Learning From the “Bad Gays” of History

Learning From the “Bad Gays” of History

Learning From the “Bad Gays” of History

A conversation with Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller about queer crooks, villains, and anti-heros, and what we might learn from the sinister side of gay politics.


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.

MF: The gambit of thinking about “bad gays” is a way to move against a certain figure of the homosexual as an eternally and piously oppressed identity, which was central to bids for rights on the basis of its respectability. But in other ways, the bad figure seems to have been uncritically reactivated recently—it’s swirling around the panic over “grooming” and threatened to merge with the response to monkeypox. Does your historical investigation give you a better way of responding to this slur than respectability politics would?

Huw Lemmey: I think orienting one’s sexual politics around an appeal to a third party is a strange compulsion that doesn’t really work for anyone. It’s a continuation of that same imperative that’s leveled upon the left in general to dilute its goals and ideas to appeal to a mythical “normal” voter: The costs outpace the rewards, simultaneously invalidating our own desires while casting the “norm” as natural. So in terms of gay politics, there may be ever more visibility for gay people, but the depth of that representation is shallow; the idea of what sexuality could mean, how it could challenge and strengthen us, is limited. At the same time, that limits our ability to fight back when the “norm” shifts against us. The response to monkeypox is a great example: When outbreaks started occurring in major European and US cities, it was gay men who were disproportionately affected. To me, that was unsurprising; although there are lots of ways to be gay, there is a different sex culture among many gay men in cities. Yet when those same groups started advocating for access to emergency health care and vaccines, in addition to the usual government foot-dragging and resistance, we also saw a pushback from other LGBTQ people claiming that targeting gay men for vaccine programs was “stigmatizing” homosexuality and would label monkeypox as a “gay plague.” There were even a large number of accusations that targeting a vulnerable demographic for increased health care was a rerun of the stigmatization we saw during the early AIDS crisis—a terrible misreading of history.

I think part of this problem emerges from the reluctance or inability to have honest and frank conversations between ourselves as gay people. Gay life has broken through into mainstream culture, but largely for a sympathetic straight audience, and discussions tend to be oriented outwards. As a result, there’s less space for us to talk between ourselves and represent ourselves to ourselves. So when we started Bad Gays, other gays were our audience. We wanted to have conversations that didn’t shy away from those complex conversations about the historical figures and identities that have shaped our contemporary identity. I think that’s an important political project; when other gays accuse us, as they have, of “airing our dirty linen in public,” I’m OK with that, because it means we’ve given up censoring our conversations for the sake of straight people.

MF: You argue against an idea of linear progression for thinking about this history, though this a cherished concept for people who want to warn against “going backwards.” What is a more useful way to think about this?

BM: History isn’t an arc that bends in any particular direction; it’s poems about ghosts, and sometimes they rhyme, but they don’t always make sense. Imagining gay history as a seamless evolution of ever-increasing rights and visibility is profoundly historically inaccurate, and also boring and reactionary. It led, for example, to the popularization of triumph narratives about civil rights achievements in the mid-2010s that helped continue demobilizing gay movements; now, only a few years later, new far-right moral panics about “groomers” and trans kids demonstrate how short-sighted that demobilization was. Once you realize the value of liberation can go up or down, you actually appreciate the strategic and ethical need to align the liberation of sexual and gender minorities with a universalist politics.

HL: I think it flatters everyone to suggest that we are smarter, kinder, and more just than those who came before us. Sadly, it isn’t true; history suggests that the gay identity is formed from a series of moral panics. These moral panics counterintuitively communicate to people the presence and availability of deviating from the restrictive norms and finding solidarity in gay life. It’s useful and important to be aware of the fact that those who tolerate you now, or even think of themselves as “allies,” may very well be complicit in the next reactionary wave. The emphasis must surely be on building a wider form of political solidarity to help as many of us as possible survive.

MF: I was struck by this question you pose in your introduction: “Why do configurations of identity and desire that seem to have expired continue to hold such power over so many people?” Do you think you’ve come to some understanding through writing this book?

BM: Michel Foucault was joking about the sexual liberation movements believing that “tomorrow, sex will be good again” in the 1970s! I think we get through it by going through it and actually addressing and engaging with it, not simply rejecting it.

HL: None of us are immune to the idea that things were simpler in the past, that we just missed a golden age. Not just the past—I think we also look sideways at how others organize their desire and wish we could have some of that. But I think, in terms of desire, there’s also a feeling that we want to better understand the modes of identity that we’ve inherited. My conclusion from writing the book is that much of the deep sexual anxiety we’re seeing in Europe and the US at the moment, from gay as well as straight people, comes from an epochal shift within our current sex-gender system that is very confusing for people who have come to think of their sexuality as a transhistorical truth, something unchanged through the centuries that has only, in the past century, been allowed to flower. That change looks like a threat, but history suggests it’s just the latest turn in an ever-shifting fluctuation of identities.

MF: I’ve seen people argue that because the terms and categories change, the historical basis for a coalitional identity is a romantic fabrication. You say that coalition is the only thing that’s ever worked. Why is that?

BM: Well, lesbians were targeted by the Nazis, as were trans people, and Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson sure did think of themselves as women and as people whose social identities were profoundly shaped by gender transgression, even if they lived some of their lives at a moment when identity categories were sliced somewhat differently and a word like “gay” was more capacious than it is now. Post-Foucauldian gay and lesbian history has learned some of the wrong lessons: As Helmut Puff wrote a few years back, “A generation of researchers translated a somewhat paradoxical [argument], especially in the standard English translation, into a road map on how to do research on the history of homosexuality.” If our intervention into public history is to urge people to be more precise and specific and understand queer history in more complicated ways, then I think we’re also thumbing our nose a bit at certain strands of academic history that get bogged down in terminological debates that can often—as in the case of the gay men who object to the remembrance of the Nazi persecution of trans people and lesbians, or the gay men who insist that Marsha and Sylvia weren’t actually meaningfully trans––become reactionary.

MF: Does this history give us a way to think about the contemporary fascist mobilization around trans people, or does that come out of a different historical sequence?

BM: The history of fascist mobilization against trans people is extremely present in our book, most prominently in the chapter about Weimar history. For me it is impossible to look at the ways in which sex and gender deviance were constructed as threats to the nation and not see profoundly disturbing correspondences with today’s transphobic mobilizations. The cover of Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage, with the little white girl’s reproductive organs obliterated by a black hole—what she calls “the transgender craze seducing our daughters”—could be a Nazi propaganda poster.

HL: History doesn’t repeat; it rhymes, to paraphrase Twain. The current moment of fascist mobilization is not the same as that in the ’30s, but there is plenty to learn from that period about the anxieties and hatreds that were fed, and fed upon, by the Nazis. Perhaps most important would be the anxieties around collapsing masculinity, blurring traditional gender roles, and the fear that the state is becoming weak. It’s telling that, despite the US spending more than the next eight largest countries combined on its own military, there is such a willing audience for the idea that LGBTQ people are weakening US defense that the traditional transphobic joke has as its punch line an attack helicopter; that upon the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a sudden spike in conversations about the tolerance of LGBTQ people in Europe having strengthened Putin’s resolve; and so on. These fears of sexual and moral degradation, military and masculine weakness, and the penetrability of a nation’s sovereignty—all of them have precedent in interwar Europe, as do the hate campaigns that are springing from them.

In recent decades, the idea that homosexual tolerance, and indeed homosexuality, was the logical consequence of the Western liberal project has become commonplace, utilized to conscript gay rights into that project, to exclude LGBTQ Muslims, and to demonize brown people in general. Any gay person who has argued against Western interventionist policy, or for the rights of the Palestinian people, will recognize this—as well as the inevitable wide-eyed, salivating, and gleeful response from a straight person that “they’d throw you off the top of a building over there.” Not only has that project demonized others, but it has helped boost this nationalist obsession with sexual moral hygiene and the integrity of borders. These are chickens coming home to roost; history proves that even the most masculinist, fascist, flag-waving gays rarely survive what follows.

MF: The chapter on Weimar Germany is especially interesting, since that time and place loom so large in liberal minds as a figure of sexual liberation inviting reactionary backlash. This ends up agreeing with preserving an idea of sexual freedom as decadence. What would you say your investigation of the Weimar gays actually teaches us?

BM: Historian Laurie Marhoefer’s argument, [in Sex and the Weimar Republic] proposes that Weimar Berlin’s sexual liberation movement was much like the movements of the 1960s and 1970s in the English-speaking world: They both had multiple ideological and intellectual strands, were complex and often contradictory, and had central elements that were willing to accept a more “scientific” and progressive understanding of sexual and gender difference in exchange for sharpened penalties against people understood to be particularly deviant, like sex workers. This does not, of course, mean that Nazi backlash against gay and trans visibility wasn’t a huge part of their project of murder and repression. I think this way of looking at Weimar helps us get closer to an understanding of the similarities between that moment and our own.

MF: The current public understanding of homosexuality is one that you trace as emerging from a series of concessions to power, punctuated by moments of revolt and opportunities for alliance. What would you say that people interested in moving beyond this project should be looking for?

HL: Most fundamentally, that same-sex desire is not an identity category strong enough to ensure solidarity in and of itself, and that a wider coalition is necessary. At the same time, coalitions cannot demand that one party lives like the other party, or that one party bends to meet the demands of the other. We are all different people; our experiences even within that identity category vary vastly, inflected by our other identities. Lastly, that difference perseveres and survives.

BM: We end the book with a dance through some moments when queer people and movements approached, however fleetingly, a lived politics of alliance capable of making transformative change. Some of these moments––like the Combahee River Collective and its movement-defining statement––are well-known, others of them less so. One of my favorite stories in that conclusion comes from Allan Bérubé and Aaron Lecklider’s research into the pro-gay, anti-racist Communist Marine Cooks and Stewards union that worked on the Pacific Merchant Marine fleet in the 1930s. They had signs saying: “No Red-Baiting, No Race-Baiting, No Queen-Baiting.” Someone threatened to beat up a member for being a queen, and he beat him bloody with a soup ladle and said, essentially, that a union queen was willing to be mean to defend her comrades. We should all aspire to that.

MF: Your last profile is of Pim Fortuyn, who synthesizes some of the worst strains of masculinism with the liberal appeals to tolerance that preserve the idea of homosexuality as bad but whiteness as good because it can withstand it. You draw parallels with Milo Yiannopolous, Andrew Sullivan—maybe we would include Glenn Greenwald in a couple of years. Are gays like this the future, or can we defeat them?

BM: This is the more pessimistic part of our conclusion: that the center-right acceptance of certain elements of the liberal rights consensus about gays and lesbians will lead to more Fortuyns and Sullivans. Indeed, to the extent that Sullivan helped theorize that rights consensus with his arguments for demobilization after AIDS and marriage equality as a dignifying signature issue, this was intentional. I think we can defeat them, but I also fear they will grow in number.

HL: While it was possible, even personally profitable, for certain types of gay men—especially men like us, white cis gay men—to adopt an approach that valorized marriage, the military, whiteness, and the nation-state a decade ago, it’s harder to valorize what comes next: not just the accusation of being groomers, of perversion and subversion, but also the implication among former allies that there’s at least some basis to those accusations; that there’s no smoke without fire; that you must admit this queer stuff has gone too far. To continue in alliance with that rhetoric takes a level of investment in the nation and the sex-gender system that I think most gay people just don’t have. At heart, they know who has their back in the fight.

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