The renewed legal siege on the rights of LGBTQ+ people (hereafter “queer people”) is a stark reminder that queer people, in the United States and across the world, are a constantly embattled minority. One of the psychological and spiritual dangers of this position is a certain resistance to internal criticism. Peoples that see themselves as under attack tend very strongly toward elevating heroes: we talk about great activists, trailblazing politicians, or visionary artists, because we can appeal to their examples in order to anchor our own precarious claim to humanity. Heroes motivate us to work for bigger and better things, and the public memory of such people might, we hope, stop some bigot from killing us so that we can live to see those things.
Most people, however, are not heroes, and the history of any people is not principally stories of extraordinary virtue but of survival in the wake of forces far larger than they are. This is the overarching argument of Bad Gays: A Homosexual History, a book that grows out of Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller’s superb podcast of the same name that profiles evil — or at least morally questionable — queer people in history. Like its podcast namesake, their book’s form is episodic: each chapter deals with a person or a geographically and temporally proximate group and attempts to situate them both within their own historical context and within the history of (mostly) Western sexuality. The format, and the need to pack so much information into each chapter, means that the book’s argument is implicit rather than overt until near its conclusion.
Lemmey and Miller are well-read and have worked to become so: though the scope of the work means that they are often writing about subjects and periods in which they are not specialists, they have clearly made a commendable effort to cite up-to-date scholarship where possible. But this same attention to the particularities of time and place makes it difficult to build an argumentative through-line. The Roman emperor Hadrian’s myopic obsession with the lowborn Antinous is certainly a historically interesting example of the powerful and moneyed imprinting their fantasies onto people who have no choice but to acquiesce, and Hadrian’s reception by 19th and 20th-century circles of Uranians, inverts, fairies, and gays can tell us a great deal about the evolving self-definition of the homosexual “type” and the growth of a formalized and canonized gay culture. But biography and reception are two very different tasks, and while Lemmey and Miller’s decision to build each chapter around a biographic core makes their book far more accessible — nothing stands in the way of picking it up and scouring the table of contents for your favorite heinous homo — the link between premodern biography and modern cultural history is often obscure.
That said, the early chapters of Bad Gays deliver on most of their promise: useful biography mixed with salacious gossip. Even if the links between early partisans of same-sex love and modern gay identity are not always apparent, their biographies help us avoid romanticizing our own projections of identity onto the past. Queer people did not live and love outside their societies: the fact of loving their own sex did not exempt them from the kinds of depredations that the powerful routinely inflict on the powerless. Premodern societies had their own sets of sexual norms, some of which differed profoundly from our own, and were neither cesspits of erotic abandon nor regimented open-air prisons. Hadrian remakes the life of Antinous into his own fantasy because he cannot imagine why an emperor of Rome should not get exactly what he wants; the Italian satirist Pietro Aretino navigates the slippery middle ground of artistic patronage, enjoying the good times that come with having the favor of powerful men and trying to stay afloat after provoking their ire. Both lived their lives largely in accordance with the expectations of their social class, and in that sense, both resemble the contemporary Western ideal of gay citizenship.
When Lemmey and Miller reach modernity proper in their fourth chapter (on Frederick the Great), the shape of their argument becomes much clearer, because the historical relationship between early modern sexuality and our own is far clearer and the historical sources are obscured by markedly fewer layers of reception. Here we begin to see not only the emergence of a homosexual identity but its deliberate cultivation against a backdrop of Orientalism, exoticism, and outright colonial dispossession. In Margaret Mead’s anthropological work, the supposed adolescent promiscuity of Samoan people is contrasted explicitly with the rigidity and exclusivity of European and American societies. T. E. Lawrence, meanwhile, lived among Arab peoples as the agent and representative of a colonial empire and used their supposed “otherness” as a staging ground for his own exploration of forbidden and “deviant” sexuality. Instead of relating to these people as human beings, various Bad Gays made them into grist either for their personal psychodrama or for the imagined Bildungsroman of Western morality.
Meanwhile, on the home front, matters were scarcely better. Lemmy and Miller’s chapter on Jack Saul — the Irish sex worker whose supposed (but probably pseudepigraphic) memoir is likely one of the earliest English nonfiction novels — highlights both the thriving homosexual culture of the London and Dublin streets and the exploitation of impoverished sex workers by powerful men whose appetite for gay sex was matched by their desire to maintain wealth and social standing. The real Jack Saul shed light on this with his testimony at a libel trial in which Lord Euston sued a newspaper editor for printing that he had visited a male brothel; the editor’s lawyers produced testimony from Saul, who recounted his sexual encounter with Euston in vivid detail that shocked the public. The wider scandal in which this trial took place, the so-called “Cleveland Street Scandal,” implicated the British government in a massive coverup aimed primarily at protecting the reputations of high-level politicians and aristocrats.
All of this took place amid the development of the “invert” or “homosexual” as a distinct type of person. The “sodomite” was associated with moral viciousness, with the dissolution of all social bonds that connected people to one another; it was a kind of habituated type, not born to vice but made so through habitual sodomy and other avowedly immoral indulgences. As historian Alan Bray has shown, this did not encompass all forms of homosexual activity: there was social space for relationships between people of the same sex that bound them more firmly to their communities. This remnant of premodern public friendship, however, was on its way out in the 1800s and was only ever available to “upstanding” people: chiefly members of the aristocracy and country landowners. The urban and landless poor, to whom countless vices were always-already imputed, could aspire only to clandestine sodomy. The birth pangs of homosexuality and of the homosexual, then, were marked already by a sexual regime that separated a supposedly virtuous ruling class from their vice-prone inferiors at home, and abroad by a dehumanizing and colonialist vision of primitive “others” — those whose lives acquired meaning and value only as aids to the self-realization of adventurous imperialists and the humanization of sexual mores in the heart of empire.
Lemmey and Miller also deal with the effects of empire abroad in their chapter on Japanese novelist and nationalist Yukio Mishima. Born just 72 years after Commodore Perry forced open the border of Japan and set off the cultural upheaval of industrialization and the Meiji Restoration, Mishima witnessed the aftermath of imperialism and then the wreckage of Japan’s own failed imperialist ambitions. Preferring men in a society with a long history of same-sex love and recently Westernized sexual codes that stigmatized homosexuality, he lived out this disposition through a hypernationalist masculinism that emphasized a warrior’s devotion to the Emperor and rigorous physical training in pursuit of that devotion. Mishima’s essays and his gay novels, which are generally considered semi-autobiographical, illuminate his difficulties as a homosexually-inclined man in mid-20th-century Japan, but they also make clear his individualization of those difficulties: such obstacles had to be borne and overcome, the same way Mishima overcame his own bodily weakness through personal discipline and strength of will.
The fruits of persistent individualization become apparent in the book’s chapters about midcentury European and American gays. The closets that protected J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, and Philip Johnson were propped up by wealth and by command of state power. The protection of these men’s status and of their ability to continue having sex with other men was built on their ability to make life more dangerous for anybody who might threaten their ability to publicly disavow that sex — which frequently meant the very same men they slept with. The modes of homosexuality that made these men’s lives possible realized every whispered fear about the medieval and early modern sodomite: they were corrosive to human connection, cutting themselves and others off from participation in society and culminating in the authoritarian fever dream of buying personal safety with total control, whatever the cost to other people might be.
This year’s wave of legal attacks on the rights and dignity of trans people and the renewed effort to cast queer people as dangerous abusers and pedophiles shows the limits of pursuing a life and politics based on securing individual safety. The Nazis came for Röhm in the end: playing court fairy to the American right won’t stop them from reinstating sodomy laws. What unites so many of the figures in Bad Gays is not some kind of tongue-in-cheek “transgressive” lifestyle but their persistent refusal of solidarity. They had the chance to treat other people as human beings rather than as means to an end, and again and again, they refused to do so. In this they are not exceptional: most of us live out our lives in such refusal because solidarity is neither safe nor comfortable. If we insist on treating other people as fully human then we risk being moved by their suffering. In venturing so far outside of ourselves, we may find that we cannot return to our former lives because the urgent need of our fellow human beings beats endlessly on the door of our mind and will give us no peace until those needs are met.
Lemmey and Miller have held up a mirror, and what it reflects of gay life should trouble us. In many ways the “bad gays” of their book are not exceptional: most of us fail in solidarity most of the time, and a contemporary regime of queer life that rewards us for isolating ourselves in nuclear family units or for signing up to be military agents of empire promises relief from our precarity if only we will turn a blind eye to the suffering of other people. One of the strongest temptations that entices a people under siege is the temptation to keep our heads down and take care of ourselves and our own. To be really human and to see the humanity of others in such conditions is to emulate Christ—and the more Christlike we become the more certainly we will be killed. But to stay low and keep to our private sphere is just the fantasy of safety through control in a subtler guise, and it is just as false and destructive in the end.
As queer people we have a history whose modern turning points are marked by tremendous solidarity and love for one another: we must not let the examples of our forebears in the gay liberation movement and the AIDS activist movement go to waste. I am grateful for Lemmey and Miller’s learned and entertaining book, and I hope that their plea for solidarity will find a willing audience. There are difficult times ahead; love is the only way through, and the only way there ever has been.
Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theater, and the Michigan Wolverines.