When thinking of queer historical figures, certain people come to mind: activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera; writers like Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, and James Baldwin; artists and performers like Frieda Kahlo and Josephine Baker. But what about the queers from the wrong side of history? Why doesn’t the queer community claim them too? If sexuality is central to how we understand the lives and accomplishments of our beloved queer icons, why not the antiheroes as well?
This is the question Bad Gays sets out to rectify. The book, based on Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller’s popular podcast of the same name, examines the lives of “bad gays” — a term that is a bit of a misnomer by design — by exploring how certain historical figures’ actions influenced those around them and how their actions, in turn, were influenced by their sexuality. By doing this, Lemmey and Miller subvert the typical way queer history and politics are usually talked about; this book is about villains, not heroes.
To be clear, Lemmey and Miller do not excuse the actions of any of the people they profile in Bad Gays. Rather, they seek to place each person within their appropriate historical context to better understand queerness through a historical lens. To ignore the bad gays of history is to ignore a crucial part of the queer past, Lemmey and Miller argue. It risks romanticizing an idealized version of history and stunts the forward momentum of queer liberation. The present is built on the foundation of the past, after all, and we cannot move forward until we reckon with it. “‘Gay is good,’ went the old slogan, but it’s no good at all on its own,” they write.
Lemmey and Miller gratifyingly believe in the intelligence of their readers. They don’t shy away from academic language and concepts, which bogs the book down in some places with an over-abundance of dry, rapid-fire facts and dates. Despite this, Bad Gays remains largely readable thanks to the tongue-in-cheek queer humor and comedic asides peppered throughout. This doesn’t lessen the severity of its content, as Lemmey and Miller never lose sight of who they are profiling. From colonizers to racists to fascists, not a single individual is let off the hook for problematic — or downright harmful— behaviour. Every person explored is held to account for their actions in a satisfying way.
Bad Gays begins with Roman emperor Hadrian (11-138) and ends with right-wing Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn (1948-2002). Although the book is broad in scope, covering nearly every corner of the globe, most biographies are of cis gay or bisexual men, except for one chapter about anthropologist Margaret Mead. This isn’t a criticism: Bad Gays does important work in exploring how the actions and behaviours of these people impacted individuals from marginalized communities and the broader queer community. The chapter on J. Edgar Hoover, for example, highlights Hoover’s role as an architect of the white supremacist surveillance state. As director of the FBI, Hoover placed prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance — a period of intense Black American intellectual and cultural revival after the First World War — under intense surveillance and later attempted to suppress the civil rights movement.
The politics of power and privilege are frequent themes in Bad Gays. Profile after profile reveals how often these people opted to act in their interests — or against them entirely, in the case of Ernst Röhm — rather than in solidarity with the broader queer community. Röhm, a close friend of Adolf Hitler, was one of the co-founders of the Nazi’s infamous SA troops. The Nazis, along with being fascists and white supremacists, were also known for being violently homophobic.
For Röhm, his politics and sexuality weren’t at odds; he saw hypermasculine gay men like himself as different from other, more feminine gay men. His masculinist homosexuality co-existed perfectly alongside his fascist ideology. Lemmey and Miller draw a link between this type of homosexuality to the contemporary “Masc 4 Masc” culture that exists on dating apps like Grindr. This doesn’t mean that these gay men are fascists, but it does exemplify how they privilege masculinity above femininity and androgyny.
Bad Gays is full of similar stories about individuals with economic and political capital failing to use their power to further the cause of queer liberation. This is perhaps most clear in the section dedicated to the AIDS epidemic. As Lemmey and Miller explain, the introduction of AIDS treatment therapies in the late ’90s caused a massive schism in the American queer community. These therapies split the community in two: on one side, those who could afford treatment (largely wealthy white gay men and lesbians), and on the other, those who could not (namely, Black queer people and working-class people).
For these white, wealthy gays and lesbians, the arrival of AIDS treatments meant queer solidarity had served its purpose, and they had no more use for it. Instead, they turned their backs on the rest of their community in lieu of pursuing assimilation into mainstream middle and upper-class society via marriage equality. Lemmey and Miller explain that these betrayals have crippled the queer liberation movement. They call for a better approach to queer liberation rooted in true solidarity.
We do not get to choose who we are but we do get to choose how, and with whom, we dance: what queerness, what faggotry, what transness, what gender trouble and abolition will be for us and with us and to us. The past is still with us; the revolutions of the queer future beckon.– Bad Gays
The argument for solidarity is the most compelling part of Bad Gays — a starting point that I wish was expounded on just a bit more so we could more clearly envision the alternative future Lemmey and Miller hint at. Bad Gays succeeds in radically rethinking queer history in an enticing, thought-provoking manner, but it much more than that. As Lemmey and Miller write in their introduction, Bad Gays is ultimately an act of love — most criticism is, after all — and this is made clear in how compellingly Lemmey and Miller write about their vision for the future. Ultimately, this book is a project of demystification and an act of love.
“The history of homosexuality is a long history of failure – failure to understand ourselves, failure to understand how we relate to society, and the failures of racism and exclusion,” they write. They are both unabashedly pro-revolution, anti-reform, and believe there is a better way forward. Understanding the history of failure — the failure of gayness as a political identity, the failure of queer solidarity, and the failure of queer liberation thus far — is crucial to paving the way to a better, brighter, freer future.