Homophobes and Homofibs

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Homosexuality: A History by Colin Spencer
    Fourth Estate, 448 pp, £20.00, September 1995, ISBN 1 85702 143 6
  • Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality by Andrew Sullivan
    Picador, 224 pp, £14.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 330 34453 6
  • Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography by David Halperin
    Oxford, 246 pp, £14.99, September 1995, ISBN 0 19 509371 2

These three books show some of the range of contemporary gay thinking in Britain and America, and also manifest a clear hierarchy of intellectual ambition. Here are Gay Studies Advanced, Intermediate and also Rudimentary.

Colin Spencer’s Homosexuality: A History is the work of a hobbyist, who offers what is essentially a scrap-book of the various ways that homosexuality has been inflected in different periods and cultures. Spencer leaves ‘Analysis and Reflections’ for his final section, which occupies fewer than twenty pages of a 450-page volume. Certainly the previous 13 chapters have been unanalytical and unreflective, but Chapter 14 doesn’t do a lot to buck the trend.

Here, for instance, is an analytical reflection, as well as a fair sample of the book’s prose style:

In human society it is apparent that, depending on the cultural context, at different times both the male and the female have made the final choice. Enormous emphasis is placed on the beauty and accoutrements of the other, for wealth and social position will influence offspring. Yet throughout history there have been non-procreative partnerships, the choice of which cannot be based upon selection of genes. Some of these partnerships are alternative arrangements continuing while the procreation is committed elsewhere, but some are not. Because the evidence of a definite refusal is so overwhelming, because there are many who opt out of the stud competition, we have to conclude that in many men and women this amounts to a definite choice. The choice may exist on an unconscious level, but nevertheless it is still there. Why some people but not others are obsessed with the survival of their species is a fascinating question. I would suggest that it may be that, in times like the present, this is an instinctive but nevertheless responsible reaction to an over-populated planet which needs, if it is to survive, either to stabilise its birth-rate or to engineer a decline.

Did anyone spot the ‘overwhelming’ evidence on offer in this passage? Or were you distracted by New Age thoughts of the Earth’s preoccupation with its birthrate and survival?

Here is Spencer’s credo as spelt out in his Foreword: ‘I believe that sexuality exists in all its depths and complexity, regardless of how society tries to control or guide it.’ This would be a nice thing for a 16-year-old to hear from Mum or Dad on the night of his or her coming out. It has a nice accepting sound; it bleats of good intentions. But as a serious statement it’s a joke. If the depths and complexity of sexuality are not affected by social forces, then sex expresses itself identically in all societies at all periods, and Homosexuality: A History has no material to work with – not a scrap. A book for which the publishers expect to get £20 is a mirage in prose.

And so it is, a mirage in bad prose. A writer who sets himself up as some sort of authority on sexuality can barely deploy the basic descriptive vocabulary: ‘By the third stage of initiation, the boys’ – of the Sambia people of New Guinea – ‘changed roles and began to fellate the new, younger initiates.’ As the context makes very clear, that’s fellate in its less common sense of be fellated by.

If there are limits, strict limits, on Spencer’s knowledge, there are none on his willingness to go beyond them. Everyone, as Oscar Wilde never said, should know something about love and history – except, of course, the historians of love. This is a relatively modest imputation of sentiments to Wilde, as Homosexuality: A History makes clear: ‘he opened his evening paper to discover that Queensberry’s eldest son had committed suicide ... Wilde reading the report felt all his hatred for Bosie melt away to be replaced by infinite pity. He telegraphed him at once. They were back together again.’

If Oscar Wilde’s heart and mind hold no secrets from Colin Spencer, the same turns out to be true of his trousers: ‘Bisexual men who are happily married – and Wilde was before Bosie appeared in his life – generally do not commit sodomy on youths (for they prefer to penetrate their wives), but have a strong desire to fellate them.’ (It is even possible in this passage that fellate is used in the sense of fellate.) This sentence is offered as evidence of Wilde’s sexual character, but no evidence is offered for the evidence. Is bisexuality a stable category, or does it change from time to time and place to place? Are sexual acts fixed in their patterns and their meanings? These are questions you might expect a history of sexuality to address, or at least to regard as open. Instead, Spencer introduces his assumptions at every point.

Things don’t improve when we enter a century where Spencer might allow the sheer volume of testimony to interrupt the flow of what he perhaps imagines is common sense, neutral knowing that laughs at mere documentation. Here is his description of American clone culture in the Seventies:

Sex was rough, uninhibited and phallocentric. Tricking involved ‘deep-throating’, ‘hard fucking’ and ‘heavy tit work’. Drugs were usually used to alleviate the pain of these sexual experiences: pot, poppers and Quaaludes were the most popular. Deep-throating involved the penis being rammed down the other’s throat in such a way that there was a chance of choking. Fucking meant slapping the buttocks while ramming the whole penis into the other’s anus, and the tit work involved heavy biting, sucking and pinching of the nipples.

  This strenuous giving and receiving of sadomasochistic sex was surely only another form of self-punishment. It was the gay aping the worst excesses of the chauvinistic sexist male, treating his sexual partner with insensitivity and cruelty. What is more, the receiver fully colluded with the act. Both the gays in the partnership were as fully locked into the heterosexual structure as they had been when they played at domesticity and keeping house together. Further, the butch imagery and the semblance of masculine normality was as artificial a pose as the frock that had been worn before. But trying to create a social niche in a society which still negates you forces caricatures of that society upon you.

It takes some nerve for Spencer to use that word ‘caricature’, seeing that he has himself just reduced an entire subculture to the level of snuff porn. What is his evidence? Was he there? Presumably not – he was off somewhere else, being non-phallocentric or devising a method of fucking that doesn’t involve ‘the whole penis’. But even if he was there, he wasn’t everywhere, and should speak only for himself.

To fantasise the private actions of a whole group of people and pronounce definitively on the moral worth of what you have invented, to claim simultaneously the authority of knowing and the respectability of not being there – it’s hard to find a better word for these procedures than homophobic. With ‘gay historians’ like these, who needs bigots?

In fact clone culture, if we can specify gay men in Seventies San Francisco, had interests beyond the sexual. Clone culture was preoccupied also with brunch, and with political action. Perhaps it’s too much to expect the brunch aspect to be explored in Spencer’s scrap-book, but mightn’t he have found space for the name of Harvey Milk? For the first openly gay elected public official? Clone culture voted him in, and clone culture rioted when his murder was condoned by the courts. But these trivia fail to turn our author on. They seem not to fit his definition of historical material, unlike his moralising dreams of punitive sex wall-to-wall.

Do you remember Colin Spencer’s credo (‘I believe that sexuality exists in all its depths and complexity, regardless of how society tries to control or guide it’)? If so, you have the advantage over Colin Spencer, who 390 pages later writes: ‘How a society expresses its sexuality is a direct result of its political structure and ideology.’ It’s not uncommon for people to end up rather awkwardly divided in their allegiances between essentialism (sexuality is an unmediated biological drive) and constructionism (sexuality is socially manufactured), but it’s a distinct novelty to be a hardliner in both camps, at different ends of your book.

Another novelty of Homosexuality: A History is that though a book of non-fiction, it begins with a lie. In the first sentence of his Foreword Spencer writes: ‘Throughout my life I have been shocked by homophobia.’ Throughout your life? As a Seventies vintage Castro clone might say, in a moment of leisure from aping the worst excesses of the chauvinistic sexist male: Please, Mary.

Homophobia is resilient as a system because of a quirk of its chronology: even those individuals who will suffer in time profit from it before it works against them. Any child, any male child at least, has disparaged gay people, or at least been a party to such disparagement, long before he realises that this joke category is one that has claims on him. Homophobia is a bribe whose first instalments are spent in ignorance of where the money comes from.

When Spencer says, ‘Throughout my life I have been shocked by homophobia,’ he means something like: ‘Ever since I accepted myself as a gay person I have been ... ’ – but with this emendation ‘shocked’ is revealed as a weasel word. You can’t be shocked by something you‘re familiar with from the inside. More to the point, homophobia would not be a problem if it were possible to step outside it so easily, with no memory of collusion.

Some gay people, of course, never step out of it at all, and when he has to report on such cases Spencer is shocked all over again:

What is so deeply shocking that it veers almost upon the unbelievable, is that the architects of this oppression, McCarthy, Cohn and Hoover, were all homosexual themselves, contriving to hide their natures from the general public until after they were dead. Here again, society colluded with them, for among their inner circle it was public knowledge. As ever, the great and the powerful were indulged while the nameless suffered.

Isn’t it time that gay studies – if that umbrella can be extended to shelter Spencer – took gay complicity more seriously? Spencer’s analysis (‘society colluded with them’) misses the point, which is that these men colluded with society. They didn’t invent the system, they just played it. The best thing about Tony Kushner’s baggy monster of a play, Angels in America, staged so successfully at the National Theatre a few years ago, was that it took Roy Cohn seriously, as a representative of Us as well as Them. To demonise homophobic gay men, to keep on saying how shocked you are by what they did and do, is a failure of imagination, and it ignores the fact that homophobia, then and now, is a system of rewards as well as punishments.

At the end of his Foreword, Spencer looks back on his project: ‘What we now call homosexuality has been a constant theme in the sexuality of all societies. Sadly, I have had to conclude that our Western societies have lately grown more homophobic than before, not perhaps in legislation but in moral attitudes. It was with great relief that I discovered many societies of the past entirely free of such a taint.’ In fact the material Spencer has thrown so nonchalantly together can be described quite differently. He may not have come across a society where homosexuality is non-existent, but nor has he come across one where it isn’t controlled.

Suppose Colin Spencer was a young member of the Sambia people of Papua New Guinea, and made in the flesh the blunder that he makes in language when he describes them, of confusing active and passive in an oral act of sex. Suppose, to be brutally frank, that he blew when the cultural imperative was for being blown. He would find himself at the sharp end, not of a code of manners, which might judge his action on a par with using the wrong fork, but of a fixed set of religious meanings. He would be guilty not of committing a gaffe, but of breaking a taboo, and would be lucky not to become an object of horror in consequence.

In other words, it’s not that other cultures are more casual about homosexual acts, merely that they police them differently. Other cultures provide formal contexts where homosexual acts are expected, and ours does not; that’s all. Or perhaps that should be ‘formally labelled contexts’, since in a single-sex dormitory, ship, prison or cloister expectations have always been high. But even if it were true that ‘many societies of the past’ were free of the ‘taint’ of homophobia, there would still be a gap in the argument: homophobia not being cross-culturally necessary wouldn’t make it an optional part of our culture.

Andrew Sullivan is considerably more honest about homophobia in the autobiographical fragment with which he starts Virtually Normal, a book rather bizarrely oversold by its publishers. You’d better be pretty confident about the ballsiness of your product before you promote it as the same-sex Female Eunuch.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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