about Esmé having that kind of power. Especially because he was a Catholic. Anyone who knows something about the tenuous dynamic between England and Scotland at that time is aware that Catholics were a major source of political contention—“not least because within the minds of Protestants there was a link between sodomy and Catholicism.” This going back to the first anti-homosexual law in Britain: the Buggery Act of 1533. Yes, the Buggery Act. Far from a truly morally motivated law, it was a bid on Henry VIII’s part “as a demonstration of state power (such cases had previously been restricted to ecclesiastical courts), but also a legal weapon to give his officials ‘license to roam through the monasteries, convents and friaries,’ taking advantage of the popular (and not unfounded) assumptions that such gender-segregated institutions, far from being places of solemn chastity, were nests of sodomites.” Not a coincidence, of course, as Henry was “attempting to dissolve the monasteries and seize as much land, capital and power for himself, making this link in the minds of the people very handy indeed.” The association with Catholics as the most debauched of all would continue as Protestants vied for preeminence in England and Scotland. Wielding the “homo” card was therefore an early example of the politicization of sex acts between men (who were the power holders—which is why criminalizing lesbianism doesn’t seem to come up as much: women had no power, so it hardly seemed worth the effort).
When it came to colonialization, which James VI and I had a strong hand in spurring, the potential to make natives of the “New World” come across as “barbaric” for same-sex “rituals” became its own form of “solid gold” for justifying Reasons Why We Must Subjugate Them. So it is that, elsewhere in Bad Gays, Roger Casement gets a front-row seat to a second wave of colonialism in the way of “the Scramble for Africa.” With Britain and other European nations galvanized by the recent discovery of how quinine could treat malaria, therefore make Africa’s inland areas more “inhabitable” to European imperialists, Casement was sent to survey locations along the Congo river in search of potentially lucrative “hotspots” to help King Leopold cash in on rubber plantations. Eventually, the plundering of these resources and the horrendous ways in which people were forced to plunder them would be reported on in Casement’s diaries. From workers having their hands cut off if they couldn’t meet quotas to deliver “enough” rubber to children being kidnapped and raised as reserve labor, there was no shortage of atrocities. Casement was able to call attention to the exploitation in the Peruvian Amazon as many Barbadians—British colonial subjects, if you will—were subject to the ills of “working” (read: slavery). Unfortunately for the cause of vindicating the oppressed, Casement’s whistleblowing was undermined by the discovery of a second set of diaries. The ones that detailed his various sexual escapades while abroad. And, in case(ment) anyone was wondering, Lemmey and Miller confirm that Casement was something of a “size queen” when it came to his descriptions of cock. In the end, it wasn’t just the diaries that cinched his fate, but high treason. This after a botched attempt at trying to smuggle arms from Germany into Ireland in time for the Easter Rising.
Being at the center of one of capitalism’s ugliest zeniths, Casement provides yet another example in the book of how men with same-sex leanings are vilified when it suits some “greater” political purpose—usually in service of expanding and/or upholding capitalism. Sometimes, however, their behavior goes deliberately ignored (à la Aretino) for the sake of upholding it. After all, one of the book’s biggest Bad Gays, J. Edgar Hoover, only found himself in such a position of autonomous power because of the threat to capitalism that loomed in post-World War I America. With big business, which controlled (and controls) the U.S. government, fearing the socialist and anarchist movements taking too much root as the Russian Revolution was going on, J. Edgar was tasked, at twenty-four, with “collecting data” on “radical” organizations and the people within them. By 1924, he was the head of the Bureau of Investigation, having helped to quell the first “Red Scare.” His time at the FBI was soon made all the more erection-inducing by the arrival of Clyde Tolson, the assistant director who would share in a “spousal relationship” with Hoover until his death in 1972. To be sure, this went well beyond the definition of a “work wife.” Working together to continuously “smash” communism and left-wing politics, Hoover was a pro-capitalist agent for fortifying the status quo. Never seeming to understand 1) politics and capitalism’s strategic othering of same-sex “copulating” and 2) how deeply fucked up he was.
For “conservative” Hoover and Tolson, ironically, it goes back to what Wilde said at his trial: “It is in this century misunderstood as ‘the love that dare not speak its name,’ and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.” This earnest declaration has undeniably contributed to “a creation myth of the public male homosexual identity.” One that’s still somehow better “fathomed” if it’s between an older man and a younger one. Predatory connotations be damned!
As for capitalism’s artful use of homosexuality to serve its purposes whenever and however it wants to, it bears reminding that “…the idea that people have a specific ‘sexuality’ is remarkably recent—perhaps only 150 years old, emerging out of the rapidly industrializing colonial metropolises of Europe.” Lemmey and Miller add, “Even after the invention of ‘homosexuality’ (and ‘heterosexuality’) in the late nineteenth century, most people who felt same-sex love and desire did not want to convert their feelings into identities, to subscribe to being medicalized and set apart.” In the present, with identity politics more rampant than ever, it seems the exact opposite is true. And while many can’t help but think that’s all part of vast “progress,” some are discounting just how much their adamant commitment to identity politics plays into pro-capitalist hands.