August 2009 | Growing up Gay

Foreword to Queers in History

Growing up as gay was difficult in post-war UK. To begin with, in a land where homosexuality was illegal, we had to accept the laws and language of others to define ourselves. We were criminal and queer and consequently liars and unhappy. In the 1940s, the only public acknowledgement of our sort was in the regular slimy sensations in the Sunday tabloids. Even famous nancy boys like Noël Coward, Dirk Bogarde, Benjamin Britten et al kept their sexuality secret. And beyond them in history, the one incontrovertible queer, Oscar Wilde, was shameful and a warning.

At home, I was silent about lack of girl friends and I moped. At church, such things were never mentioned. Nor at school, where even sex education was limited to the bees and the flowers they pollinated. So no-one was on hand to recommend the wise and beautiful words of Sappho, Edward Carpenter, A.E. Housman or Walt Whitman: and I felt really alone, with no-one and nothing to belong to.

The cracks in society’s homophobia, which I was cruelly encouraged to share, only appeared with Peter Wildeblood’s 1955 report on his homosexuality and imprisonment in Against the Law. Ten years on, there had been a small relaxation of UK law and Joe Orton’s openly gay plays were produced in the theatres of London’s West End. Then in 1969, the Stonewall riots taught us that we could and should begin to stand up for ourselves, not only in a Greenwich Village bar but right across the civilised world.

The subsequent avalanche of books by gay people about themselves and all of us may seem an unnecessary indulgence to well-adjusted heterosexuals, though even they have much to learn from the lives of gay people. For those who have ever felt abandoned by history and plagued with injustice, this latest sample of gay experience will be a comfort and a joy.

As you turn the pages, you may gasp “I never knew!” and “Surely not” and “Listen to this!”. Keith Stern is a rare historian, who reports his findings with wit and passion and he can be trusted. But if one or two of the names entered in his engaging list are doubtful about their inclusion, perhaps they won’t, on reflection, object much to being between the sheets with Michelangelo and Armistead Maupin–what could be cosier?

Ian McKellen
London, 2009

Queers in History by Keith Stern is published by BenBella Books in the US

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