We all need a history lesson. Young or old, it’s what came before us that defines us. The LGBT community is no different – We have to be educated about the people who fought for the rights we enjoy today and learn about those who still seek to take them away from us.
Acclaimed author and academic Gregory Woods has taken on that mammoth task of writing about our LGBT history. From the trials of the genius Oscar Wilde, to the often misremembered and misinterpreted Stonewall Riots – Through Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World, Gregory illustrates how the LGBT community redefined itself and impacted the world around it.
We caught up with Gregory to have a chat about his forthcoming book, his thoughts on how we as a community have been represented in the media, and why he believes gay culture deserves a prominent place in our history books.
Do you think the LGBT community knows their history? No, but I wouldn’t want to blame them for that. When did you last meet someone who was taught anything like that at school? When did you last see a decent historical programme on TV that included us? But it’s for this reason, because we don’t get taught about ourselves, that I think we have a responsibility to keep ourselves and each other informed. To that end, there are a lot of academics in the universities producing really exciting research about issues that concern us.
Your book’s webpage has a timeline which includes events up until Stonewall. If you had to add more recent, 20th and 21st century events which ones would you include and why? The obvious one would be the onset of the AIDS epidemic and the way politicians and the media responded to what was a health crisis with waves of recrimination and barely concealed hatred, instead of with sympathy and practical care. Section 28 of the Local Government Act was just the formal underlining of the point, and was the first anti-lesbian law ever to appear on our statute books—in 1988! More positively, there are the legal changes that have happened since then: equalisation of the age of consent, repeal of the law against ‘gross indecency’, repeal of Section 28, the introduction of equal marriage. But history isn’t just formal, public events. The biggest recent change to affect our individual daily lives has been the development of social media and our new existence in the world online.
What was the hardest part about writing the book? Originally it was twice as long, and even then it was selective. Our cultural heritage is much bigger than most people are aware of. For me, the problem was reducing it to a manageable scale. As it is, the book concentrates on Europe and America. There’s much more to be said.
Have recent movies such The Danish Girl, The Imitation Game and Pride in your opinion raised awareness of LGBT history? How do you think Hollywood has recently portrayed LGBT history and stories? Inevitably, yes. They haven’t necessarily done it with complete accuracy – but that’s not the job of the entertainment industry.
I loved Pride, perhaps because I’d lived on the edges of the story it told. I still have the badges. But it’s weird to find your personal memories have become history. However, Hollywood likes us best when we’re dead and gone. Then they can zhoosh us up with period detail. Look at Carol, for instance. I could barely see what was happening between the two women, for all the gorgeous frocks and cars. In its heyday, between the wars, Hollywood churned out a massive festival of High Camp, and not only in its musical comedies, even while banning the slightest mention of same-sex relationships. The American film industry is full of gay men and lesbians, always has been. If only we could feel confident that they would change things from the inside.
If someone were to ask you why we should even learn about history, what would you say? Two reasons. The first is to learn different ways of living as gay or lesbian from the very few ways we take for granted now. And the second is to understand that any social advance we’ve made can very easily and suddenly be reversed, without warning. As well as Homintern, this month I’ve published a collection of essays, The Myth of the Last Taboo (Trent Editions), mainly about the 1980s and 1990s and the development of queer culture as a mode of resistance to hatred. That was when the AIDS epidemic hit us and we hit back. I’d like to think future generations would learn from our political and cultural responses to the horrible adversity of those years.
How do you hope this book will impact readers, and maybe even academic studies? I’d like readers to understand that we don’t exist within narrow national boundaries. The culture of our existence—the science as well as the arts—has developed, over the last century or so, internationally. We have just as much to learn from gay men in Mexico City or lesbians in Beirut as from our own narrow background on this little Atlantic archipelago. We should feel free to steal ideas from our friends overseas, and they from us, so that we can contrive new ways of experiencing same-sex desire within the mundane confines of daily life.
They’re relatively safe, but they need to develop ways of being vigilant without becoming paranoid.
What kind of impact or influence do you think the current generation will have on future generations? I hope it won’t just be to vanish into virtuality, trolling each other to blazes while expecting in return the right to a perpetual safe space. They’ll be the first generation who could routinely get married, and perhaps to take that for granted. They’re relatively safe, but they need to develop ways of being vigilant without becoming paranoid.
You’ve said you’re not happy to be labelled as ‘just a gay writer’, as first and foremost you want to be recognised as just a writer. How does society rely on these ‘labels’? I’ve been writing about gay writing since I was a student in the 1970s. It’s been a necessary category, if only to help get the right books to the readers who need them. One of my main jobs as a critic has been to say to gay readers, take a look at this book, I think you might enjoy it. And I’ve no objection to my own poetry being called ‘gay literature’ if that gets it into the hands of readers who might like it. But if it’s just a way of ghettoising gayness in a dark corner of the library where no one else goes, count me out.
In 1998 you were appointed as the first Chair in Gay and Lesbian Studies in the UK. How has this impacted you personally? What were your roles? In the university, my role was a conventional one of teaching and researching in gay studies. I did get a lot of both students and academic staff coming to me for agony-aunt types of advice. I was never very confident that I knew how to help them. Email being what it is – or was –, I used to get messages from all over the world, from people asking for help with their research, or just wanting me to reassure them about things to do with their being gay. It was a sort of accidental ambassadorial role.
What do you want GT readers to take away from your book? Dare I be old-fashioned and say Gay Pride? It’s hard not to be moved by both the joy and the hardship we see in our past, and by the sheer volume and variety of our contribution to modern culture, even when informal prejudice and more formal social structures were heavily weighted against us.
Also, I hope I show a huge variety of types of experience, different ways of living one’s life, even when people were having to be discreet about it. We can learn a lot from the people I describe. Same-sex doesn’t have to be same-ethnicity, same-class, same-age, same curtains, same hairstyle, same lifestyle. We’re not all genetically pre-disposed to the same American-capitalist identity. This, too, is something I wrote about in The Myth of the Last Taboo. There are different ways of doing things, varied around the globe and across history. We haven’t necessarily got everything right.