Unfair to gays
- The Homosexual as Hero in Contemporary Fiction by Stephen Adams
Vision, 208 pp, £10.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 85478 204 4
Although Iris Murdoch and other females are on the roll, this book is almost entirely about the ways in which male homosexual novelists and their heroes evade or challenge established values and customs. In novels by most heterosexuals, and by many homosexuals as well, there is a strong tendency to portray ‘queer’ men as evil seducers or else as capering clowns. ‘The homosexual hero’, on the other hand, since he is presented by authors sympathetic to homosexuality, makes serious proclamation (and boy, oh boy, does he proclaim) of his right to lead his own life in his own way, regardless of parodists and in defiance of persecutors, to reinterpret social and moral conventions in his own terms and in the interest of his own special condition, and to seek out or create his own brave new world beyond the boundaries of the dreary dump in which (it is implied) mere heterosexuals are content to fret and rot from crib to coffin.
Stephen Adams does not propose a general or ‘encompassing’ thesis. Having insisted that methods and messages are diverse and individual, he settles down to record them, beginning with Gore Vidal and ending with Jean Genet. His manner is to give detailed and surprisingly readable accounts of the plots of an author’s salient novels, sprinkling these accounts with sharp comments as to the thought or motive that may have lain behind such and such a device of plotting or characterisation. He then essays some broader judgments about the novelist’s attitudes towards humanity as a whole and homosexual humanity in particular. He points out, for example, that Capote’s homosexuals tend to take refuge in a childish and freakish fairyland (sorry) which bristles with Gothic apparatus; that E.M. Forster’s prescribed way of escape was into an imaginary Forest of Arden peopled, not with etiolated time-wasters like Jaques or Rosalind, but with butch and randy gamekeepers who are thirsting to whip Young Master’s knickers down; or that Simon Raven’s heroes (to compare small things with great) hanker after both conventional success and the goodies of Gay Cockayne, which of course is very greedy of them and quite rightly leads to their resounding pratfalls.
Now, none of this is dull (though there are some ugly clots of jargon here and there), and on the whole Mr Adams’s survey of homosexual novelists, their protagonists, their attitudes, their fantasies, their aims and their endings, is not only enjoyable but serviceable. However, I have one enormous bone to pick.
From every page of this book, from the mouths of all the novelists and of all their characters, issues an unquenchable whine of unction and self-pity, which is varied only by the grinding hum (as of bluebottles busy with a summer turd) of rancorous complaint. The grievances of homosexuals, like those of unmarried mothers or the Leyland workers, are interminable and unassuageable. ‘The hearties wrecked my pretty rooms at Oxford.’ ‘We would have been beautifully compatible but Class came between us.’ ‘He got cold feet and went back to his dismal wife.’ ‘My trouble is that I come too quickly.’ ‘My trouble is that I can’t come at all.’ Etc, etc, ad nauseam. And always and above all, whatever the precise nature of the immediate gripe, there is the general amplification, sometimes overt, sometimes implied, in any case unmistakable, that everything in every way is UNFAIR TO GAYS: they are falsely accused, wickedly deprived, savagely discriminated against.
Now then. First, this is no longer true. Secondly, while it may have been true when some of the books under discussion were written, many of them came out after Wolfenden, and even before Wolfenden, let us remember, there was a partial enlightenment: granted, this did not operate in favour of braggarts, proselytisers or exhibitionists, who deliberately provoked trouble and then squealed when they got it: but it did enable most sensible homosexuals to get on with their private lives without interference. Thirdly, even if every complaint ever made by homosexuals were entirely justified, this orgy of snivelling and drivelling would still be contemptible where not merely risible.
I’m not saying that Mr Adams approves of all this gnashing of teeth, but he does make sure that it is very loudly heard, drowning the voices of the more moderate, who, I hope and suspect, would speak very much as follows: I myself am indifferent queer (bi), but I have had nothing very much to worry about in that line since a nasty scandal at school, thirty-five years ago. If, of course, your search for self-fulfilment involves getting yourself up like Messalina or offering yourself round Sauna Baths like something out of Genet, then you’d better watch out for trouble. But if you keep your head and voice down (which is a good rule in any context) you need fear neither hostility nor ridicule. Ah, you say, but people disapprove. People disapprove of lots of jolly things – of football pools, rich cookery, rude films, Princess Margaret Rose, foreign travel and the public schools – yet all these institutions continue unabashed. So can you. I count among my homosexual acquaintances a whole squadron of dons and schoolmasters, at least one general, several well-regarded MPs and substantial civil servants, and a banker – to say nothing of writers, painters, actors and fashionable male whores. The only thing any of these ever complains about is the sanctimonious imbecility of the Gay Liberation movement, as it shrilly and effortlessly goes about destroying its own cause.
Vol. 2 No. 14 · 17 July 1980
SIR: Simon Raven no doubt realised that his review (LRB, 19 June) would annoy a lot of gay people, and looked forward to an indignant reaction. At the risk of displaying myself as a humourless whiner, I would like to comment on some of the things he said.
Simon Raven is right in saying that there are lots of ‘jolly things’ that people disapprove of but which nevertheless continue unabashed. But none of the things he mentions (with the exception, in some circumstances, of rude films) is actually illegal in any part of the United Kingdom, nor does anyone lose his job for participating in or being involved with it. In contrast, all homosexual acts are still illegal in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and in the recent case of John Saunders an Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled that a man could legitimately be sacked because he was gay, even though the Tribunal admitted that there was no objective ground for suspecting that he would molest children.
Gay people are in a dilemma. We would like our society to be one in which whether one is gay or not is no more a matter for comment than whether one is left-handed or has red hair. In such a society, it would be entirely appropriate for all gay people to keep their heads and voices down (to use Simon Raven’s phrase). But that is not the society that most homosexuals live in. The dons, MPs and civil servants that Simon Raven mentions are perhaps fortunate enough to move in social circles where nobody cares about people’s sexual orientation: but for gay people who live their lives among readers of the Sunday Express and admirers of Mary Whitehouse, things are not so simple. For us to come out into the open and ask for acceptance is not exhibitionism or proselytising but a necessary first step towards achieving the sort of social conditions for everybody that Simon Raven’s friends may enjoy within (and strictly within) a relatively small social environment. Until those conditions are achieved, it ill behoves Simon Raven to criticise ‘Gay Liberation’ for rocking the boat.
SIR: I find it astounding that you can publish the sort of reactionary queer-bashing expressed by Simon Raven in his review. Raven is clearly uninterested in any rational argument or discussion and can only resort to cheap jibes at people he evidently finds quite threatening. In short, Raven likes his queers to know their place. Those of us who step out of line and venture to suggest that it is heterosexuals who are going to have to change their smug attitudes and oppressive laws are seen as dangerous militants. Whereas ‘moderate’ homosexuals know their place only too well. He says they want nothing more than to get on with their (private) lives. This is only true in as much as self-oppressed closet gays are invariably the most vociferous in attacking gay activists, because it is their passive acquiescence in their own oppression that is being criticised as much as anything else. However, it should be realised that the ‘moderate’ homosexual is actually somebody whose life is governed by an overwhelming sense of self-hatred and fear of what others will think. The ‘moderate’ homosexual is, in fact, the gay equivalent of the black ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘white man’s nigger’.
Not surprisingly, Raven sees the Wolfenden Report as a symbol of enlightened opinion which resulted in a better deal for us. In fact, the report had this to say: ‘We do not think it would be expedient at the present time to reduce in any way the penalties attaching to homosexual importuning. It is important that the limited modification of the law which we propose should not be interpreted as an indication that the law can be indifferent to other forms of homosexual behaviour or as a general licence to adult homosexuals to behave as they please.’ It also had such ‘enlightened’ recommendations to make as: ‘that prisoners desirous of having oestrogen treatment be permitted to do so … that research be instituted into the aetiology of homosexuality and the effects of various forms of treatment’. This viewpoint is reflected in the legal attitudes towards gays under which our relationships can be broken up, we can be imprisoned, sacked from our jobs, lose custody of our children and be thrown out of our homes – none of which would be tolerated for a moment by any self-respecting heterosexual.
SIR: What a depressing account Simon Raven gives of the relationship between his elevated circle of gay friends, himself and society at large. His review of The Homosexual as Hero in Contemporary Fiction is redolent of the hypocrisy of the squadrons of the fashionable seeking to lose their oppression amidst their squeals of ‘We’re liberated, we’re free, but we won’t tell you which of us are gay because we know you’ll disapprove.’
Keeping your head and voice down does not make an illegal act legal. Raven’s gay General’s homosexual acts were not decriminalised under the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. Even innocence of any violation of the laws governing homosexual behaviour does not guarantee job security. Raven’s schoolmasters and dons may, following the John Saunders case, find they are to be dismissed as unsuitable for working with children (males under the age of 21), simply because they are gay.
The issue is more than a seeking for approval. The question Mr Raven should apply himself to is not whether prejudice and discriminatory laws exist, for without doubt they do, but rather whether they are justified. Does he, for example, consider gays, per se, unfit to look after children? If he does, and gays are therefore socially less desirable than heterosexuals, then let him acknowledge this deficiency. If he does not, then let him and his homosexual acquaintances acknowledge the justice of gays’s claims to equality, defend simply and quietly the victims of prejudice, and give their support to attempts to repeal discriminatory laws. It is not necessary for them to proclaim their gayness – we don’t care: but they must, in order to preserve good faith, speak out against injustice.
SIR: Simon Raven’s accusations of self-pity from homosexuals are perhaps too often justified, but he completely fails to understand why it is necessary for homosexuals to present themselves positively and publicly. As evidence of the lack of prejudice against homosexuals he lists the occupations of various homosexual acquaintances – yet there have always been homosexual lawyers, schoolmasters and MPs, tolerated as long as they did not rock the boat. The significance of the Gay Liberation movement has more to do with its effect on bus-drivers, housewives and car-assembly workers. He is right that homosexuals are no longer discriminated against in cultured, well-informed society – the kind of society that has heard of Wolfenden – but for him and his fortunate friends to ignore the difficulties of those less well-off is selfish. He equates one’s private life with a double life: ‘If you keep your head and your voice down you need fear neither hostility nor ridicule.’ Yet it is precisely fear of hostility and ridicule which leads people to keep their heads down and to ‘pass for straight’; and for men in Scotland and Northern Ireland fear of the law also. What the Gay Liberation movement is really trying to do is show how unfounded – as Simon Raven knows – this fear and hostility is.
Department of English, University of Reading
Vol. 2 No. 15 · 7 August 1980
SIR: The purport of the letters in the last issue which criticise my review is that homosexuals are asking simply to be treated like everyone else – like ordinary people. But this is a very tall order (Letters, 17 July). For the trouble with most homosexuals is that they are obsessed by homosexuality: by which I do not mean that they may be obsessed by boys or men in the same way as heterosexuals may be obsessed by girls or women, but that they are obsessed by the whole circumstance and condition of being ‘queer’, by the whole business (in the actor’s sense), by the argot, the clubs, the drag, the slap, the ‘marriages’ – in a word, by the whole apparatus. They will make such a production of their taste. They will be special. They will often talk of nothing else, and the first question they ask about any new acquaintance is: ‘Is he?’ It is this which everyone else dislikes – often so much that they call for penalties, whether they be ‘readers of the Sunday Express and admirers of Mary Whitehouse’, or merely people whose nerves are set on edge by the incessant and shrilling noise.
Vol. 2 No. 17 · 4 September 1980
SIR: When I read Simon Raven’s review, I assumed that the gay community would speak up for itself, which it did. But his subsequent reply (Letters, 7 August) has made me realise, suddenly, just how responsible our passive complacency must be in creating problems for homosexuals in our society, and, indeed, in provoking the very behaviour that he finds objectionable. They, he says, are ‘obsessed’. Does he really not know that most of the rest of us are constantly aware of our heterosexuality? That our literature, cinema, theatre, music are dominated by aspects of relationships between men and women? That poster hoardings, glossy magazines, TV advertising, assume that visual titillation of our heterosexual appetites will sell us almost anything? That we gossip interminably about each other’s marriages and affairs (preferably unhappy)?
Our sexuality is the most celebrated aspect of our nature. If we are heterosexual, we display it, flaunt it, evaluate ourselves by it. We make an enormous ‘production’ of ‘the whole business’. Our culture tyrannises those who prefer celibacy by making them feel incomplete and inadequate. And, I now realise, it tyrannises homosexuals. But they are fighting back. That is understandable. But just what is Simon Raven getting so hysterical about?