Back to the Future: Escaping Sexology

My (highly attenuated) attention was recently directed to an LWT doc from 1981 available on YouTube . It compares the pre-war, pre-gay world of ‘sisters’ (‘musical’ friends you didn’t want to fuck) and ‘trade’ (‘normal’ working class ‘real’ men you really did), with the post-Stonewall, butched-up, Marlborough Man world of gay-on-gay early 1980s love action.

I can’t remember seeing it before, and the pioneering gay-interest series Gay Life that it was part of was originally broadcast only in the London area – when I was revising for my O-Levels in Yorkshire. But perhaps I somehow did, and it shaped my entire worldview – and so I naturally repressed the memory of it to protect my fond image of myself as my own man.

Gifford Skinner, the delightful old quean in tweeds talking in the first half about his 1930s sex life, is very much his own man – though it’s difficult now not to see him in a Harry & Paul sketch. He is here a living and still very lively link with London’s vanished world of ‘trade’: otherwise ‘normal’ working class young men and soldiers and sailors who would sleep with (usually middle or upper class) queers, for a few bob, a few pints, or just a few laughs. Born in 1911, the son of a publican, he would have been in his twenties in the 1930s, and 70 when the documentary was made. (Today – I can’t find a date for his death online – he would be 110 years old.)

What strikes me about Gifford’s reminiscing, apart from his wonderfully mannered way of talking – ‘My DEAR!’ – is how this veteran from an era of supposed sexual repression and rampant homophobia, guilt and self-loathing, talks so frankly and fearlessly, so matter-of-factly about his adventurous youth, and his enthusiastic and very definite desires. The opposite of how things are today in our ‘liberated’ age – when everything has to be ideologically-filtered and pre-censored in order to avoid offence and cancellation.

There’s the fixation on his fellow infant school-chums’ bottoms:

‘We did an awful lot of marching in those days – and I always used to look at the boy in front, his bottom, the crease came from side to side, I found it was absolutely fascinating’.

Followed by his adult love for ‘real men’ and ‘rough types’. And his attitude towards his ‘sisters’, exemplified in a typical exchange he recounted with one of his ‘bits of trade’ – who found it difficult to understand why he didn’t want to sleep with his friends:

‘“Why do you like going with me? Why don’t you go with one of your friends, they’re so elegant and attractive – like Jeremy?”’

‘“Oh MY GOD! I couldn’t go to bed with HER!”’

‘They always thought it strange that we would run the risk of taking a stranger back home instead… It was absolutely impossible. I couldn’t consider such a thing. I really liked the real thing or nothing.’

The ‘real thing’ was particularly guardsmen, who could be found in large numbers in Hyde Park on any afternoon. Where you could ‘spot them a mile off’.

‘They had to wear their red tunics when they were out, no civilian clothes were worn, magnificent red tunics. They looked very, very smart indeed – they were magnificent really. You would tell them a mile off. The colour was gorgeous against the green in Hyde Park!’

But perhaps his recollection that stays with me the most is his memory of how many of the military men had a mate or ‘oppo’ that they were ‘inseparable from’ – especially sailors. And so, they would both come back to Gifford’s, one of them sleeping in the living room chair while the chosen one spent the night in bed with the welcoming host. His lonely, cold, creased up, best pal listening to the sounds of magnificent giggly sodomy next door.

Also fascinating is the testimony of the late Dudley Cave, as an example of the 1940s-50s new-wave of self-identified ‘invert’, speaking from the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard phone room, having been one of the founding members since it was launched in 1974. (And where he was still working, and still being eminently charming and helpful to everyone, when I volunteered in the late 1980s – back when I still had some milk of human kindness about me).

Joining the army in 1941, aged 20, and distressed about his ‘abnormal’ desires, a sympathetic army psychiatrist loaned Dudley a copy of Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion in the Male, and he recognised himself within its pages immediately. Right down to the supposed preference for the colour blue and the ‘triangular’ pubes allegedly common to the ‘inborn’ invert or homosexual. Although some of Ellis’ notions seem laughable now – but perhaps no more so than some of the contemporary pseudo-science of congenital gay creationism – it helped Dudley be much more accepting of his sexuality. And in fact, set him on the road to become an advocate for gay equality after the war.

(Interestingly, according to this 2004 tribute by Peter Tatchell, Dudley who was a survivor of Japanese POW camps, found that homosexuality was ‘more or less accepted in the Army’, and contrary to the obsession that was to develop after the war, no one was disciplined for it – despite there being rather a lot of it going on – and the worst prejudice he ever experienced was being chided for ‘holding a broom like a woman’.)

The sexual historian Jeffrey Weeks also pops up in the second half of the doc. He isn’t quite as entertaining as Gifford – a very hard act to follow – but he is saying eminently sensible things about how the modern gay identity emerged out of the taxonomies of 19th sexologists, who ‘discovered’ a new species, ‘the homosexual’, making same-sexing a condition or essence rather than an act or sin. And how it is time to move beyond these rigid definitions that ‘don’t correspond to the range of desires of wishes or needs that they actually have’.

That, in other words, the pre-gay world of ‘so’ Gifford and his ‘rough’ chums had something going for it.

But the 1980s was to take no notice of Weeks, or Gifford. What actually happened was of course Aids and Thatcherism-Reaganism. Which largely succeeded in locking down the sexual openness and experimentation of the ‘gender bending’ early 80s and reaffirmed instead both the gay identity and its ‘pathology’. Quarantining queer desire in the queer body.

h/t James Sheen

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