Some of us are Literary: Get Over It!

Gregory Woods was invited to talk about his new book Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning. You can catch the interview for the next 29 days from 02:47:25 into the broadcast.

Sarah Montague is in the Today chair, and she is joined in the studio by Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall. Greg participates on the phone from Nottingham. So an interesting dynamic is created, where what Sarah Montague can see – the facial expressions of Ruth Hunt next to her – become more important than what can be heard. This is radio and it is my place to listen. I soon find myself feeling that Sarah Montague and Ruth Hunt would do well to remember this.

Does any interview go to plan? I’m not sure. But I was struck by how little the book and its contents were referred to, and how Greg was sidelined in an interview which was surely only set up because of the book’s publication. Here was an opportunity to focus on LGBT culture, history and heritage and to celebrate examples of cultural production during the twentieth century which might otherwise remain hidden or distorted.

There are worthy reasons for including Ruth – three voices in a discussion can provide additional texture, and also allows for the involvement of a lesbian as well as a gay man. However, there is no real value in an additional guest if that person has preconceived ideas of a book she has not read and appears to have no inclination to engage with it further. Given her position as head of an organisation which campaigns for the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across Britain (and she was invited onto the programme in this role), I felt Ruth (aided considerably by Sarah) did a disservice to LGBT communities and Radio 4 listeners today.

Anyone can be forgiven for not having read the book. The point is it is being talked about because it has only just been published. I haven’t read it yet either. So isn’t it worth listening to the author and hearing what the book offers a readership? And I know we all have our biases. I, for instance, consider Greg to be a friend. I already attended a book launch event at Fives Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham last week, I have bought (a signed copy of) the book, and I have undertaken my own research on LGBT literati. But I also consider myself an activist for LGBT equality. So I feel the need to speak up.

Stonewall’s strapline is “acceptance without exception”, and yet Ruth is determined to find and focus only on what she perceives as a negative stereotype in Greg’s study. She says:

I think the benefit that historically has come from the arts is that lesbian and gay people – and it was mainly lesbian and gay people,  rather than bi and trans people – were able and permitted to indulge in the arts, if you like. That was a kind of permitted institution for gay people. But it kind of has created an idea, in the same way that we think black people are good at sport, we presume that gay people are good at art because those were the institutions we were allowed to flourish in. … Imagine if gay people had been allowed to flourish in different institutions. We may not have been quite so restricted in the arts.

No-one has asked Greg why he spent years researching this particular book. No-one gives Greg the chance to step in here and explain he has concentrated on the arts because as well as being an Emeritus Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies, his area of expertise happens to be literature and culture. What else would he write about? Leave the influence of LGBT people in science and engineering, or the security services, to someone else. There are other scholars to do this work. And yes, scholarship – even if sometimes privileged – is necessary for the progression of the modern world.

As for it being lesbians and gay men, rather than bi and trans people, who have been permitted to indulge in the arts, I think we need to go back and check the historical facts and context. Who is doing the excluding here? Stonewall has worked very hard to integrate the B and the T into its equality work and I don’t think it helps anyone that Ruth draws attention to such a distinction at this moment. Many of the people Greg writes about were known to have relationships across boundaries of gender. In today’s terms, some might be identified as bisexual and others, given a longer life in the modern world, may well have felt more comfortable with a trans or genderqueer identity. It is this fluidity of gender presentation as well as sexuality which Greg would hope to explain has so influenced (and possibly ‘liberated’) the modern world.

Indeed, he does try. Greg is beginning to explain (with references) the important stage between the wars when “homosexuality was seen as being very modern, and modernity and homosexuality went hand in hand”. Only he gets cut off by Sarah who seems to have agreed an agenda in advance with Ruth.

There is a palpable sigh from the studio when Greg quotes someone not many listeners will have heard of. No – I haven’t come across this Icelandic novelist either. But I do understand that just because we haven’t heard of them doesn’t mean these ideas don’t exist. It is part of the work of the LGBT professor to uncover our history. It doesn’t even have to be done in an academic way. I believe it is part of my life’s work to uncover LGBT history. I would hope this is part of Stonewall’s work too. In fact, this is a time when we should all recognise we are in this together.

Just as Greg begins to introduce the appeal of wider presentations of gender available within the arts, citing the character of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Sarah encourages Ruth to interrupt him. Perhaps the Today programme has already decided this is a conversation heading down the road of male literary privilege. I think we would get somewhere else if Greg was allowed to continue, as I know him to be a feminist who ensures that reviewers are reminded there are also women in his book. But for now Sarah and Ruth have the microphone …

In a certain area, in a certain genre, gay people, as now, are considered to be very fashionable and that was the case in those inter-war years. Of course what it ignored was a huge population of gay people living in poverty, living outside these regions who weren’t allowed to be cool. I think gay equaling fashionable is a very overly simplistic analysis of gay people’s place in modern Britain and it kind of presumes that gay people didn’t have a role in any other area of life. And I think it’s sometimes a little romantic to consider that LGBT people took this role.

But there’s another thing that struck me as well – sorry. [Greg], you’re talking about gay people liberating the modern world. Surely there are so many gay people who perhaps even now don’t feel liberated.

No, quite. I think if you had the income, the independent means and a penchant for poetry, then you probably did play some part in the modern cultural world but the reality is most LGBT people don’t have that luxury. Also it suggests that most LGBT people grow up thinking that the arts is the only area for them, and as a young lesbian the only thing that The Well of Loneliness struck me as was an utter depression about my possible future identity. The Well of Loneliness is probably the single most dull book, for a young lesbian coming out in the 90s certainly.

I don’t believe Greg is implying that LGBT people are all liberated now. That’s a misreading of the book’s title. Greg says himself he is “not for a moment suggesting that all gay people are liberated and have been since the 1920s. I mean, that’s ludicrous.” Instead, he is making visible the efforts of some LGBT people who have encouraged the modern world to break free from some of its restricted viewpoints – particularly around gender – and to question constructions of social and cultural norms.

Clearly lesbians have not flourished that well (or not famously enough) in the arts if the only example of lesbian literature Ruth could find to read in the 1990s was Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. This is exactly why we need Greg’s book to keep more examples of LGBT cultural production alive today.

I did manage to find other examples in the 1980s when I was first coming out. I read books in order to learn about other books, and then I did my best to track them down. I did this through libraries mainly. Books were all I had. Lesbian role models in my life felt non-existent. Lesbian appearances on TV and film were rare and there was no internet.

Books and the arts kept me alive. I didn’t see this as a luxury. There are other novels from the 1920s onwards that Ruth could have been reading. I write about a few of them in my 1989 undergraduate dissertation which has a decent bibliography, even if I say so myself. Yes, I unashamedly hoped to have my own little literary and lesbian influence on modernity, and I couldn’t have done it without the pioneers before me.

I enjoyed Greg’s defence of The Well of Loneliness. It has its admirers, is held in “high esteem and in great warmth and affection by a lot of lesbian women, even now” and it has an incredibly iconic role in lesbian culture. Greg suggests this is “to do with the very fact of Radclyffe Hall writing about woman-loving women. But also, I think, about the offering of a different way of inhabiting one’s gender. This matches the portrayals of camp gay men in male writing. This idea that you didn’t have to be a feminine woman. That seems to me to be a very important aspect of the influence of gay culture.”

It’s important that we’re not all the same. I also feel it’s important to emphasise that one person won’t react to one book in the same way at all stages of their life. That’s part of what makes the arts exciting. We get to determine who we are.

If we didn’t have anyone writing about, making films, taking photographs of different gender presentations and same-sex love, where would we be today in 2016? What books would Ruth have to turn to then? Where would Stonewall be without the arts?

None of us would have a platform to speak from a LGBT perspective if we weren’t prepared to acknowledge what may have been produced out of ‘privilege’. This doesn’t have to marginalise or deny other experiences and struggles. The modern world needs those mentors in order to get to the point where more books are on shelves and where there is a move to greater equality, so that anyone with access to the internet in a democratic country can now publish their art to the world or comment via social media.

When Greg first introduces his book, he manages to say that the Hominitern is “a camp joke” and not intended as anyone’s enemy. It’s certainly not the enemy of the modern LGBT experience.

A new book on LGBT history and culture which helps readers find other books and works of art is good for us all. Isn’t it? Maybe it can help to promote “acceptance without exception”. All I wanted was for Ruth and Sarah to acknowledge that.

[I go on, I know. I use a lot of words. But that’s what us literary types with a penchant for poetry are like … Get over it! I will, now that I’ve written this … ]

4 thoughts on “Some of us are Literary: Get Over It!

  1. Excellent dissection of the cross-currents that went on during that interview, and the wider issues that rippled through it.

    • Thank you for validating my analysis of this interview. There are too many struggles elsewhere for there to be petty in-fighting within LGBT communities. I couldn’t understand the need for Today to try to set up a counter-argument out of context.

  2. You are right in every way Nicki. I have just listened to the relevant section of Today and felt let down by the failure to let listeners know about Greg’s book. He is a wonderful man. It’s time for some pride in the LGBT world – in being literary and cultured!

    • Thanks David. Why shouldn’t we be proud of being literary and cultured? I want Ruth to join in, too, now I’ve learnt she studied English at Oxford University. Why not be proud of who you are? I also understand how five minutes on a radio show doesn’t show the best of anyone.

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