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Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller: Learn from the "Bad Gays" of History

Along with the historic rate of youth LGBTQ+ identification—20.8 percent of Gen Z respondents answered a Gallup poll affirmatively last year—a remarkable feature of the contemporary sexual order is the ready availability of popular histories of queer activism. This arms present conflicts over gender and sexuality with a sense of how long the fight has been prepared for, and a lineage of dignified predecessors in struggle to join. But in this historical narrative, the reality of these ancestors as engaged political actors can be paradoxically easy to miss. Personal queer history is often confirmed but not challenged by historical queer persons, who can remain sealed behind this narrative even if they are still alive. 

Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller’s popular podcast and now book, Bad Gays, takes a slightly arch approach to deliver a corrective to the dominant narrative of heroic queers perfecting liberal society. In each of their carefully researched chapters, they adopt one or more of the titular “bad gays” as an opportunity for a complicated discussion of certain unsavory characters who nevertheless left decisive marks on the shape of contemporary sexual and gender identities, or whose experience provides a useful reference point against which to measure their change. 

The “bad gay” is a venerable slur, gleefully deployed against Nazis or other figures of evil to distance their acts from implicitly straight innocence by the further charge of sexual deviance or, better, self-hatred. And in fact Ernst Röhm, J. Edgar Hoover, and Roy Cohn all make the appalling roster here, though Lemmey and Miller’s point is not to blame the 20th century on closet cases but to enrich queer politics with a supple enough historical sense to move inventively, without naturalizing the moral categories it wants to explode. 

Advancing briskly from Hadrian to Lawrence of Arabia, and Yukio Mishima to Margaret Mead, their negative canon illuminates the long prehistory of the contradictory situation we all find ourselves in now, with a partially liberated sexual and gender order that preserves archaic violence alongside innovative forms of freedom. Recently, I corresponded with Lemmey and Miller to learn more about their approach to what they call “homosexual history.”

—Max Fox

MAX FOX: One of the bolder premises in the book is your claim that the project of homosexuality was a failure. What do you mean by that?

BEN MILLER: The quote is that the book “investigates the failure of white male homosexuality as an identity and a political project.” White male homosexuality is one of the most successful political projects of the 20th century in terms of its ability to achieve civil rights and state recognition in record time. Huw and I are both white male homosexuals; we stand on top of that identity and are implicated in its successes, failures, exclusions, and the violence it’s done to others on its long march through the institutions. Our book is a counterhistory of that march through the institutions, one which focuses on the various poisons baked into the cake of that identitarian and political project from the beginning, by way of trying to dream a wilder, more inclusive, more powerful, more fun, and more interesting future for everyone.

What are the poisons baked into the cake? Well, we identify some primary themes that run through the stories, all of which are common parlance in scholarly and activist communities but less well-known in queer public history. One is the degree to which the white gay man benefited from and evolved out of European colonization of the Global South—ideas about colonized people circulated in metropolitan capitals and served as the foundation for gay activists’ claims about themselves, their histories, and their identities.

Meanwhile, those gays were often complicit in the colonial project—some, like Cecil Rhodes, were leaders of that project—and too many white gay movements have ignored or actively oppressed queer-of-color organizing. Another is the white gay man’s rejection of femininity and gender nonconformity: In trying to be a “real man,” he’s often thrown allies under the bus. In telling these stories, we hope to give people tools with which to think critically about our past, understand how we are implicated in it, and dream the future forward.

Read entire article at The Nation