History, Alan Bennett’s History Boys tells us, is ‘one fucking thing after another’. Watch the trailer for the film adaptation and the word becomes ‘bloody’, apparently protecting the delicate ears of film audiences who presumably lack the more robust attitude of a theatre audience. So it is that students studying the play, watching the film, or even just the trailer startto get a skewed view of what was said. History – the telling of things past – becomes reconstructed
My mind turns to this on a morning which sees The (London) Times reports (£) that the British Museum ‘banned’ ancient Chinese artefacts from a book on the gay history of the world because it did not want to jeopardise negotiations for a Ming exhibition. The Times goes on to report that ‘Mr Parkinson, who was a senior curator at the museum but left to become Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford, also criticised the museum shop’s postcard of the Warren Cup, a Roman drinking c
up featuring images of male sex acts. He said that it was almost impossible to produce an image of the cup without showing some of the sex but that the museum had managed it.’
We seemingly live in a world in which homosexuality is increasingly accepted, but ‘male sex acts’ – now somehow divorced from homosexuality are increasingly silenced.
It’s not just the British Museum that seem prone to some re-writing of history. The last few weeks have seen curious fall-out from the surprise resignation of Ben Summerskill as Chief Executive of Stonewall. He ran the leading gay rights organisation between 2003 and 2014. This was a period which represented enormous legal change in the UK. A period that saw the repeal of section 28 (the reason for the foundation of Stonewall), new goods and services protection, employment law protections, other equality provisions, civil partnerships and same-sex marriage. He might – one could presume – be heralded as one of the greatest gay rights campaigners in history. Yet he wasn’t viewed as such during his time in charge and his record has been challenged by the media and campaigners upon his departure. Even Stonewall – in their appointment of an acting CEO, Ruth Hunt, and her attempt to strike a different tone saying there as a need for “lots of conversations” – have offered a tacit acceptance that something and gone seriously wrong during his tenure. I’ve been on the record for criticising what I regarded as an organisation with an overly assimualtionist agenda, and one out of touch, and reluctant to listen to the people they seek to represent. Put simply, an arrogant organisation that has lost their way. That’s not to say, it’s all bad, but there is a need for dialogue (which Hunt has suggested) and change (which she has not suggested). Hunt of course must initially navigate the appointment waters, clinching the permanent job (if she wants it) or clearly defining herself so that she can get an alternative role in the organisation or elsewhere if that’s her desire. As such, it’s hard to be optimistic or otherwise about the future of Stonewall until a new vision is set out by the next permanent CEO.
Interestingly, it might be history which is proving the obsession of Summerskill who now finds himself with apparently too much time on his hands. He’s been busy seemingly burning bridges and alienating allies in the days since his resignation. This has led to a rather public spat with the immensely talented head of Pink News, entrepreneur, former Channel 4 news presenter, Benjamin Cohen. He described Summerskill as a ‘thorn in his side’ during the campaign to introduce same-sex marriage.
Summerskill was criticised by some in the LGBTQ ‘community’ as an establishment figure, more interested in wining and dining than listening and campaigning. It’s particularly ironic that his latest eruption appears to have been prompted in part by not being invited to Stonewall’s Equality Dinner. Stonewall was forced to deny accusations by its former chief executive Ben Summerskill that Jacqueline Davies’ departure as chair of the board was a result of being pushed from the role (see here), and also apparently alleged that Ruth Hunt had insisted he shouldn’t be at the dinner. Whether true or not, his divisive behaviour would surely be reason enough to keep him well away from donors.
It is the same-sex marriage campaign – which Cohen in part led in the absence of leadership from Stonewall – which Summerskill has also been keen to justify. Initially Stonewall had suggested that civil partnerships were ‘enough’, and then later appeared to sail in, supporting the same-sex marriage campaign and appeared to suggest it had been campaigning for it all along. In a recent BBC documentary, Summerskill appeared to explain the reason Stonewall had been so ‘cautious’ was that 10% of lesbian and gay people re opposed to same-sex marriage’; a baffling rationale.
Summerskill has also found time in recent days to launch an attack on the Liberal Democrats, who he accused of being ‘cynical and opportunistic’ in their support of same-sex marriage. Again, baffling given the LibDems were the first of the main three political parties to support same-sex marriage – long before Stonewall. His interventions were perhaps designed to protect his ‘legacy’ (as he might see it), and define history in his image, but if that is the case, he’s made something of a bit of pigs ear of it – a view seemingly shared by former Stonewall Chair, Michael Cashman. Instead, he has ensured that he will be remembered as a leader of an organisation at a time of extraordinary social and legal change, but who too often appeared out of touch, and following rather than leading change. A man more interested in a Debenhams wedding list, than transformative reform. For Summerskill, it arguably seems amidst these spats and rows that it really is ‘one fucking thing after another’.
The Soldier and the Sauna
History is of course a contested legacy. Our understanding and view of history tells as much about where we stand, and the prism we are viewing it through as it does the events we seek to understand. In February, a new magazine for gay men launched. Called Winq, it inevitably tried to secure press coverage for the launch. It did this with a photo spread featuring the diver Chris Mears (the new Tom Daley for those who prefer their divers straight, less bottom-esque, or who might be just a bit bored of Tom – we’re a fickle lot), and it also featured a comment piece by former solder, now author (if in London, you could buy the book here), James Wharton.
Wharton, according to the Independent coverage of the story, suggested that you should ‘close down gay saunas’ if the LGBT community wants equality. The Independent reported that ‘Mr Wharton said that for gay lifestyles to be accepted as “the new normal” the community needed to avoid frequenting such establishments which he called “thorns in our side that mark our community as different for the wrong reasons.”
“If we don’t, we feed the haters and we hand the bigots who remain a vocal minority ammunition with which to attack us,” he said
“For me as a gay man, the notion that there exist within our communities a series of places that actively promote the convening of gay men for participation in sex of shades various and in groups of all sizes rather revolts me – and I ‘ve been round the block a few times, believe me. I’m no prude, not even close, but the days when we gathered in clandestine fashion for the want of a network or a sexual outlet are surely long gone,” he added.’
Those familiar with my queer theory and public sex work (or even just regular readers of this blog) will be able to imagine my despair at these sentiments – reminiscent as they are of those expressed by right-wing US politicians in the 1980s. Such is the prominence of what some call an assimilationist agenda, what I have described as the new homonormative, that I expected friends of Wharton and the media to all back the remarks. I was wrong, and amazed – in the best possible way – by the chorus of opposition to the remarks. Charities and campaign groups pointed out that such a move would not step men’s desire for anonymous and public sex. it will just make it harder to disseminate safer sex messages and support.
Peter Tatchell perfectly captured my view when he stated: “It would be very wrong if the gay community became proscriptive and moralistic over consenting adult behaviour.”
On Facebook and Twitter, people I expected to support Wharton, said he was wrong. There was a surprising defence of saunas, and thus one -albeit commercial – form of public sex. Homosexual males were – shockingly – guys who had sex with guys. An aspect that you might think obvious, but whether it’s the british library and their merchandise, Stonewall and their policy agenda or Wharton, it seems that to be a homosexual in 2014 is about anything but sex.
The socio-legal and political agenda is narrower, and homonormative. It’s a world of same-sex marriage, extravagant ceremonies (see a forthcoming Channel 4 doc) and men getting slightly too excited about a Kate Bush concert. Just don’t mention the sex. Yet, the sauna story gives us hope that history isn’t done just yet. Occasionally, history can fight back at attempts to revise and refine it amidst contemporary identity politics. History may well be one fucking thing after another, but sometimes – thankfully – it’s still about the fucking.