In the article Queerish London I made a smart-alecky remark about Gay / Queer Humanism. Then I found the notes I took on the occasion of the talk by the novelist Jonathan Kemp… It was a substantial and interesting talk. He felt that Humanism like ‘queer’ was questioning and critical. ‘Queer’ questioned ‘normality’ and the ‘normative’. Is homosexuality simply a variant sexuality – or is there more to it than that? ‘Homosexual’ was coined in 1869; in 1878 came ‘heterosexual’. This had to do with the (presumably national – upstart) ‘identity politics’ as practised in ‘Britain’, France, the US and Germany – a Gay Pride demonstration at any time between 1890 and 1970 is simply unimaginable.
‘Homosexual’ held fire for some decades, but between 1895 and 1905 over a thousand books were published on the matter. They expressed every possible reaction to ‘the problem’. Except what we today would regard as a liberationist one. Even Edward Carpenter, (a very famous poet / advocate at the turn of the 19th / 20th century), was craving indulgence. There is still debate about whether or not ‘homo / hetero’ is a dichotomy, Jonathan quoted Foucault’s rejection of the notion and his reassertion of Freud’s idea that everyone is born ‘polymorphous perverse’. Those who label themselves ‘Lesbian and Gay’, want (in the title of Bruce Bawer’s book, A Seat at the Table), ‘queers’ want to burn the table.
It is a vivid image, but ‘Gay’ people – as in the Gay Liberation Front – also wanted to burn it. We did not merely grow old, crabby and ‘reformist’, and add an ‘L’ to our titles. We realised that we did not have the social power to bring about a revolution. The ‘Gay’ movement was a product of the feminist / Women’s movement, and similar trends in the 1960s and 1970s, including the African-American Civil Rights (and after, ‘Black Power’) movements. A major strategist of the former was the ‘shamelessly’ Gay Bayard Rustin. The Black Panthers, as a movement, supported GLF. Most early members of the NI Gay Rights Association had been members, or at least supporters of, the NI Civil Rights Association. (When EM Forster wrote “only connect’…” he articulated something substantial.)
What homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, queer (and ‘L&G’) people want to ‘integrate’ into today (2012 / 2013) is a society we have done a great deal to change. I’m not suggesting that Mr. Kemp is claiming that British / English society is an unchanging monolith – but the change in the UK since I was 13 (March 1, 1960) seems barely credible. Abortion was illegal, as was suicide (incredible though that may seem). Trade unionists appeared on television justifying strikes against the employing of some people, because of their skin-tint. Reputable journals campaigned against homosexual men – simply for being. Most never mentioned ‘the problem’ unless it became impossible to ignore. The Observer, the Times, and some enlightened provincial papers (CHE [Campaign for Homosexual Equality]-founder Allan Horsfall’s local Nelson Leader for example), took a rational attitude to homosexuality, and to law reform.
‘Queer theory’ is deconstructionist (a problem with this is that ‘queer’ and ‘deconstruction’ are nebulous concepts – SMcG). It is, apparently, a political metaphor without any fixed reference. In its critique of politics, arts and the rest ‘queer’ can never settle. Meaning it has, thereby, no points of contact with matters of substance? Surely one can only ‘critique’ if one has some solid core values? Our history is in law court transcripts and in ‘gay porn’. This, surely, ignores much literature and art produced by cultures which were not homophobic, including our own, ‘western’, ‘Christian’ one at points in its history.
The fact that Hollywood has dominated the culture of the ‘Anglosphere’ for a century ought not to blind us to the fact that it is a lop-sided culture. Hollywood leans very heavily towards northern European, Protestant, norms and not those of southern (and Irish) Catholic Europe, the Jews, or the many other cultures on the planet – or even just in the USA. Native American cultures largely found a role for people who were not prepared to accept the one their gender implied – one of the reasons why they were marked down for physical extermination.
The working class voice
The ‘working class voice’ is not heard in our (LGBT) history. But working people were excluded from general history, except sometimes as ‘the mob’, until fairly recently (historically speaking). And it could be argued that that ‘voice’ is still pretty muted, and it is being ‘cultivated’ by the enlightened element in the traditional ‘ruling class’ / bourgeoisie. (This tends not to apply to Ireland, but the urban working class were not the majority class until recently.* And the rise of DTP – ‘desk top publishing’ – is making history, even ‘literature’, genuinely democratic.) We queers are not the authors of our own history mainly because we were, at best interesting oddities – like dancing bears. Or at worst, human garbage who do not deserve to live alongside ‘normal’ people (the attitudes of the British Realm and the Nazi Realm were, as in many other cases, only matters of degree).
I am aware of the fact that the above reads like a rather ill tempered rejection of nearly everything Jonathan said. It isn’t (and my notetaking is probably quite wayward, too), but his diversion into ‘queer theory’ was quite lengthy and needed to be dealt with. I’m also aware that reportage and comment are rather intertwined above. It is a pity this fascinating talk was not recorded. Possibly Jonathan Kemp has a transcript or notes that can be written-up.
* ‘Ireland’ today means ‘the Republic’ / ’26 Counties’, excluding ‘Northern Ireland’. But I mean (above) the whole island. It’s true to say that the urban working class was large in ‘the North’. Because of ethno-sectarian division it didn’t have the muscle it ought to have had.
Belfast was the fer de lance of the great 1919 strike, involving dock and railway workers, coal miners, encompassing London and ‘Red Clydeside’. The lance was blunted. There was no ‘Red Laganside’ due to sectarianism, sharpened by anti-Sinn Féin / ‘Bolshevik’ rhetoric from Orange platforms.