Monday, August 18, 2008

Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957

(Matt Houlbrook, University of Chicago Press, 2006)

The beautiful image on the cover seduced me into buying this book (and I felt the need for some educational reading). It’s a fascinating read; most enjoyable and informative. I loved the way Houlbrook itemises the particular geography of queer London, and has even sourced photos of historic queer places (largely from police records, it would appear). Knowing where these old clubs, bath houses, urinals etc actually were will definitely add another dimension to my experience of London.

The book is (fairly obviously) based on his PhD thesis, so is written in full-on academic-speak. Houlbrook does manage to enliven this jargon-heavy discourse with some wit and flexibility; I just feel an opportunity to reach the general reader has been missed. There is certainly enormous human interest here, and loads of original research. As it was, I felt like a student at the back of queer-studies class.

My other issue is that he imposes an off-the-peg Marxist analysis on the history: not particularly convincingly, in my view. Slippery queer men evade the class categories he constructs for them at every turn. He nostalgically looks for a moment when the [queer] proletariat storms the gates of the Winter Palace – the closest incident he finds is a massive police raid on a proto queer club-night in a Holland Park Street Ballroom run by “Lady” Austin for her “Camp Boys”, in the 1930s. The police gained undercover entrance to this by dragging up and passing as queer. One policeman enthusiastically boasted about “trading twice” with “my boyfriend” – this part was subsequently suppressed at the trial.

Houlbrook clearly shows the camp boys had a vocal and articulate critique of their arrest and the laws which led to it. However I think he overemphasizes the differences between the camp boys and middle-class ‘respectable homosexuals’: the camp boys clearly were trying to keep their night as private as possible, given that the police had to go to extreme lengths to gain entry. Moreover, the camp boys clearly supported the abolition of the Act, following the call of the middle-class Oscar Wilde and prefiguring the middle-class 'respectable homosexual' lobbyists at the Wolfenden commission.

These lobbyists clearly did create a mythical ‘respectable homosexual’ – but surely as a deliberate ploy to counter the demonized stereotypes then prevailing in public discourse. They needed to speak the language of the law-makers in order to persuade them to change the laws.

In the end, the tragic Lady Austin saga had no effect on the liberation struggle one way or the other. By contrast, the arrest and trial for cottaging of the middle-class war-hero, sportsman and public schoolmaster Frank Champain (at midnight, in one of London’s most notorious urinals under the Adelphi arches just off the Strand) had a dramatic effect on police activity after Mr Champain was spectacularly acquitted on appeal.

It is quite clear that he must have been totally guilty, but his solicitor skillfully spun his arrest as police entrapment and this so enraged the appeal judge he berated the policeman involved. The police were so cowed by this that arrests for cottaging fell dramatically after this trial and stayed well down for years afterwards. So, by helping to minimize persecution during a lengthy period of oppression, this has to be counted a small tactical success.

In the final analysis, the Camp Boys protested but did not physically fight their arrest – very much unlike the New York Stonewall Bar gays of decades later. Stonewall became an iconic and liberating moment for gays all over the world. Why didn’t this happen at the Holland Park Ballroom? - are our police less brutal? are we too respectful of the law? Whatever the answers, it would seem that the European reformist strategy has overtaken the activist tradition in the States. Despite the explosive and psychologically liberating Stonewall moment, America today is massively behind Europe in awarding equal rights to its gay citizens – and even has a fundamentalist and activist right-wing trying to turn the clock back even more.

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