Bad Gays: A Homosexual History – review

Claire Biddles reviews a radical rethinking of queer history and politics

June 30, 2022 · 7 min read
Cameo brooch of Hadrian and Antinous, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reclamation of badness by and for marginalised people is something of a zeitgeisty topic in pop culture and popular history. From the ongoing popular trope of the messy young woman to queer serial killers, we’re being told (reassured?) more than ever before that it’s Not Just Straight White Men. These representations are often attached to a political or moral motivation, warning of the dangers of viewing such groups as monolithic, or seeing them as inherently good because of their marginalised status. Even the most violent, taboo examples are backed up with underlying righteousness, or imagined vengeance against the oppressor.

Ben Miller and Huw Lemmey’s Bad Gays project shares some crossover with this phenomenon but takes a less straightforward standpoint – and is all the more complex and perhaps more radical for it. First as a podcast and now as a spin-off book, Bad Gays builds an alternative ‘homosexual history’ from the life stories of troubled and troublesome queers, all the while digging deep into the meanings behind badness, homosexuality and how historically we have understood the intersection of the two.

Through the 14 biographies collected here, Miller and Lemmey examine the crossovers between homosexuality and colonialism, question who has been left out of LGBTQ+ movements and histories, and ultimately build a bold case for the ‘failure of homosexuality’ – at least in its assimilationist, respectable form.

Stigma and privilege

In the book’s introduction, homosexuality is proposed as inherently ‘bad’ due to its emergence arising from criminalisation, which in itself was the result of a centuries-long moral panic over working-class behaviour, and later colonialism.

Miller and Lemmey demonstrate how throughout western history, the policing of sodomy has been used as a convenient political tool, resulting in both public stigma and control of private behaviour through the law. Although attitudes towards gay sex – and indeed what is understood as ‘gay sex’ – have waxed and waned throughout history, homosexuality as a social identity was perhaps doomed from the start.

Since the emergence of the homosexual identity in the late 19th century, it has largely been characterised in relation to gender markers – but this hasn’t always been the case. Until relatively recently, gay sex was something one did, not necessarily something one was, and was often tolerated in tandem with more public-facing hetero sex and relationships.

For the Roman emperor Hadrian, the first bad gay profiled here, sodomy was a reflection of his status and power, based on the Greek custom of pederasty, ‘the ancient equivalent of a daddy top and twink bottom’. This connection has lineage in the chapter on Weimar Berlin, where homosexuals in the Nazi party thrive on the ‘powerful collective association between male sexual and male military power’, and in Ronnie Kray’s London, where ‘power was not just an aphrodisiac, but a shield’.

There are many allusions to the difference in attitudes to and from homosexuals of different class backgrounds. As it remains, class privilege is shown as an overriding force standing in the way of queer solidarity. In a frankly savage chapter, American modernist architect Philip Johnson is depicted trying to retrospectively connect his interest in the Nazis to his homosexuality, when in reality his right-wing views reflected his loyalty to the upper classes – and the white supremacist, antisemitic attitudes that his generational wealth protected.

Queerness and the other

The prevalence of misogynist attitudes is a common uniting theme. This occurs on an individual level, in the repeating figure of the neglected wife – such as the Prussian queen Elizabeth, left to rot in a faraway palace as her husband Frederick the Great commissioned architectural follies and fucked his way around 18th-century Brandenburg. On a larger scale, James VI and I’s belief that women were inferior to men stoked his obsession with witchcraft, leading to the death of thousands in the North Berwick witch trials of 1590.

Colonialism is another major theme, with Miller and Lemmey convincingly portraying the complex, multi-faceted links between western queerness and the colonial ‘other’. The criminalisation, study and fetishisation of nonwestern sexualities are explored via Hadrian, Lawrence of Arabia and Roger Casement, intriguingly linking the latter’s diaries of sexual exploration to the contemporary utopian possibilities of cruising.

In a chapter on 20th-century anthropologist Margaret Mead, the limits of the western gaze and its reinforcement of the colonial project is made clear: ‘Domestic rebels against bourgeois European sex-gender systems looked to colonial subjects, whose sex-gender systems were being burlesqued and misrepresented by western ethnographers as part of the project of colonisation, for examples of how same-sex desire and eroticism had been integrated into community life.’ Not even the pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld is off-limits, as his late ethnographic study of gender and sexuality in Asia is contextualised within the German colonialist project.

The flipside of this gaze towards the exoticised other appears in the chapter on Yukio Mishima, which is contextualised within a history of same-gender attraction in Japan – a legacy pummelled by Hirschfeld’s acolytes in Weimar Germany to inform their own sexual identifies. This European sexology was in turn familiar to the teenage Mishima, one of the most fascinating and contradictory figures in 20th-century literature.

A highly-anticipated subject of the Bad Gays project since its inception, Mishima is treated with a complex portrait, linking his sexuality with his twin desires for death and beauty, via his obsessions with sadomasochism, bodybuilding, St Sebastian, and – ultimately – extreme nationalism. As in Paul Shrader’s 1985 biopic, Lemmey and Miller allude to both the grandiose and pathetic extremes of Mishima’s life, which culminated in ritual suicide after a bungled military coup.

Revolutionary solidarity

Bad Gays is provocative and challenging, with a nuanced approach to its often-contradictory subjects. It remains largely engaging and readable thanks to the balance between densely researched prose and humour.

Like the podcast, the book can get bogged down in its more academic sections, reiterating arguments, following essay formatting conventions (‘in this chapter we will discuss…’) and densely packing dates and names as proof of research to the detriment of the reader. The prose shines – thankfully in the majority of the book – when it retains the lightly catty attitude of the podcast.

True to their word, Lemmey and Miller make a number of cunning connections between their historical subjects and contemporary queer life, revealing their ongoing legacy – from racist masc-for-masc Grindr culture to the exclusion of sex workers that continues in assimilationist ‘liberation’ movements today. They also end by listing just a few examples of what queers can achieve when we stop viewing our issues in isolation and stand in solidarity with other movements.

The book’s authors – two critical but ultimately utopian queens – insist that the book’s anti-reform, pro-revolution stance comes from a place of love, and it does, because love itself is not without criticism. ‘The answer is not to simply stan our heroes and shush up about their flaws and faults,’ they argue in the conclusion. “Rather it’s to understand how people have made and been made by history, how and why they have failed, and how and why we might succeed.’

Claire Biddles writes about music, film and queer culture. Bad Gays: A Homosexual History is out now from Verso.

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