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The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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Category: homosexuality (page 1 of 3)

Gayspotting, ‘Gaydar’ & the Gaga Doctrine

Mark Simpson feels the gay bumps and lumps that betray the ‘gay brain’

Everyone loves Spotting The Gay. It’s a fun game the whole family can play.

Scientists seem to love it too. There have been a number of studies in the last decade or so that claim to demonstrate that ‘gaydar’ – the name implying microwave-accuracy we like to give to gut-instinct gayspotting – exists.

Though the results are not exactly stunning: only a bit better than chance, even after excluding bisexuality and pretending the world is neatly and helpfully divided half and half into heteros and homos. 10% more than chance is certainly ‘statistically significant’ in a laboratory, but not really the kind of accuracy you would trust to land your jumbo jet.

In fact, a series of intriguing recent studies by William Cox and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have suggested that even that accuracy, modest as it is, has been massively overestimated because a major flaw in the mathematics of previous research. Given the low incidence of homosexuality in the general population, 60% accuracy in the laboratory where subjects are 50% gay/straight translates into 93% inaccuracy in a real world in which 95% of the population are straight.

You really wouldn’t want ‘gaydar’ anywhere near Air Traffic Control.

Moreover, their research claims to debunk the whole concept of gaydar as nothing more than a legitimising myth for stereotyping. They argue that stereotyping is not, in general, an accurate way to judge sexuality and showed the more you validate the stereotyping the more people jump to conclusions.

Participants in one of their studies were asked to judge whether men were gay or straight based on whether they had interests that related to gay stereotypes, like fashion, shopping or theatre. Others had interests related to straight stereotypes, like sports, hunting or cars. Those who were told gaydar is real stereotyped much more than the control group and participants stereotyped much less when they had been told that gaydar is just another term for stereotyping.

I’d add here that in a sense inaccuracy is the point of ‘gaydar’. The ‘false positives’ are what it’s really targeting – it’s a system of surveillance. Gay stereotypes, particularly in regard to male homosexuality, are not so much aimed at gays, as at men in general – gayspotting is actually about spotting and discouraging male gender non-conformity. That 60% ‘accuracy’ claimed in previous studies means that for every 100 people, there will be 38 straight men incorrectly labelled gay, but only three gay people correctly labelled. Result!

Cox et al conducted another, slightly hair-raising experiment to show how stereotypes work. They had participants administer electric shocks to a male subject in the other room: ‘Participants learned only one thing about this other person, either that he was gay or simply liked shopping.’

Prejudiced people tended to refrain from shocking the man who was confirmed as gay, but delivered extremely high levels of shocks to the man who liked shopping. The researchers conclude that this experiment shows how stereotyping can give people opportunities to express prejudices without fear of reprisal. You can imagine them explaining: But, but… I didn’t electrocute The Gay!.

I would go further. I would say that it indicates how non-gay men who like things that are ‘gay’ are nowadays frequently safer targets for prejudice than (out) gay men – and as I say, homophobia, while particularly bad of course for gay men, is mostly about controlling the behaviour of non-homo men, of which there are a much larger number. So Cox et al’s shocking experiment was in effect a study in (American) metrophobia – I’m gonna fry that metrosexual faggot!

It’s not just straight people who like stereotypes, however. Gays can be even keener on gayspotting, and even more convinced of their unerring accuracy. Especially if the subject is hot or famous. And if they’re both then, my dear, there’s no question. Sometimes it almost looks like a re-enactment of their own childhood – though this time around they’re the ones shouting GAY!! (See much of Perez Hilton’s career.) Though in tests, les-gays, for all their skill at reading ‘gayness’ are only marginally better than straight people at gayspotting. Which is to say, only slightly less rubbish.

I know my gaydar’s rubbish – and I’m always the last to know. But even that knowledge doesn’t stop me from making snap judgements about strangers that are: a) entirely subjective, and b) really none of my fucking business. I can’t help but wonder if the fascination with spotting something is directly related to one’s actual incompetence. After all, if you were any good you would probably get bored with the game very quickly indeed.

And people are anything but bored with gaydar. My good chum Martin Karaffa first drew my attention to the flurry of publicity surrounding the recent paper, ‘Deep Neural Networks Can Detect Sexual Orientation From Faces’ (Yilun Wang, Michal Kosinski). The attention the paper received was not surprising, bringing together as it did dating profiles, Artificial Intelligence and ‘gaydar’. COOL!

‘AI Can Tell If You’re Gay From a Photo, And It’s Terrifying’, screamed one typical headline.  Typically false, that is. AI can’t tell from a photo whether you’re gay or not, and the authors of the paper don’t really claim to have achieved that. Additionally – and I know this will come as a terrible disappointment to many – they are very sceptical about the very concept of ‘gaydar’ as most people understand it, and in fact provide further evidence of its rather severe wonkiness (more on that later).

For their study they seem to have harvested profile photos of (white) men and women from an (unnamed) dating website, labelled them ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ according to the gender of the partner they said they were looking for, and then taught a computer to Spot The Gay – or rather, choose from pairs of photos of men or women where one was ‘gay’ and one was ‘straight’, which one was more likely to be ‘gay’. (I’m using scare quotes here because by the authors’ own admission, they themselves assigned the sexuality of the people in those photos – and, naturally, excluded bisexuality as a category.)

Under these carefully controlled conditions the AI guessed right 81% of the time for men and 71% of the time for women. Which sounds impressive, and is certainly significantly better than previous human judges studies, but it’s important however to remember again that the starting point for each pair of photos is 50% – the probability of guessing correctly by chance.

Some have critiqued the reporting of the paper and the paper itself  – particularly the way it seems to resurrect the once-fashionable 19th Century pseudoscience of physiognomy and phrenology, where an individual’s character is supposedly ‘written’ into someone’s appearance – the size of their nose, the bumps on their head.  The equally old-fashioned (but recently re-fashioned) biological theory it calls on, in this case the theory that homosexuality is the result of endrocrinal abnormalities in the womb, has also been questioned.

According to prenatal hormonal theory (PHT), gay men are gay because they didn’t get enough testosterone in utero and are thus ‘feminine’ or improperly masculinised. Lesbians are lesbian because they got too much and have thus been butched. In a sense, homosexuality doesn’t really exist – just hormonally-confused heterosexuality: masculine goes for feminine and that universally. (Though it seems to me this theory fails to account for how gay men can be attracted to other gay men – who would have to have the same ‘feminine’ orientation, psychology and appearance and thus be doubly or triply unsuitable love-objects.)

The paper’s authors Wang & Kosinski describe PHT as ‘widely-accepted’, which seems like something of an overstatement. Besides, the most recent PHT study rather embarrassingly failed to find that gay men were exposed to less testosterone than straight men – falling back on speculation that gay men might be ‘less sensitive’ to testosterone. (It did claim to find however that lesbians were exposed to more testosterone than straight women.)

What Wang & Kosinski say they did for their study was train their AI to look for ‘feminine’ features and behaviours in men and ‘masculine’ features and behaviours in women. Hence their claim that their findings help confirm the PHT theory of sexual orientation – and obviously they believe that this is a ‘good thing’.

Our results provide strong support for the [prenatal hormone theory], which argues that same-gender sexual orientation stems from the underexposure of male fetuses and overexposure of female fetuses to prenatal androgens responsible for the sexual differentiation of faces, preferences, and behavior

As a lay person it appears to me that for a number of reasons they’re wrong to claim confirmation of PHT, but were absolutely right to imagine they would be thanked for this claim in an era when essentialist ideas about sexuality are in vogue – as much as, paradoxically, essentialist ideas about gender are not. You can apparently choose your gender now, but your sexuality absolutely has to choose you.

So Kosinski himself, responding to criticisms of his study from GLAAD and others who described it as ‘junk science’ claimed it supported LGBT rights:

“It’s a great argument against all of those religious groups and other demagogues who say, ‘Why don’t you just change or just conform?’ You can’t stop, because you’re born this way,”

And he has a point, though perhaps not the one he thought he was making. In the US, where this study was conducted and where the culture wars rage (and thanks largely to social media are increasingly being exported to the UK, whether we want them or not) the God/Darwin made me this way tendency – what we might call the Gaga Doctrine – has dominated liberal and ‘progressive’ discourse for some time. Largely because it seems to represent an irrefutable and ‘immutable’ answer to the religious right moralism of ‘it’s a choice!’

But in addition to being, as Kosinski’s deployment of the argument demonstrates, not actually very progressive (‘I can’t help myself!’) but rather a reaction to reactionary ideas, this determinist approach is anyway very likely also doomed to failure. Establishing a predisposition for same sexiness – the most you could reasonably hope for, and even then not in all cases – is not enough for the Gaga Doctrine. Because with predisposition, as the word suggests, experience is decisive. The whole point of being ‘born that way’ is to get rid of all of that messy stuff called ‘life’.

And Kosinski isn’t the one resurrecting dodgy physiognomy, it’s already been galvanised Dr Frankenstein style – by ‘progressive’ scientists who want to in effect Spot The Gay in the womb in order to prove that homosexuality is congenital – a ‘third sex’. Often scientists who are themselves gay and on a quest to prove they were ‘born that way’, baby. (Kosinski has just had more publicity than most – and possibly been more clumsy than most; and since he is not gay himself is easier to attack.)

So tenuous claims about gay hair whorls, gay drivers, gay index fingers, gay genes and gay brains are to be welcomed because they reveal God’s amniotic plan for sodomy – a kind of gay creationism. Likewise ‘gaydar’ studies that ‘out’ the inborn gay essence in gay faces. Hence the public support for the study provided by a prominent gay scientist, fervent believer in ‘gay brains’ and author of a book called ‘Born Gay’.

To a non-believer like me – it offends my amour propre to think my sexuality is in effect nothing to do with me – probably the most interesting aspect of the ‘AI gaydar’ study is that it goes out of its way to point out how poor actual humans are at gayspotting, despite the allegedly decisive effect of that allegedly faulty amniotic fluid. In other words, the AI gaydar study torpedoes gaydar as it is understood by pretty much everyone.

They point out that the ‘gender atypical’ nature of gay men and lesbian faces they claim to have shown are only an average aggregation of ‘subtle’ differences – and not applicable to all gay men and lesbians. Most relevantly, and most disappointingly for many, they state: ‘Our results in no way indicate that sexual orientation can be determined from faces by humans.’

They even ran their own large human judges study – asking men and women from the US to choose between two photos of two men (and two women), one gay/lesbian and one straight – selecting the one more likely to be gay/lesbian. 50,000 pairs were used for each gender. They achieved an accuracy of 61% for men and 54% for women – ‘comparable with the accuracy obtained in the previous studies, which range from approximately 55 to 65%’.

They conclude that this ‘confirms that humans are rather inaccurate when distinguishing between facial images of gay and homosexual [sic] individuals.’

Regarding their own AI study, which of course had significantly better results, they allow this criticism:

‘It is possible, however, that facial images posted on a dating website are particularly revealing of sexual orientation. Perhaps the users selected the photos that their desired partners might find the most appealing.’

No shit, Sherlock.

In fact, part of the reason why they ran the human judges study was to try and prove that there was nothing especially ‘revealing’ about those pics – the fact that the human viewers scored similar (poor) rates to earlier studies demonstrates this, they believe.

Along with many other critics, I’m not so sure. Photos posted for a same-sex date/hook-up on a (presumably mostly hetero) dating site are almost by definition presenting you in a certain way, even if the human eye wasn’t (consciously) picking it up. Otherwise, why post them? They are self-selected photos uploaded by self-selecting homos: out enough to put their faces on a dating website, and one used by mostly straight people. And also by ‘gaydar’ researchers who may or may not have been breaching the dating site’s confidentiality rules.

It does seem to be the case however that the AI here successfully picked up what the human eye didn’t. Though exactly what the AI was doing seems to be a bit of a mystery, as apparently is the case with AI and algorithms generally. What’s evident though is that the data processed was not just ‘fixed’ or inborn facial features, as much as these can anyway be reliably measured from self-posted photos on a dating website, but also what the report calls ‘expressions’ and ‘grooming styles’. (Interestingly, Cox’s studies debunking gaydar – strangely unmentioned in this paper – found that ‘gaydar’ was largely an artefact of the happenstance that gay and lesbian self-selected photos tended to be of better quality than ones used by heteros: once this was eliminated there was no ‘gaydar’ effect.)

The authors cover themselves here however by claiming that they weighted facial features more heavily (something currently impossible for anyone else to verify), and postulating that anyway the ‘gender atypical’ expressions and grooming of their ‘gay’ subjects was probably also down to the fact they weren’t exposed to enough/too much testosterone in utero. Gay grooming is, in other words, also a product of faulty prenatal grooming. PHT theory is almost womb-like in its all-enveloping-ness.

In a statement that for me draws perhaps the biggest question mark over their whole study they also claim that they found that gay men were less likely to have facial hair than straight men. And again wonder whether this might be down to, you guessed it, insufficient pre-natal man-horms.

I don’t know about you, but now I really want to know now what this dating site was where they found all these clean-shaven horny gay men. For the last decade or so – and long before straight men started growing beards en masse, following in fact gay men’s example – it has been practically impossible for a gay man to get laid in metropolitan areas without face-fur.

They also offer this ‘revealing’ nugget about baseball caps:

‘consistent with the association between baseball caps and masculinity in American culture…, heterosexual men and lesbians tended to wear baseball caps (see the shadow on their foreheads)’

So now we know their AI was definitely measuring things that are not ‘inborn’. No one is delivered wearing a New York Yankees cap – not even a lesbian positively marinated in amniotic androgens.

It may be true that out gay men generally don’t seem to be terribly fond of wearing baseball caps – especially when trying to get laid on a straight dating site. But perhaps this has less to do with any underexposure to testosterone than an overexposure to fashion sense.

The Homosexual is 140 – And Showing His Age

Karl Maria Kertbeny

The father of the metrosexual Mark Simpson on the birth of the  homo- and hetero- sexual era

(Out, September 2009)

As you may have noticed, the out-and-proud modern gay, born amidst protest, shouting and flying bottles outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969, is now forty years old. But you may be less aware that this year is also the 140th birthday of a much more discreet and distinguished (if pathologized and sometimes pitiful) figure that Stonewall is often seen as making obsolete:

The homosexual.

The offspring of Austrian-born Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny, the homosexual was delivered to the world in a couple of pamphlets he published anonymously in 1869 arguing against the Prussian anti sodomy law Paragraph 143 – the first appearance in print of the word.

Kertbeny argued that attraction to the same sex was inborn and unchangeable and that besides, the law violated the rights of man: men should be free to do with their bodies as they pleased, so long as others were not harmed. Kertbeny maintained strenuously that he himself was ‘sexually normal’ (and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise, save perhaps his strenuousness).

Kertbeny’s ‘homosexual’, itself a disapproved conjugation of Greek and Latin, was part of a larger classificatory system of human sexual behaviour he conceived which included quaint terms such as ‘monosexuals’ (masturbators), and ‘pygists’ (aficionados of anal sex), most of which have not survived. However, another of his quaint categories has persisted and ultimately proved even more popular than the ‘homosexual’: the vast majority of people in the US today would happily and perhaps rather too hastily describe themselves as ‘heterosexual’ – despite the fact that the ‘father’ of heterosexuality, as Jonathan Ned Katz has pointed out in ‘The Invention of Heterosexuality’ (1995), seemed to conceive of heterosexuals as more sex-obsessed than homosexuals and more open to ‘unfettered degeneracy’.

Words like most offspring have a life of their own of course, and in this case one that worked against the coiner’s intentions. Despite Kertbeny’s libertarian if not actually homo-chauvinist sentiments, we might never have heard of the ‘homosexual’ (or indeed the ‘heterosexual’) if the word had not been adopted by Richard von Krafft-Ebing a few years later as a diagnosis for mental illness, setting the medical tone for much of the coming Twentieth Century with its aversion therapies, sex-lie detectors and psychiatric water-boarding.

Kertbeny’s double-edged legacy isn’t just the coining of the word ‘homosexual’, but helping to invent ‘sexuality’ itself: the very modern idea that there are different species of people constituted by their sexual preference alone – ‘heterosexuals’ and ‘homosexuals’ (and ‘bisexuals’ as an exception-to-prove-the-rule afterthought). Kertbeny invented the homosexual because he considered the other available terms, ‘pederast’, ‘sodomite’ and ‘invert’ too judgemental. He also saw no link between homosexuality and effeminacy – which he didn’t mind being judgemental about: he detested it.

As the brilliant sexual historian David Halperin puts it in his book ‘How To Do the History of Male Homosexuality’ (2002), pre-homosexual discourses referred to only one of the sexual partners: the “active” partner in the case of sodomy; the effeminate male or masculine female in the case of inversion. ‘The hallmark of “homosexuality”…’ he writes, ‘is the refusal to distinguish between same-sex sexual partners or to rank them by treating one of them as more (or less) homosexual than the other.’

The concept of the ‘homosexual’, medicalized or not, ultimately made possible the rise of the out-and-proud gay man, regardless of his own ‘role’ in bed or gender style, and also a gay community of equals. But it also tended to make all sex between men, however fleeting, however drunken, however positioned, ‘homo’ – along with all the participants, regardless of their sexual preference.

With the paradoxical result that there’s probably now rather less erotic contact – or in fact any physical contact at all – between males than there was when the homosexual was born, 140 years ago. The homosexual, in effect, monopolised same-sex erotics and intimacy.

Which is, frankly, a bit greedy.

This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

Edward Carpenter – The Utopian Uranian

Mark Simpson on the forgotten ‘English Whitman’

On his 80th birthday in 1924, five years before his death, the socialist Utopian poet, mystic, activist, homophile, environmentalist, feminist and nudist Edward Carpenter received an album signed by every member of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Cabinet. Glowing tributes appeared in the socialist papers as well as the Manchester Guardian, the Observer, the Evening Standard and even the Egyptian Gazette.

He was hailed by the philosopher C.E.M. Joad as the harbinger, no less, of modernity itself: ‘Carpenter denounced the Victorians for hypocrisy, held up their conventions to ridicule, and called their civilisation a disease,’ he wrote. ‘He was like a man coming into a stuffy sitting room in a seaside boarding house, and opening the window to let in light and air…’.

In the early Twentieth Century Carpenter was a celebrity, a hero, a guru, a prophet, a confidant: an Edwardian Morrissey, Moses and Claire Raynor in one. Multitudes of men and women – but mostly young men – had beaten a path to his door in his idyllic rural retreat-cum-socialist-boarding-house in Millthorpe, near Sheffield to sit at his vegetarian, be-sandled feet, or take part in his morning sun-baths and sponge-downs in his back garden.

Soon after his death, however, his charismatic reputation faded faster than a Yorkshire tan. By the middle of the century he was the height of fashionability, and regarded by many on the left as a crank. When that manly Eton-educated proletarian George Orwell decried the left’s habit of attracting ‘every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England’ everyone knew whom he was dissing.

Today very few would. Despite his extensive writings, despite – or perhaps because of – the way many of his causes and indeed much of his lifestyle have become mainstream, and despite the brief renaissance of his works with the gay left after the emergence of gay lib in the 60s and 70s – a movement which he appeared to predict – and a hefty, worthy and yet also fascinating new biography by the feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham (Edward Carpenter: A Life of Love and Liberty; Verso) notwithstanding, it sometimes seems as there’s almost nothing left of Ted, as his friends called him, save his beard and sandals (he seems to have introduced sandal-wearing to these shores). He’s become the Cheshire cat of fin de siècle English Utopianism. In fact, one could argue, and I will, that the thing that connects most of us with Carpenter today is EM Forster’s arse.

George Merrill, Carpenter’s uninhibited Sheffield working-class partner touched Forster’s repressed Cambridge backside during a visit to Milthorpe in 1912:

‘…gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most peoples. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long-vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving any thought.’

Inspired by Merrill’s tykish directness, Forster, went home, sat down on his probably still-tingling buttocks and wrote the first ‘gay’ novel Maurice, which famously featured a love-affair between Scudder the sunburnt and impetuous groundsman Alec and the uptight, middle-class Maurice. Though it wasn’t to be published until after terminally timid Forster’s death, DH Lawrence saw the manuscript and was himself touched: Lady Chatterley’s Lover is in many ways a heterosexualised Maurice. And of course, when Maurice was made into a film in the 1980s starring James Wilby and Rupert Graves succeeded in making millions of rumps, male and female, tingle at a time when homosexuality, as a result of Section 28 and Aids had become a major cultural battleground.

Before Merrill, Edward Carpenter’s buttocks had been touched by the American sage Walt Whitman and his passionately romantic poems about male comradeship, frequently involving working men and sailors, whom he travelled to the US to meet (though it is unclear whether here the touching was literal or metaphorical). Carpenter became a kind of English Whitman figure, though more outspoken on the subject of toleration of same-sex love than Whitman ever dared to be in the US – if not, alas, nearly as fine a poet (another reason why his work hasn’t endured).

Lytton Strachey decreed sniffily that Alec and Maurice’s relationship rested upon ‘lust and sentiment’ and would only last six weeks. Whatever Merrill and Edward Carpenter’s relationship was based on – and Robotham argues that it was rather complicated and not what it appeared to be – it lasted nearly 40 years, and was an inspiration to many.

Carpenter was nothing if not sentimental, when he wasn’t being just patronising. He described Merrill as his ‘dear son’, his ‘simple nature child’ his ‘rose in winter’ his ‘ruby embedded in marl and clay’ and delighted in Merrill’s lack of guilt about ‘the seamy side of life’. Raised in the Sheffield slums and without any formal education Merrill was almost untouched by Christianity. On hearing that Jesus had spent his last night on Gethsemane Merrill’s response was “who with?”

It was Merrill’s – and the innumerable other working class male lovers that Carpenter had both before and after meeting him – lack of ‘self-consciousness’, or perceived lack of it, that attracted Carpenter, who was born into an upright upper middle class family in Hove, Brighton (and it was his sizeable inheritance that financed his purchase of Milthorpe and his comradely life in the North). He was drawn to the working classes because he saw them as rescuing him from himself – as much as he was rescuing them.

‘Eros is a great leveller’, Carpenter wrote in The Intermediate Sex. ‘Perhaps the true democracy rests, more firmly than anywhere else, on a sentiment which easily passes the bounds of class and caste, and unites in the closest affection the most estranged ranks of society’. He observed that many ‘Uranians’ ‘of good position and breeding are drawn to rougher types, as of manual workers, and frequently very permanent alliances grow up in this way.’

It’s worth pointing out that even Wilde and Bosie’s relationship, which was to cause Forster and many other homosexuals at that time such grief, was based on their mutual enjoyment of rent boys. Carpenter disapproved of such exploitation, but it’s not impossible to imagine Wilde, or one of his characters, jesting that people like Carpenter were socialists only because they didn’t want to pay for their trade.

Robotham to her credit doesn’t shrink from pointing out the limits of Carpenter’s socialism: ‘Carpenter never queried his own tacit presumption that the lower classes and subordinated races were to be defended when vulnerable and abject but treated with contempt when they sought individual advancement.’ To this it could be added that if Carpenter succeeded in abolishing class, then with it would be abolished the interest in the working classes of men like Carpenter. Each man kills the thing he loves.

What though was working class youth’s interest in Carpenter? In a word: attention. It seems they were flattered to be singled out and treated with casual equality by a gent, and an attractive, charming one at that. One young lover wrote of Carpenter: ‘You feel inclined to get hold of him as a boy would his mate’ and talked of his ‘Handsome appearance – his erect, lithe body, trim and bearded face, penetrating eyes and beautiful voice.’ Carpenter was to continue attracting young working class men to his door well into silver-haired old age.

Carpenter had a contradictory view of homosexuality, seeing those exclusively attracted to their own sex as psychically androgynous ‘intermediates’ like himself who were ‘born that way’ – but also as harbingers of a new age, the cultural ‘advance guard’ of socialism in which a Utopian androgyny would be the norm. Not everyone shared his enthusiasm for a future world of Carpenters. George Bernard Shaw for one was enraged by the idea that ‘intermediacy’ should be recommended to ‘the normal’ as the desired way to be.

EM Forster described Carpenter’s mysticism as the usual contradiction of wanting ‘merge with the cosmos and retain identity’ at the same time. This in fact described pretty much everything, from Ted’s attitude towards comradeship and homosexuality, class and socialism, and even Millthorpe where he would write standing in a sentry box he had built in his garden while his ‘retreat’ was overrun by guests.

His championing of androgyny and female emancipation also had contradictions. Robotham describes his horror and disgust at the androgyny of a Siva statue he witnessed on a mystical visit to India as being ‘akin to the disgust he had felt at seeing the female nudes in a French art gallery…’. For Carpenter, ‘acceptable femininity consisted of lithe gay men and supportive, tom-boyish sister figures.’

Carpenter’s works were taken up by the gay libbers and New Left in the 60s and 70s partly because of his rejection of male and female sex-roles and also because of his proto-gay-commune lifestyle in Millthorpe, with his open relationship with Merrill (and also several local married men). For Carpenter, the personal was political long before it became a lapel button.

But in the 1980s gay lib was replaced by gay consumerism, ‘intermediates’, particularly many working class ones keen to advance themselves, turned out to be the vanguard not of a back-to-basics socialist Utopia but of High Street Thatcherism. The mainstreaming of ‘lifestylism’ happened largely because it was divorced from politics – and Carpenter – and became about shopping. Which would have horrified Ted who had an upper middle class disdain for ‘trade’ (the shopkeeping kind).  Lord only knows what he would have made of the consumerist androgyny of the metrosexual.

Perhaps the most lasting and pertinent thing about his life is a question: How on Earth did the old bugger get away with it? How did he avoid a huge scandal? How did he end up so lionised in his old age? Especially when you consider what happened to Wilde?

The answer is probably the same reason for his lack of appeal today. His prose now seems often strangely precious and oblique and replete with coy, coded classical references. Worst of all for modern audiences, he necessarily downplayed the sexual aspect of same-sex love. His most influential work Homogenic Love, published in 1895, the first British book to deal with the subject of same-sex desire as something other than a medical or moral problem, rejects the word ‘homosexual’ ostensibly on the grounds that it was a ‘bastard’ word of Greek and Latin, but probably because the Latin part was too much to the point.

Class helped too: when the police threatened to prosecute some of his works as obscene he was able to scare them off with an impressively long list of Establishment supporters. Even his live-in relationship with Merrill was often seen as one of master and servant (and in fact that’s how Merrill, who was financially dependent on Carpenter, was legally described).

ESP Haynes suspected that Carpenter might not be as simple as he presented himself, that his mysticism ‘gave him a certain detachment which protected him against prosecution as a heretic’. To which Rowbotham drily remarks: ‘As for the non-mystical Merrill, he just tried out the idealistic admirers’. (Or as that other Northern vegetarian prophet Morrissey was to sing many years later: ‘I recognise that mystical air/it means I’d like to seize your underwear.’)

Whatever Carpenter’s survival secret, it’s rather wonderful for us that he did, and although his haziness may be part of the reason he fades in and mostly out of consciousness today, as Robotham concludes her sympathetic yet clear-eyed study: ‘One thing is certain, this complicated, confusing, contradictory yet courageous man is not going to vanish entirely from view.’

(Independent on Sunday, 5 October, 2008)

Born Gay or Knitted That Way?

Great piece by the brilliant Irish columnist Dermod Moore in Dublin’s Hot Press about the BBC John Barrowman doc about the ’causes’ of his homosexuality called The Making of Me – or rather, The Making of MEEEEE!.

I couldn’t quite bring myself to watch the doc myself which I’ve had on HDD for months because a) I’ve seen enough Barrowman to last me a lifetime, and b) I’ve written plenty on this subject already.

Though maybe I would have watched it if the doc had been about what makes Barrowman such an annoyingly ubiquitous musical theatre queen.

Which reminds me of my favourite Two Ronnies joke:

Big Ron: ‘My mother made me a homosexual.’

Little Ron: ‘Really?  If I gave her the pattern would she knit me one too?’

Gay Men As Bad As Women (But Not As Bad As Psychobiology)

by Mark Simpson

(Guardian CIF, Sunday January 6, 2008)

It’s official. The scientists have finally proved it. Gay men are as bad as women.

Or as the Daily Mail puts it in a somewhat unnecessarily long headline: “Gay men are as bad at navigating as women“.

The Daily Telegraph headline was a little more direct: “Women and gay men are ‘worst drivers‘”.

Actually, this wasn’t what the researchers into spatial learning and memory at Queen Mary’s (no, really, that’s actually their name) College claimed at all, but I say why allow the facts spoil a good headline? Or Jeremy Clarkson column?

What the researchers did actually claim however was that both gay men and women appear to “share the same poor sense of direction and rely on local landmarks to get around”.

That would be cottages and shoe shops, I suppose.

According to the Mail, a study of 140 straight and gay, male and female “volunteers” by Queen Mary College, London claims to have found that “gay men, straight women and lesbians navigated in much the same way and shared the same weaknesses.” For South American Chardonnay and men’s buns, perhaps?

But hang on a minute. And lesbians? What are they doing lumped together with gay men and straight women? I thought that if gay men are women trapped inside men’s bodies, lesbians were supposed to be trapped inside an articulated lorry cab with their feet on the dashboard smoking roll-ups.

But as you read on it dawns what this sophisticated psychological test was really assessing. “The Queen Mary team, led by Dr Qazi Rahman, used virtual reality simulations of two common tests of spatial learning and memory developed at Yale University.”

Ah, so they played computer games. Not very good computer games, by the sound of it:

In one, the Morris Water Maze (MWM) test, volunteers were placed in a “virtual pool” and had to “swim” through a maze to find hidden submerged platform … The other task, the Radial Arm Maze test (RAM), involved finding “rewards” by exploring eight “arms” radiating out from a circular central junction. Four arms contained a reward and four did not, and participants had to avoid traversing an arm more than once.

Well, maybe it’s because I’m gay and dizzy, but you’ve lost me already. I want to log on and hunt for meaningless sex for hours via my scores of online profiles. You can keep your rather tedious reject Xbox game.

There may well be generalised differences between men and women when it comes to driving or other spatial based activities, such as computer games (men seem to play them rather more than women, though often with straight men this appears to be a way of getting away from women). And these may well have some relationship to sexual orientation, though what we mean by sexual orientation is a question in itself – after all, bisexuals are not mentioned in this survey. But it doesn’t appear that this study has shown it – instead it has merely shown up some cultural prejudices (e.g. that Telegraph “worst drivers” misleading headline).

Even the findings of this study appear to confirm gay men’s role as confusers of assumptions about gender. The leader of the Queen Mary team is quoted as saying: ‘”Gay people appear to show a “mosaic” of performance, parts of which are male-like and other parts of which are female-like”‘. So in other words, gay men watch porn, leave toilet seats up but also do a spot of dusting.

Perhaps though the disoriented gay men in the study weren’t gay men at all, but pissed-up fruit flies escaped from another scientific study published this week, which claimed to show that alcohol produces “homosexual tendencies” in male fruit flies. The researchers claimed the amorousness the flies showed one another after repeated exposure to alcohol is a model for how alcohol lessens inhibitions in humans.

I suspect this is one claim that isn’t terribly controversial.


It has been pointed out to me since this piece appeared that Dr Quazi Rahman, the man behind the study which claimed to have ‘discovered’ similarities between gay men and women’s brains, is the author of a book called ‘Born Gay’. If only snarky commentators like me could learn to be as objective as psychobiologists.

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