It’s Only Fashion

James Davidson

  • The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment by Alan Sinfield
    Cassell, 216 pp, £10.99, July 1994, ISBN 0 304 32905 3
  • Cultural Politics: Queer Reading by Alan Sinfield
    Routledge, 105 pp, £25.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 415 10948 5
  • Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford by Linda Dowling
    Cornell, 173 pp, £21.50, June 1994, ISBN 0 8014 2960 9

The newspapers covering the trial in 1895 found it difficult to put the hideous words into print. Most hoped that those who needed to know would know enough already. Others assumed that a lacuna would be explicit of indecency: ‘“Oscar Wilde posing as —”’ was how the Marquess’s offending calling-card appeared in the Evening Standard. Lord Queensberry’s ‘Somdomite’ was displaying his characteristic ineffability by causing the tongue to stumble and producing gaps in public discourse.

In recent years, some would argue, those gaps have been filled to overflowing. Lesbian articles, queer essays and gay books cover the shelves of shops and libraries. Conferences on ‘the love that dared not ...’ pack the conference-halls. In fact, so far has homosexuality come from muzzlement that the production of words threatens to outrun the supply of authors, ideas and things to say. But in the midst of all these words, something strange is now being observed. In lecture theatres all over the world speakers and their questioners have started to stammer once again. Fingers hover falteringly over the keyboard. The words which have been so serviceable for so long seem suddenly inappropriate. At the heart of the din of discursive production, language is beginning to fail once more. Homosexual, for instance, having had its fifteen minutes of fame is now to be cast into the wastepaper basket of obsolescent categories, alongside the hysterics and the possessed. Gay won’t do for anything or anyone before the ‘gay moment’ of June 1969. It will take a little while to forget the injuries committed in sodomite’s name, and since it acquired a ‘daft’ and a ‘silly’, bugger has wandered uselessly far from relevance.

In the absence of these words, authors are floundering in periphrasis. ‘Sexual Dissidence and Cultural Change’ is what they call their MA course at Sussex (where Alan Sinfield teaches), which is not far, I guess, from what used to be called ‘Homosexuality in History’ with some adultery and masturbation thrown in, perhaps, for good measure. Same-sex passion is Sinfield’s preferred term in The Wilde Century, although he is also fond of queer. Queer is in fact the most common solution to this modern crisis of utterance, a word so well-travelled it is equally at home in 19th-century drawing-rooms, accommodating itself to whispered insinuation, and on the streets of the Nineties, where it raises its profile to that of an empowering slogan shouted on gay marches from New York to Sydney: ‘We’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going shopping’ being one of the more memorable choruses. Queer is a word so direct it cannot be serious, linguistic camp that never leaves the house without the inverted commas that mark its issue from the mouths of others being firmly, but discreetly, strapped on.

In a large crowd or on a T-shirt, queer can be liberating and disarming, but in a study of cultural change it produces nothing but confusion, as Sinfield himself can demonstrate:

For us, it is hard to regard Wilde as other than the apogee of gay experience and expression, because that is the position we have accorded him in our cultures. For us, he is always – already queer – as that stereotype has prevailed in the 20th century (for the sake of clarity, I write ‘queer’ for that historical phase – not contradicting, thereby, its recent revival among activists – and ‘gay’ for post-Stonewall kinds of consciousness).

The bewildered reader imagines he has just about got the hang of this new lingo and these two kinds of queer, when he notices a claim on the back cover that his trials made of Oscar Wilde ‘the most famous queer man since Socrates’ and finds himself back at square one.

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