We need to discuss ‘bad gays’ like Nazi monster Ernst Röhm just as much as the good ones
Bad Gays is a podcast series and book hosted and written by by Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller about evil and complicated queers throughout history. Miller and Lemmey will be in conversation at Brighton’s Coast is Queer festival on Saturday 8 October. For PinkNews, they explain why the history of homosexuality is much more complex than we like to think.
When it comes LGBTQ+ political trailblazers, we are spoilt for choice.
There’s Harvey Milk, the San Francisco supervisor who fought against homophobic discrimination in alliance with other marginalised people. Or there’s the queer Black feminist Angela Davis, a brilliant abolitionist activist and professor.
The internationally-minded might choose Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the former Icelandic prime minister and the world’s first openly gay head of government.
Yet the person who could be provocatively described as the world’s first openly homosexual politician was far from a hero. He was Ernst Röhm, an early member of the Nazi Party and the leader of Hitler’s brown-shirted, street-fighting fascist militia, the SA.
Proud of a social and sexual identity that rejected women as unsuitable partners for a masculinist warrior caste, either on the battlefield or in the bedroom, Röhm saw, as his biographer Eleanor Hancock has demonstrated, little contradiction between his political ideals and his same-sex desire. While that desire did not stop his ascent through the Nazi ranks, it did provide the pretext for his assassination in Hitler’s purge of the SA in 1934.
To our contemporary ears, such a life seems counterintuitive, even bizarre. While academic and activist conversations have long since moved on, most mainstream gay rights advocates – and most LGBTQ+ people – subscribe to the idea that homosexuals represent a stable and eternal minority, a minority that was eternally oppressed and then, in the 20th century, found its way to civil equality.
It’s a comforting fiction. Faced with discrimination and stereotyping, people classified as homosexual – the category has only existed since the mid-1860s – have excavated the past to find heroes and icons.
Yet an equally important historical and activist project (think theorist Michel Foucault, writer, sex worker, and labor activist Amber Hollibaugh, and the late and dearly departed activist historian Jeffrey Escoffier) has countered this search for heroes with an attempt to understand homosexuality as what it is: one specific and contingent structure for same-sex desire and love.
Like all good history, this approach is both more true and less boring. Gay and lesbian people aren’t “born this way” – a myth that understands homosexuality as, fundamentally, an affliction – and we don’t act in pre-set ways, heroic or abject, cowering or courageous. Our lives and stories are stranger and more powerful than that. But to tell that history, we need to discuss the bad gays like Ernst Röhm just as much as the good ones. We need to talk about gay villains.
After all, what is the story of Oscar Wilde, the literary star and aesthete whose trial and spectacular downfall gave the British public one of their first clear images of what an openly gay man was, without the complementary story of his impetuous young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, better known as Bosie? It was Bosie’s licentious, libertine lifestyle that first attracted Wilde to him, a lifestyle borne of his adherence to the idea of a new sexual type emerging in Europe at the time, the ‘uranian.’
The uranian, to simplify, was thought of as a third sex, a woman’s soul contained within a man’s body (or vice versa). Today few would regard this as the accurate description of a homosexual man or woman, yet these were the early roots of a self-consciously gay sexual identity – roots that demonstrate conclusively the ahistorical, cynical foolishness of present-day gays and lesbians who would abandon trans people based on the phobic lie that it is possible to separate the histories of same-sex love and of gender identity.
Uranians (unlike many other early proto-gay and proto-trans ways of being) emerged from a middle and upper-class, white European cultural milieu. The phrase “the love that dare not speak its name” was first coined in Bosie’s poetry, and Wilde’s fate was sealed by the conflict between Bosie’s ideals and those of his violent, aristocratic conservative father, the 9th Marquess of Queensbury, whom Bosie encouraged Wilde to sue for libelling him as a sodomite.
The problem, of course, was that Wilde was a sodomite. A sentence of hard labour broke Wilde’s body, and Bosie’s callous cruelty broke his spirit, drawing to a premature end one of Ireland’s greatest literary talents.
Bosie moved on to a career peddling vile antisemitic conspiracy theories and died in the final days of World War II, unmourned. Yet his life is as illuminating, if not more so, of the formation of homosexual identity as Wilde’s.
Some bad gays’ lives were more complicated than pure evil. The Irish anti-colonial activist and journalist Roger Casement travelled through the Congo keeping two sets of diaries. The first set documented the atrocities he witnessed in what the historian Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja has demonstrated to have been near-genocidal, if very profitable, Belgian colonial rule.
In his second set of diaries, Casement documented each of his sexual encounters in the colonies, including precise annotations of each man’s anatomical attributes and how much he paid for the encounter.
These trips were taken on behalf of a British colonial regime that commissioned Casement’s reports in an attempt to falsely depict itself as a kinder, gentler colonizer. After Casement came to a deeper understanding of Britain’s own colonial violence and attempted to run guns to the Irish nationalist Easter Rising, the British authorities didn’t hesitate to turn on him: He was sentenced to death for treason.
A story like this, with its nearly infinite ethical complexities, can tell us so much more about race, power, empire and gay identity than simple sanitized stories about gay heroism.
Even LGBTQ+ people’s desire to look to the Classical past for heroes will often turn up morally complex figures, and figures whose sexualities do not correspond to homosexuality as we understand it to exist today.
The Roman emperor Hadrian lived in a world whose sexual regime was governed by ideas about status and hierarchy in which same-sex contact was acceptable so long as the higher-status man penetrated the lower-status one.
Married to a woman, Sabina, for his whole adult life, he conducted a disastrous love affair with his younger friend Antinous which ended in Antinous’ possibly ritual drowning on a Nile river cruise, and subsequent deification. But this sexual regime had its own taboos and regulations: Julius Caesar was mocked not for engaging in same-sex activity, but for having sex with men of similar status, and more shameful, for having been the receptive partner.
A closer look at the nature of same-sex love in the society in which Hadrian lived complicates the idea of an unchanging thread of homosexuality that passes through history, sometimes suppressed and sometimes celebrated but always looking and feeling the same.
Remembering the bad gays of history in their full detail doesn’t redeem them, nor need it fuel popular bigotries and conspiracy theories.
While homophobes and transphobes demand we simplify our understanding of sexuality and gender down to a few inherited and uncritical assumptions, an LGBTQ+ movement based on justice and solidarity is surely strong enough to realise that human beings, in their loves, hatreds and desires are more complicated than that. Our rich, varied and sometimes horrible history certainly suggests so.
If we understand being gay as neither an affliction nor a blessing but simply a way of being that, like every other social institution, is shaped by the structures of race and class and gender, then all of us, gay and straight, can see the world more clearly – and fight for a better one. The villains of the past, strangely, might point the way to a just future.