On the shelf
Bad Gays: A Gay History
By Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller
Verso: 368 pages, $30
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Even before Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller met, they agreed. Both men have an abiding interest in queer history – Miller as an academic and Lemmey as an essay and novelist. But they found that the topics they wanted to talk about—that “beyond 101,” as Miller puts it today—often sounded intimidating to editors and other gatekeepers.
“We’ve been told over and over again, ‘There’s no audience for this; people aren’t ready,'” Miller explained on a recent Zoom call. When the pair were introduced by a mutual friend, they decided to go rogue and create a podcast called “Bad Gays,” which aimed to discuss and dissect the lives of “bad and complicated queer people throughout history.” to explore the modern queer identity. Both had no audio experience, but that didn’t matter, they thought. Who would even listen?
As it turned out, many, many people. By the end of May this year, the podcast surpassed the million download mark, and Miller and Lemmey released a companion book of the same name. Bad Gays: A Homosexual History features biographical sketches of 14 men, from Roman Emperor Hadrian to J. Edgar Hoover; Taken together, they explain, as Miller puts it, “how the white gay male emerged as an identity figure, why that was a mistake, and what we should do instead.”
Why did framing the podcast around what you sometimes call “queer bad guys” felt like the right project for you?
miller: The point of the show is to ask: what do we learn about ourselves by looking at the stories of people we are less comfortable with? It’s not that we’re trying to draw a line between bad gays and non-bad gays. But the more we make ourselves and our listeners uncomfortable, the better the work gets.
lemmy: You start immediately from a position that recognizes complexity. Many of the people we feature are a very few who are horrible people through and through. But because we started from that position, we can complicate the stories we want to tell about queerness.
One thing that comes up a lot in both the book and the podcast is that sexuality is not an inherent category of identity. The concept of homosexuality had to be invented, and it’s a relatively modern invention.
miller: Both heterosexuality and homosexuality, as we understand them, are this notion of going out into the world in search of some sort of sexual and/or romantic partner, and dating people in public and private places, and eventually any Art, lets in of pair bonding forms. [But] The whole idea of straight dating was invented in the 1920’s when suddenly there was a consumer market for young people. This stuff has a very specific history!
lemmy: It is very easy to assume that they are natural after a few generations. That is the main theme of the book – to search for the historical basis, because within that historical basis there is a challenge to the idea that these forms are natural. And if they are not natural then we can reconsider what shapes we want.
So you’re having conversations about people who wouldn’t have identified as gay or lesbian or queer. And sometimes we know something about their sex life, but we don’t have much evidence. How do you get around that on a show called Bad Gays??
lemmy: We keep saying: That’s our conclusion, but we show our way of working; maybe you come to a different conclusion. There is some debate as to whether someone born before the 1860s can even be called homosexual. What does that mean? King James – did he have sex with these men? He was clearly writing about them in that romantic form, but does that mean he had sex with them? It’s an open discussion we’re having.
Do you have any favorite stories in the book?
miller: There is so much public talk about the rise of the new right across the West. I think the person who led that wasn’t just openly gay – Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands in 2002 – he was too So gay that he gave a TV interview during the election campaign in which he talked about how good [semen] tastes.
I think there’s a tendency to equate queerness with radical ideas. But a big theme in the book is how queer people have assimilated into the dominant culture. Why was that important to you?
miller: Only when we understand how history works do we understand how we can work in the world given to us to change the world given to us.
lemmy: Studying history in this way removes the figure of the queer person as inherently radical and probably in some ways inherently nice — which is not only ahistorical, but a noticeable falsehood for anyone hanging out in a gay bar. It can be very helpful to undermine the use of homosexuality as a fig leaf to gloss over reactionary political projects – and also racist and colonialist political projects.
It’s Pride Month. What is your relationship to Pride as a phenomenon, historically and currently?
lemmy: I love and hate Pride. It can be a really amazing place to discover yourself in your city. It has been corporatized and is now a vehicle for some of the most reactionary forces – if you’ve been to London Pride it’s arms manufacturers and the police – but I think it’s still an area worth fighting for.
A lot of people say, “Oh, it just turned into a party; it was supposed to be a protest.” I think from the start it was both, and what’s amazing is that to celebrate visibly on the streets in this way is itself a political action. The personal is political in order to shape an expression.
The book focuses mostly on history, but you promise to discuss what we should do next. What kinds of queer futures do you envision?
miller: We talk about the times and places where solidarity broke out and what it would mean to do that in the present. There are moments like the history of the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union in the Pacific in the 1930’s. The union was communist and explicitly anti-racist and explicitly homosexual; Their slogan was, “If they try to get one of us, they’ll get us all.” They also participated in some huge general strikes in California in the 1930’s that were a really big part of why the New Deal came about came: Fear of worker actions like this one.
lemmy: One of the things I think the book emphasizes is that the value of your liberation can go both up and down, so to speak. The story we have been told of the slow, gradual unfolding of rights in a democratic-liberal Western framework is simply false. They can go backwards as fast as they can go forward, so a policy that demands inclusion and ignores these dangers, a policy that can be potentially lethal for all LGBTQ people, but trans people in particular, is exactly that we are experiencing in the present moment.
For the same reason, in a seemingly dull, gray, oppressive situation – a place like New York in the 1960s, where gays have struggled for generations – Stonewall can happen. A revolutionary change can emerge from the night and take things to a new dimension.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-06/bad-gays-and-the-two-podcasters-who-love-them Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller discuss history book ‘Bad Gays’