The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘Bad Gays,’ historical figures are products of their times

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Every marginalized group struggling to find its way toward equality will inevitably wrestle with the question of who gets to tell its stories, what voices and perspectives within the group should be elevated and spotlighted to accurately reflect the truth of its existence. Authors Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller sidestep that question to ask an even more pointed one: What stories should we be telling about ourselves? They suggest an answer in “Bad Gays,” a contextual history based on the popular podcast of the same name, about “the gay people in history who do not flatter us, and whom we cannot make into heroes: the liars, the powerful, the criminal, and the successful.”

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At a time when a conservative Supreme Court is signaling its willingness to revisit questions of privacy and self-determination long considered settled, and the rights of LGBTQ people to live their lives freely remain an open debate, a book telling the stories of some of the worst gays in history might seem ill-timed. But Lemmey and Miller argue that stories like these are more crucial than ever. “The history of homosexuality is a long history of failure,” they write. “Failure to understand ourselves, failure to understand how we relate to society, and the failures of racism and exclusion.”

The title “Bad Gays” is a bit of a misnomer, however. These are the stories of gay and queer people who did terrible things and held terrible views, but the bulk of these histories are less about “evil” gays and more about gays who reacted to the world around them, sometimes in shocking ways, sometimes in destructive ways, but quite often in the only ways that made sense to them, given the times. This approach is especially helpful in framing the lives and choices of people like Frederick the Great and notorious Italian Renaissance satirist and blackmailer Pietro Aretino, well before the idea of gayness as an identity existed. The authors express an acute understanding that people have always lived in a stew of history, and they situate each of their subjects not just within the ideas and attitudes of their day, but also within the legal and religious constraints that defined them as outcasts and abominations. Still, the authors never forget that they’re talking about conquerors and colonialists, racists and antisemites, criminals and conspirators, from Hadrian to Ronnie Kray to Roy Cohn.

Some of the subjects selected, like Victorian sex worker Jack Saul or 20th-century star anthropologist Margaret Mead, might raise an eyebrow at first, but the authors make the case against every one of them, with the precision of a surgeon and the zeal of a prosecutor. Absolutely no one in this book gets a flattering portrait, which is as it should be. Context is provided for choices and actions, but the authors take every one of their subjects to task for their racism, misogyny, genocidal actions, predatory natures and all-around bad behavior if not bad taste.

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The book is at its most biting when assailing a bad gay person’s aesthetic choices. Roy Cohn’s houses are described as being “well-stocked with young, blonde men draped over the furniture or in the pool,” and there is an acid aside about the architect Philip Johnson’s musical tastes: “like so many [slur for gay men] before him, he was captivated by the music of Wagner.” The authors don’t forget that it can be fun to be faced with the stories of so many awful queers, one after another, partially because of a long-standing gay tradition of shade and gossip: a tradition in which they occasionally indulge, to the book’s benefit. It also feels like a bracing slap in the face to the “Love is love” corporate logo form of gay identity and an acknowledgment of its limitations at a time when the rights of trans people to simply live their lives unimpeded is threatened and even the most conservative of hard-fought victories, same-sex marriage rights, could be in jeopardy.

The book is meticulously and exhaustively researched, taking readers through much of American and European history and walking them right up to the present-day conversations about cancel culture, critical race theory and anti-trans legislation, tying it all together in a way that’s satisfying but maddening in the relentlessness of its cyclical, repetitive truths. The language is crisp and at times appropriately sharp and openly critical. The points about nationalism, white supremacy, toxic masculinity and colonialism collectively influencing almost all bad gays throughout history are well made, but there are times when the chapters seem like a series of podcast episodes rather than a cohesive history. This can be seen as a feature, not a bug, however, giving the book an ease of use that allows readers to put it down or pick it up as it suits them.

The people who teach us history aren’t always historians

The book is anathema to respectability politics, drawing power from the stories of people who thought, said and did terrible things in their time. It manages this because the authors acknowledge the difficulties their subjects’ sexual and romantic orientation tended to bring upon them as well as the shortcomings of the form of gay identity that coalesced around them. Lemmey and Miller write that they wanted to convey “the story of the evolution and failure of white male homosexual identities,” a story that resulted in choosing rainbows over radicalism, in service to a strain of mainstream conservative equality that hampered and nearly crippled the liberation politics that gave it the space to exist. “Bad Gays” succeeds in its goals in every way, offering an infuriating, thoughtful, deliciously judgmental history of the very worst we had to offer.

Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez are the authors of “Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life” and hosts of the “Pop Style Opinionfest” podcast.

Bad Gays

A Homosexual History

By Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller

Verso. 368 pp. $29.95

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