Peter Tatchell: Quentin Crisp was no gay hero

Jealousy made him bitter. He resented no longer being the only queer in town
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The Independent Online

I only ever met Quentin Crisp once. It was a brief encounter in Charing Cross road in 1974. I was 22 and wearing a gay liberation badge, which prompted Quentin to retort: "What do you want liberation from?" He continued in a similar vein, dismissing the idea of gay pride: "What is there to be proud of? I don't believe in rights for homosexuals."

This sad conversation sums up what Quentin Crisp had become by the 1970s: an often self-hating, arrogant, homophobic gadfly. He denounced the gay rights movement and slammed homosexuality as "a terrible disease." "The world would be better without homosexuals," he declared.

In 1997, he told The Times that he would advise parents to abort a foetus if it could be shown to be genetically predetermined to be gay: "If it (homosexuality) can be avoided, I think it should be."

Other notorious Crispisms include his suggestion that gay men are so self-centred that they are incapable of love and lack the capacity to care about the welfare of other people. This supposed lack of altruism is, according to Quentin, because most gay men have "feminine minds."

He was a misogynist as well as a homophobe. Quentin was a somewhat different person in the 1930s and 1940s, when he made his mark as one of the few out and visible gay men in London. Despite abuse and bashings, he stood his ground, which was incredibly brave and inspiring, as we saw in the 1975 film of his early life, The Naked Civil Servant.

Sunday night's follow-up television film, An Englishman in New York, about Crisp's life after he moved to the United States, was much less satisfying. Although it is a fine film, with another bravo performance by John Hurt, it sanitises Crisp's ignorant, pompous homophobia. We were invited by the film to admire Quentin as a hero and pioneer. Yet by the time he moved to the US he had ceased to be either heroic or pioneering. He turned into an ever-more self-obsessed, reactionary character.

Echoing tin-pot homophobes, Quentin disparaged homosexuality as an illness, affliction, burden, curse and abnormality. He said he felt "disfigured" by his gayness. After The Naked Civil Servant, he had celebrity and a public platform, which was based entirely on his flamboyant homosexuality. Alas, he never spoke out for gay rights or supported any gay equality cause. He declined to endorse campaigns against homophobic discrimination and violence. Anti-gay politicians and preachers were never on the receiving end of his famously barbed wit.

An Englishman in New York acknowledges that Crisp disgracefully dismissed Aids as a "fad" at a time when thousands of gay men were dying and the US government was ignoring the epidemic. However, it ignores his ridiculing of the gay liberation movement and his dismissal of the struggle for lesbian and gay equal rights.

Why did Quentin turn so bitter? Jealousy. He resented the fact that he was no longer unique – no longer the only visible queer in town. Hence his loathing of the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It had encouraged and empowered the mass coming out of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. They stole his limelight. Put bluntly: Crisp disliked being overtaken and over-shadowed by other gays. We queered his pitch.