Simon Callow searches for facts among the fantasies
The National Portrait Gallery’s recent exhibition Gay Icons was somewhat baffling – Nelson Mandela a gay icon? The manager of Elton John’s football club? Tom Ambrose’s subtitle for his new book – Gay Icons Through the Ages – seems to share the exhibition’s confusion of purpose. What is a gay icon, to begin with? Someone who has special meaning for gay people? Judy Garland, for example? Or someone whose actions stand as a model and an inspiration specifically for gay people? It seems that the latter is the focus of Ambrose’s attentions, but if so, he has selected a very rum group for our admiration. He seems to think it a disgrace that the 19th-century Gothic novelist William Beckford was encouraged to leave the country because of his ardent and intemperate pursuit of an 11-year-old schoolboy (in whom he quickly lost interest when the boy turned out, by the time he was 16, to be “interested only in millinery”), and feels that the Swedish Count Fersen had his human rights intolerably compromised by not being allowed to host schoolboy orgies. Ambrose’s general view seems to be that the slavish pursuit of one’s sexual impulses at whatever cost to anyone else is a definition of heroism.
This view is allied to an absurdly sentimental and unhistorical conception of sexual history, which leads him to construct a prelapsarian model of an ancient Greece in which male homosexuals were “once the most respected members of . . . society”. No they weren’t: many of the most respected members of ancient Greek society were homosexuals, an entirely different proposition. Even this is a misleading formula: there was of course no group in Greek society designated as homosexuals (Ambrose fastidiously refrains from using the word gay for anyone from before the 1950s, but liberally scatters across the whole of human history a term coined in 1870). It is true that in ancient Greece many men and boys, under a fairly strict code of limitations, engaged in homosexual acts, but this, along with a range of heterosexual practices, was considered a normal expression of their emotional and sexual impulses. They were neither respected nor condemned for it. Ambrose next claims that the elevation to the heroic pantheon of the tyrannicides Aristogeiton and Harmodius, who were lovers, “equated” homosexuality with heroism and civic responsibility. What it did was to affirm that engaging in homosexual acts was no bar to heroism or civic responsibility, but an informed historical perspective was perhaps not to be expected from a writer who refers to Plato as “the acclaimed Roman philosopher”.
As it happens, there is an argument currently raging over the nature of gay history: have there always been, in every age, homosexuals in the sense in which we understand the term today? Or are definitions of sexuality constantly shifting according to cultural circumstances, so that, as David Halperin points out in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (Routledge), it is virtually meaningless to compare the experience of a New Guinean youth who, in order to reinforce his masculinity, daily ingests the semen of his elders, to that of a young gay man in Manhattan who is heavily into fellatio. Both involve sex between men, but the nature of the participation is radically different. Such questions are fundamental to any overview of gay history, but they do not seem to have come within Ambrose’s remit.
His purpose is simply to celebrate. I had very much hoped that the book was going to be a sort of How Gays Saved Civilisation. A fine and celebratory book might have been made of that: the scientists, doctors, dentists, painters, musicians, philosophers, soldiers, economists, politicians, explorers who have immeasurably benefited humankind. This is not that book. Sloppy research and writing abound: in the section on Oscar Wilde – an extremely vexed candidate for heroic status, given that he consistently denied his homosexuality in the proceedings he himself brought against the Marquess of Queensberry – Ambrose manages not to mention at any point that Wilde was married and had two children, implying that he was an upfront gay from the beginning. Unquestionably, the law under which Wilde was tried was grotesque and brutal, and his punishment savage; he thus correctly falls into the category of martyr, though Ambrose seems rather scornful of him in this capacity. The loathsome Beckford was, he says, “as much a martyr as Wilde, and almost certainly a more civilised and interesting man”, though Beckford suffered no imprisonment and never wanted for money, unlike poor Wilde, and his books are unreadable.
A number of Ambrose’s subjects – Edward Lear and Queen Christina of Sweden – seem never to have had sex with anyone of either gender, not because of oppressive sexual laws, but because of the complications of their personalities. Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo) went into exile because he was an oddball, a misfit, a curmudgeonly contrarian, not because of sex; Paul Bowles did so largely for the sake of his art: his sexuality, like his work, was complex and mysterious, but in no sense was he driven out of America on account of it.
There are genuine heroes in this book, men such as AJ Symonds and Edward Carpenter, who found a life in the closet intolerable, and to whom it was central to their lives to identify themselves in terms of their sexuality. With exemplary courage, in the face of almost universal obloquy, both men sought to explain, defend and celebrate their passionate inclinations. Gertrude Stein’s refusal to be anyone other than herself deliberately and consciously changed attitudes, and indeed, history. But the members of the bravely pioneering American gay rights Mattachine Society go unmentioned; as do figures such as Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, openly and joyously gay in the dark ages of sexual ignorance in Dublin in the 1930s, or Quentin Crisp, at the same time in London, made up to the nines, risking his life every time he stepped out into the street. Ambrose does give us, by way of compensation, the 17th-century Huguenot poet and dramatist Théophile de Viau, brilliant personality, scholar, wit and swordsman, who was absolutely fearless in publicly expressing his passions for various male lovers, to the extent that he was condemned to death for it and burned in effigy: when Hollywood makes that story, we will know that we have finally arrived – though not, of course, unless the actor playing De Viau is himself openly gay.
Simon Callow’s biography of Orson Welles is published by Vintage.