A commentary and resource on Law and Sexuality by Professor Chris Ashford and guests
For many readers, thoughts are probably turning to summer vacations and the books that you’ll attempt to read on some breach, balcony or back garden. I’ve started my reading early (but sadly not the vacation), working through three LGBT themed books in the last few weeks which some of you might be considering.
The first is Behind the Candelabra. Now perhaps better known as the title of the critically acclaimed HBO film, inspired by the book and which shares its name with Scott Thorson’s biography. First released in 1988, I never got around to reading it until this last month. The book seeks to explore the brief time that Thorson lived with Liberace as his employee and lover.
The book is an attempt to lift the veil on on the famous showman and closet case, Liberace. The pianist and entertainer was an international star, dying of an AIDS-related illness in 1987 at the age of 67. Thorson has had a troubled life, and just this week received a suspended prison sentence for burglary and ID theft.
The first thing that struck me about the book was how badly it is written. Much of the text is repetitive and at times lacks a clear structure or focus unable to separate out the trivial from the important. I also came to the book relatively familiar with the Liberace story, his closet homosexuality, decadence, the mother, mafia ties and so on so I was expecting few surprises, but I was expecting a fresh perspective. In that sense, the book did deliver and provided a sense of the absolute chaos that seemed to surround Thorson and Liberace.
For those less familiar with the Liberace story (and many law students will be semi-familiar via Liberace’s successful 1959 libel action against the Daily Mirror), the book will prove more revealing and of course, as a historic text, this book is certainly worthy of a read in order to gain some perspective of this period and the private freedoms that some could enjoy at this time of apparent repression.
The next book I moved on to was Damien Barr’s Maggie and Me. The book ended up being published at the same time of Margaret Thatcher’s death and I’d had it sat on my bookshelves inviting me to read it for a couple of months before I got around to it. Thatcher had inspired the title for this book, but the story was less driven by the presence of Margaret Thatcher than I expected.
Barr details life growing up in a working class community in Scotland in the 1980s, and he happens to be gay. The book charts Barr’s escape, inspired by a Thatcher inspired work hard, meritocratic, education focussed ethic, from Scotland and ultimately away to Brighton.
The book engages with themes of poverty, worklessness, education, social mobility, the 1980s recalibration of the British economy, class and values, sexuality and identity politics.
Put simply, this book is wonderful. It is beautifully written, carrying the reader breezily though its 245 pages. It is touching and funny in equal measure and I – perhaps because of my own journey – found Barr a character that was easy to relate to like immensely. Autobiographies more than any other sort of book ultimately come down to how we relate to and like a character. After reading this book, I loved Barr. Barr undoubtedly deploys his skills as a writer to manipulate you as the reader, but frankly, you don’t care because he does it with such aplomb. It is uplifting, inspiring, tragic, emotional and just bloody brilliant. If you only buy one book this summer, make it this one.
The final book I read was James Wharton’s autobiography. Wharton has become a symbol for out servicemen. He was the first openly gay person to appear on the front cover of Soldier magazine, the British Army’s official publication. He was deployed in southern Iraq, served with Prince Harry at the army’s training facility in Canada and performed ceremonial duties in a variety of major state occasions. The book has been hailed by many as an important and enjoyable book, and so it is. Like the Thorson book and in contrast to Barr, Wharton is not a professional writer and it does show. The book lacks the readability of Barr but I suspect will be far more likely to be read by students of history in another fifty years.
There is a charming naivety about Wharton. Repeatedly I found myself thinking how young, how simplistic and innocent his view of an issue might be or expression of a point. This was quickly followed by remembering just how young Wharton is (I think he’s around 26 now but the character in the book still seems like the young teen described at the start of the book). He grew up and reached sexual maturity in the army, undoubtedly shaping his character and outlook. The contrast between innocent and restrained observations in one sentence, followed quickly by some brutal military observation involving death and violence the next was particularly striking.
Perhaps because of Wharton’s clear loyalty to the army, or perhaps because his path crossed with that of Prince Harry, you do feel that Wharton is still holding back a lot. Take one silly example from early on in the book; Wharton describes attending his medical screening for the army and his pre-conceptions about what was involved. He writes (page 12) ‘I’d heard lots of stories about [the medical] from the many friends who’d been through the process before me and I was nervous about the dreaded cough and drop’ examination. Sixteen year-olds like to keep their private parts private. After about an hour with one of the doctors, I progressed through to the next phase: leadership’. Well, I wondered, did you cough, did you drop? What the hell happened in that hour? Wharton is a cough and drop tease.
Later on, there is reference to Attitude sending free copies of their magazine out to him – the magazine he was ultimately to appear on the cover of. He does explain that he wrote to them saying he couldn’t access but that’s all he says. It seems a bit of a coincidence, was some relationship forged, did Wharton target Attitude, did he think of a career beyond the army, did the idea of celebrity appeal in some way? Possibly, it was nothing more than wanting the magazine, but presumably they wrote at least one letter back to him given they sent the magazines. Again, you’re left feeling that Wharton is holding something back.
This brings me back to the observation I made earlier in relation to the Barr book and autobiographies more generally. They are about how you come to view a particular character and as important, and enjoyable as this book is in many ways, I felt that Wharton was keeping the reader at arms length and in doing so, we can only have an arms length view of Wharton.
Those in London may wish to support London’s first and last LGBT book store, Gay’s the Word by purchasing the books from them (I won’t financially benefit from you doing so, I’d just like to see them keep going) sand Wharton still seems to be doing a few singing linked to charity events so do try and do that if possible. You can also follow Wharton on twitter here and Barr here.
It has of course been an immensely historic month with the passing of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) legislation into law. Much of what I wanted to immediately say has been said by others so I’m going to take the Summer to work on a variety of projects, but also to take some time out, to read, to reflect, to re-charge and hopefully write something a little more meaningful about the marriage law later in the year. The next 12 months are also likely to bring my inaugural professorial lecture following my appointment at Northumbria University in May. My current intention is to use that public event to explore some of the next legal steps for sexuality and particularly ‘homosexuality’, and quite how we got to where we are.