BOOK REVIEW / Wild ways with limp wrists and blue hair: The Wilde Century - Alan Sinfield: Cassell, pounds 10.99

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ALAN SINFIELD's original - and necessary - book begins with a dialogue between Oscar Wilde and the editor Frank Harris. As Harris began laying out strategic suggestions, Wilde interrupted him: 'You talk with passion and conviction, as if I were innocent.' 'But you are innocent,' Harris said in astonishement, 'aren't you?' 'No,' said Wilde. 'I thought you knew that all along.' 'No,' said Harris. 'I did not know. I did not believe the accusation. I did not believe it for a moment.'

According to Harris, even Wilde's notorious accuser, Lord Queensberry, did not actually believe the same-sex charges, and was much taken aback as the evidence unfolded. To us it is Harris's astonishment that is astonishing. Wilde's flamboyant dress, limp wrists, caricatured pursed lips and catty wit signal every trait of the gay stereotype, and it is hard to imagine that as recently as a century ago these traits were not regarded as indications of homosexuality.

How then did effeminate behaviour come to be seen as homosexual? Sinfield reminds us that the relationship between femininity and homosexuality need not be disparaging to either. 'Effeminacy', he says, 'is founded in misogyny', in the perception of certain traits as 'weak, ineffectual and unsuited for the world of affairs'. He begins with Aristotle, who maintained that effeminacy was 'a kind of softness' which prompted a man to 'trail his coat to avoid the pain of lifting it'. The term retained its enfeebling connotation in Shakespeare, Restoration Comedy and through to the poets of the First World War, up to what Sinfield calls Freud's 'psychology of guilt'.

For Freud, effeminacy is a transgression of heterosexual family codes. This is the method: feminine attributes are devalued; then, as terms of scorn, they are associated with male homosexuals; finally, the homosexual is encouraged to despise himself for possessing those same attributes. Often, gays themselves contribute to this guilty conscience. In popular fictions such as La Cage Aux Folles or Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy, the effeminate gay is presented as an ersatz woman whose only ambition is to become like his mother, spend time in the kitchen, see hubby off to work and raise a kid.

What emerges in the social imagination is an unevolved creature halfway between the subservient female and the glorious patriarch. In this sense, the effeminate stereotype is supremely useful: it reinforces the fantasy of a weaker sex in need of masculine overseeing, and allays fears of not being the only cock on the walk since the other, subversive cock just wants to be a hen.

'When a pederast dyes his hair blue,' wrote Jean Genet, 'he is able to launch a revolutionary programme by himself; but when, after dyeing his hair blue, he beefs up his breasts with hormones and goes to live with a man, he is merely parodying the system. He is keeping up appearances and not challenging anything at all. Society is amused. He becomes a kind of curiosity, which the system is quick to digest.'

This is not always the case. The effeminate image, Senfield argues, has a dissident potential which can be used effectively against the exclusive binary construction of society - a construction which affects not only homosexuals but heterosexuals as well. 'Homosexuality and heterosexuality are mutually defining concepts; the one is stigmatised because it is not the other.' Sinfeld's brave conclusion rings true: 'Adjusting to an oppressive system cannot be the answer; in the latest analysis, it is not we who need the therapy.'