BOOKS: Sing if you cringe to be gay
As a new book of essays celebrates victimhood and elitism, Mark Simpson says he'd rather be non-heterosexual
Sunday 25 January 1998
In the Nineties you're still clinging desperately on to the pitiful idea that gays still represent some kind of radical, "progressive" potential, not so much out of romanticism as desperation - the gay press is pretty much your only hope of a non-academic review, and anyway, if your right- on straight colleagues find out that being gay isn't quite such a glorious mixture of victimhood, sensitivity and subversion as you make out, then your Lesbian and Gay Studies Empire might come under real scrutiny.
And then you find yourself attacked from within by the arrival of the much more glamorous Queer Theory from the United States, which, with its focus on the construction of homosexuality and heterosexuality and the "fluidity" of desire, undermines the intellectual basis of gay identity, while, in the outside world, the increasing acknowledgement that heterosexuality isn't the only way to desire and love diminishes the political and the psychic need for it.
To make matters worse, in 1996, Anti-Gay, a collection of essays (edited by myself) critical of the gay identity, lifestyle and ideology - from a non-heterosexual position - was published and made a bit of a splash, leaving egg on the faces of the gay press and much of gay academe who were still busily celebrating and selling gayness. Bloody typical. You spend your life trying to change the world and then the world goes and changes when you weren't looking in a way you don't want to recognise and doesn't recognise you. It's almost enough to make you bitter, boring and irrelevant in your middle age.
So, please try to understand why the contributors to Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Critical Introduction might need the reassurance offered by the repeated mutterings of "heterocentrism", "heterosexism" and "homophobia" that you can find on almost every page. And hush, don't draw attention to the sad loss of the reality principle evident in statements such as: "Women's desire for women deconstructs male/female sexual dichotomies, sex/gender conflation, and the universality of the Oedipal narrative."
Please avert your eyes from the embarrassing impotence of editor Andy Medhurst's essay on camp, which laments the way that naff straights have stolen it and which he ends with the cri de cur: "It's ours, all ours, just ours, and the time has come to bring it back home." And for pity's sake, stifle your cruel laughter at the intellectual incontinence of passages such as this:
"Throughout this chapter, the term 'queer' will be used in two ways: (1) in the phrase 'lesbian, gay and queer', to mark a position that is distinct from straightness, as well as from existing definitions of gayness and lesbianism; and (2) as an umbrella term which pulls together gayness, lesbianism and other non-heterosexual (or non-normatively heterosexual) positions. When it is not used as an umbrella term, however, 'queer' is not meant to eradicate distinctly lesbian, gay, bisexual or other non- heterosexual positions."
There's a difference between showing old gays due respect and patronising them. I'm thinking of things like the apparent endorsement of gay chauvinism in a quote from Sarah Schulman's novel People in Trouble by Professor Alan Sinfield, made worse by the fact that it appears at the end of a piece which goes much further than any other in the book to acknowledge the disintegration of Gay's claim to represent all or even most of same- sex passion:
"'The gay community', James said, 'is a unique community because our family is bonded on love. Each one of us has defined our lives by love and sexuality - the two greatest human possibilities. We have all recognised these truths in the face of great denial.'"
If the unique thing about the gay family is that it is bonded on love, what does that mean non-gay families are based on? "Heterocentrism"? "Heterosexism"? ITV game shows? Again and again, despite the attempt - with varying degrees of success - by contributors to appear au courant with change rather than victims of it, in place of critical engagement we find sermons dressed up as politics.
So it's entirely apt that the concluding essay should be by the pope of gay sanctimony Simon Watney. His essay "Lesbian and Gay Studies in the Age of AIDS" reads as a warning about what a life-time's shroud-waving, hand-wringing and speaking on behalf of people who have never heard of you can do to you. In a foam-flecked piece he writes about how the "AIDS dissidents", "Queer Theorists", "Ultra Leftists", "anti-gays" and litter louts are all from the same spaceship which abducted him on his way to his canonisation last week. Or so it seems to me, so hilariously paranoid is the tone of this piece in which he suggests that everyone he has ever disagreed with are in cahoots. Throughout he constantly invokes "'ordinary' gays", whom of course, he is heroically defending against attack by all these evil forces, most especially the "anti-gays". Once upon a less confusing time in his writing they would have been homophobes, but they are now just homosexuals who don't want to join his crusade, share his identity or read his books.
8 'Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Critical Introduction', eds Andy Medhurst and Sally R Munt, is published by Cassell, pounds 16.99.
Fashion historian Colin McDowell celebrates 'peacock males and perfect gentlemen' in The Man of Fashion (Thames and Hudson pounds 29.95). There are amusing juxtapositions - the bulbous buttocks of a Tom of Finland drawing echo the curves of a medieval page, and both punks and Renaissance men slashed their clothes to decorative effect - as fashion icons from Jimi Hendrix to Henry VIII are saluted. But this is also a detailed, scholarly survey. Above, Vivienne Westwood's 1997 collection
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