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Brexit day / January 1864

I recently read a travel account by an English traveller that I couldn’t help but relate to what is going on in England now.

Brexit has finally happened. And a lot can be said about the people who voted for. But how can the poor Brits of today – and many of them are poor – how can they get it right, if even their wealthy forefathers often got it wrong?

Here’s a tiny example of what I mean.

John Addington Symonds (1840–1893) was a poet and a cultural historian. A man of considerable financial means, he got his education at Oxford. He was one of the most cosmopolitan Englishmen of his day, making frequent European journeys and living in Switzerland for years. Today, he is perhaps most famous for his praise and defence of love between men, although he also struggled with his feelings of same-sex attraction, and while falling in love with women several times in his life. Not your typical parochial navel-gazer, therefore. But all things are relative.

Symonds by an unknown photographer (late 1850s), Victoria and Albert Museum, PH.222-1983.

This well-read and well-travelled man, with his privileged education and his foreign-language skills, stayed in Rome for over a month in the winter of 1863–1864. And he wrote of this stay:

Stephens and I stayed at Rome until the 27th of January, seeing few people except George Miller, Richard Congreve, Dr Bridges, and the sculptor Story.

Few people? In Rome? For the duration of a month? Apparently neither local Italian women or (even) men, nor travellers from other countries, qualified as people. Or perhaps Symonds acknowledged their presence but did not consider them people that one ‘saw’. Meanwhile, the many professionals whom he must have seen during this period – the servants in the hotels where he stayed, the shopkeepers, the cooks, the waiters providing him with his other necessities –  did not count either.

All that counted were three Englishmen and a British American.

I know: easy for me to be flabbergasted, from my position as a non-English European. But my flabbergastation (Punch, 1856) might have been even greater had I not heard many similar pronouncements during the past ten years or so of having lived in England.

Perhaps it’s worth pondering, therefore, whether Symonds’s attitude is a mere incidental slip, the kind made by well-meaning people the world over; or whether it betrays a strain deeply embedded in English culture.

And if we go for the second interpretation, we might need to acknowledge that it requires an effort on the part of the ‘ordinary’ English voter to break away from this type of thinking. That does not relieve the Brexiteer from the responsibility to be a tad more open to other folk, learn their languages, watch their movies… But it has implications for the way the rest of Europe might most fruitfully approach the Brexit voter.

The excerpt is from The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, p. 239, edited by my colleague Amber K. Regis and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017.

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A bit gay

A small cactus has been taped to a lamp-post in our working-class town. A live cactus, pot and all. Next to it is a note, running something like this:

Jamie, you bastard.

Why did you have to go off and fucking die on me like that.

I was going to buy flowers but that would have been a bit gay for you. So I bought this one instead.

Miss you mate,

Steve.

The cactus and note are surrounded by flowers from other people. A small memorial.

It usually makes me angry when people leave off doing something because it is ‘gay’. But not this time. And not just because you don’t get angry with people who mourn.

It’s because underneath the thin layer of butchness, it is the most open expression of affection between men that I have seen in some time.

And it does not matter whether we call that gay, or homosocial, or whatever.

From an Hungarian stamp, photographed by Darjac.

From an Hungarian stamp, photographed by Darjac.

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Post-sexist toilet signs

It’s LGBT History Month: a good moment for an optimistic look to the future.

In a previous post, I showed how pictograms can perpetuate sexism. That one was mostly about female stereotypes, but the signs on toilets can also be a headache for people who don’t really see themselves as either women or men, and for people who are not seen by others as ‘real’ women or men (summed up in the ‘T’ in ‘LGBT’, for trans-people). But things aren’t all bad. In fact, they seem to be improving.

Here is what I recently found in a Belgian cafe:

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On the left: a unisex cubicle with a seat. On the right: a urinal. Hurrah!

Yet still designated with the well-known skirt/no-skirt pictures. And the phrase ‘gentlemen’ on the right; implying, perhaps, that those looking for toilets should turn left, and those looking for gentlemen will get satisfaction on the right?

Inside the cubicle, I found this etiquette:Image005

So no gender restrictions: no rules about what you must be; only about what you must do.

And how about the following sanitary convenience, spotted last week in an English cafe?

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Of course, this sign still refers to a binary choice. It says ‘whichever’, not ‘whatever’: ‘whether you are a woman, or a man, it does not matter.’ That’s why ‘post-sexism’ is an apt name for the stage many of us have entered: sexism still plays an important role in our lives, but we know how to distance ourselves from it from time to time.

To conclude with a more poetic interpretation of this last sign: someone in a summer’s dress, standing on the deck of a ship with winds coming from larboard?

More to follow…

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LGBTIHQQBDSMXYZ History Month

In the UK, we have just concluded LGBT History Month. Ironically, if we can learn anything from this month – by doing some history – it is to take its name with a pinch of salt.

LGBT History started out with the G. That is, post-war narratives tend to centre on gay men: both negative attention and emancipatory activism, landmarked by the Stonewall riots in 1969, have mostly focused on male nightlife. As the gay liberation movement developed, gradually the L was added, for example in Lesbian and Gay History Month, celebrated in the USA since 1994. Later on, the ensemble was completed with a B and a T. Surely, this covers all bases, institutions like LGBT History Month seem to suggest.

But it would only be fair to continue adding letters: if we have a T for trans*-persons (transgenders, transexuals, cross-dressers…), why not add an I for intersex? After all, the T focuses on gender identity rather than sexual preference. If we include the lives and struggles of people who are crossing the gender binary, than surely we should include those of people who move somewhere in between? And why not also include a B, a D, an S and an M to include other kinds of marginalised practices? (see footnote 1) And how about the H that is sometimes included in southern Asia to represent hijras?

Hijra communities are in fact a good example of how culturally specific all these gender/sexual identities are. And because of their specificity, it is problematic to subsume them under the Euro-American post-Stonewall denominations used in global activism. Activists worldwide quite understandably employ these denominations in order to have a language to speak in, not least to reach financial donors in the west. But I fear that such names do not much help the cause of people suffering under post-colonial governments which picture, for example, homosexuality as an intrusive western ‘lifestyle’: see the new law that came into effect in Uganda only last week.

But nor are they always equally appropriate within ‘western’ history itself. In Plato’s Symposion, for example, two different characters describe men who love men as being more masculine (as well as being more intellectually creative) than men who love women. The latter are the androgynous ones. This differs markedly from popular perceptions about gay men nowadays. (footnote 2) A quite different example are the ‘sodomites’ we encounter in high-medieval penitentials. A ‘sodomite’ could be a man who had had anal sex with a woman, or with a man: method mattered more than gender. And how about the category of medieval mystics who, in their erotic poems, desired nothing more than a spiritual unity with Christ? If we want to take this cultural and historical diversity into account, we might end up with a whole lot of identity categories.

Some have rightly questioned this explosion of compartmentalised identifications and call themselves ‘queer’. Yet in many quarters this has only led to the addition of an extra letter to the alphabet. This leaves the English-speaking world with a host of LGBTIQQ societies. That last Q, of course, stands for ‘questioning’.

Which is perhaps what we should be doing. For to narrow down our adolescence to the choosing of a letter (including an S for ‘straight’) can surely not be the most rebellious thing.

And yet, I would not want LGBT History Month to go away.

A question that has occasionally been asked to me since becoming involved in this topic, is why gay people feel the need to flock together in special bars and parades – which implies the question: why is there a separate LGBT History Month?

The answer may be obvious to anyone with alternative tastes in anything: you need such places to find what you are looking for (in this case it may be anything from conversation to romance or sex) and feel normal (need I say: in a special way). It is the burden of the marginalised that their tastes are not taken for granted and need to be specially signaled. In that sense, a gay bar does not differ much from a Comic Con.

Café ‘t Mandje in Amsterdam: meeting-place for same-sex lovers between 1927 and 2007; now reconstructed in the Amsterdam Museum, who provided the photo.

Café ‘t Mandje in Amsterdam: meeting-place for same-sex lovers between 1927 and 2007; now reconstructed in the Amsterdam Museum, who provided the photo.

These places thus fulfil an important function, as does this History Month. But we should not forget that this function is largely political. By forming a group and setting themselves visibly apart, people command recognition for their existence. What is more, people find safety and comfort in group identities. However diverse sexual and gender behaviours and feelings may be, the fact that people classify themselves and others is only human. (footnote 3) These reasons make people identify as, for example, ‘Russian’ or ‘taxi-driver’, just as they may make them assume gender identities like ‘woman’ or ‘drag queen’; or sexual identities such as ‘dyke’ or ‘married’ – although soon this will no longer be an exclusively heterosexual identity in England, too: the first same-sex weddings are to take place in March.

The point, however, is that if we limit ourselves to such categories, we limit our imagination. These categories create antagonisms and make it harder to empathise with others. Let this History Month be an opportunity, not just for people who call themselves LGBT, but for everyone, to learn from historical diversity and reconsider their own names and alliances.

Footnotes

(1) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has raised the question why gender should be the decisive dimension of our sexual identities (Epistemology of the closet (Berkeley, 1990), 8-9). It may have something to do with the prominence western cultures give to romantic ties, I suspect.

(2) In more formal terms, ideas about what sexual morphologies go with what sexual subjectivities, are constantly changing. These terms are taken from David Halperin’s famous essay on “Forgetting Foucault” (in the journal Representations, 1998).

(3) The pre-modern existence of sexual identities was one of the conclusions of a piece of research I did a while ago. It contradicts the more usual interpretations of Foucault’s history of nineteenth-century sexuality as describing the origins of sexual identity per se. A recent manifestation of this misunderstanding occurred in a Volkskrant interview with a medical doctor. If the newspaper quotes him correctly, he thinks that something only exists if you have a word for it. What is more, he seems to be unfamiliar with any such words that do exist, but outside the western medical profession, which popularised the word ‘homosexuality’ in the nineteenth century – as the name of a disease. Everyday words that people use to describe themselves or their desires, are ignored. Thus, these people and their desires themselves are ignored. In a typical twist, the opinion of those in power, such as presidents, are taken to represent the ‘true’ culture and heritage of a country like Uganda. While pretending to a liberating cultural relativism, such texts actually silence those people that are at this moment in the greatest need of having their say.