FEBRUARY 25, 2018
GREGORY WOODS begins his bold and original book Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World with an uneasy joke made by Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx. In an 1869 letter, he remarked that, “[t]he paederasts are beginning to count themselves and find that they make up a power in the state.” “Only the organization is lacking, but according to [the booklet Incubus, by early homosexual emancipist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs] it already exists in secret.” For Engels, the thought of an underground network of queers flexing their political muscles behind the scenes is both absurd and threatening. What, other than their furtive trysts, might these people be plotting in the shadows?
In this wide-ranging study spanning from the Oscar Wilde trials in the 1890s to the gay liberation movement of the late 20th century, Woods demonstrates that this paranoid fantasy of a clandestine queer underground has been a persistent feature of the modern heterosexual imagination. Yet, daring to take it seriously, Woods tells a history of cultural modernity that focuses on interconnected queer cliques and coteries that, taken together, formed the backbone of the modernist movement that revolutionized the visual, literary, and performing arts. Rather than presenting it as an organized conspiracy against hetero hegemony, though, he imagines the 20th-century gay avant-garde as a single transnational network, one with a “consistency of purpose” that “cohere[s] as a single narrative of lives lived against the grain.” Dubbing this the “Homintern,” a play on the “Comintern,” or Communist International organization founded by Vladimir Lenin in 1919, Woods grounds his history in a simple yet subtle claim: that ever since the invention of “homosexuality” as an identity category in the late 19th century, and the simultaneous rise of individuals who began to identify themselves as “homosexuals,” those who desire their own sex have been obliged to keep those desires hidden from public view. This forced them to create clandestine connections for intimacy, support, and comradeship. Yet because of this socially enforced secrecy, many straight people came to see homosexuals as deliberately and inherently disingenuous. They seemed to present a deceptively “normal” public image that masked the perverse pleasures they indulged behind closed doors. Much like the communists with whom they were often associated, the Homintern was believed to have no allegiance to any nation or culture beyond itself, and hence was inherently opposed to the State and to the commonly held values that hold society together. “The willingness of gay men and lesbians to associate across national boundaries throughout the last century,” Woods states, “led to extraordinary encounters, some fleeting, others more enduring; some sexual, some social, many creative.”
Rumors of Homintern conspiracies were especially prevalent in the arts, a field where, Woods claims, gays found “a relatively welcome environment” that allowed them “to make strategic use of cultural production, for purposes both defensive and creative.” He finds many accounts of embittered straights who believed they had been systematically excluded from the Russian ballet, the Broadway stage, the London literary world, and Hollywood cinema. The lament of British composer William Walton, a rival of Benjamin Britten’s, that “[e]veryone is queer and I’m just normal, so my music will never succeed,” is typical of this breed of complaint. A common theme of such spurious laments is that homo alliances are attempting to infiltrate the minds of an unassuming public with their subversion, “closeting” their messages through difficult modernist styles that seemed as willfully perverse and menacingly opaque as the queers creating them. Woods cites Gore Vidal on the anti-gay sentiment directed toward midcentury playwrights, who says that once one’s sexuality became common knowledge, “[t]hat meant that all the women were really men in disguise and the relationships were all degenerate ones. At this was a plot — by the fifties it was all a ‘homintern’ plot — to overthrow heterosexuality.”
Woods refutes such claims outright. “The true conspiracy” has always been, he maintains, “that of the homophobes in the less welcoming spheres of life, clubbing together to make life uncomfortable for queers.” He traces the densely interconnected homosexual network in the arts, but establishes that its concerns had nothing to do with the overthrow of straight hegemony. Instead, its most significant effect on modern culture was the cultivation of a “purposeful internationalism,” one that “emphasised, among other things, the tawdry contingency of regional customs and national laws” that attempted to regulate and stifle queer social identities and sexual practices. Accordingly, Woods organizes most of his chapters around loosely defined geographical regions where gay networks congregated and gay people circulated, such as the “Northern Exotic” of Russia and Sweden, the “Southern Exotic” of Italy, Greece, and Morocco, and the “New World” of New York, Hollywood, and South America.
The author’s erudition is impressively on display in these chapters. Homintern is obviously the distillation of a lifetime of research. Woods, in addition to being a noted poet, also held the world’s first chair in Gay and Lesbian Studies as a professor at Nottingham Trent University from 1996 to 2013. He appears to have read and internalized nearly every academic study, literary work, scientific treatise, biography, and memoir having to do with homosexuality in most of the major European languages, in addition to tracing in painstaking detail the complex affiliations that existed between figures both major and minor across the various genres of modernist art. Only someone with the depth and breadth of knowledge Woods possesses could convincingly demonstrate the importance of queer sociality within a transnational modernist network whose many nodes included Natalie Barney’s salons in Paris, the sexual subcultures of Weimar-era Berlin, the rambunctious queer expat community in Taormina, Paul Bowles and the Beats in Morocco, and the many gay writers who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. These are, he says, “destinations that have accumulated mythic value” not just in the history of modern homosexuality, but in the history of modernity itself. While the existence of queer figures in these groups is not exactly unknown to scholars, or even casual fans, the personal connections Woods highlights among these groups, when they are presented one after the other, make a strong case for the queer network’s centrality in crafting what was distinctly modern about 20th-century art and culture.
Yet despite the scholarly chops on display (including extensive footnotes and a bibliography that, taken together, make up nearly 15 percent of the book’s length), Woods maintains that his is, ultimately, “a poet’s book.” By this, he means that the book “seek[s] to cast an image, or sequence of images, on the reader’s visual imagination, rather than persuade by linear argument.” Those looking for a coherent narrative arc, or even definite interpretive claims, might find themselves frustrated by Woods’s digressiveness and relative indifference to principles of coherent organization — he often leaps from one figure or nation to another, with little in the way of transition. Rather than being a defect, however, Woods claims that he seeks to cultivate in his readers the same disposition Ezra Pound recommended for encountering the Cantos, where “if the critic will read through them before stopping to wonder whether he or she is understanding them: I think he or she will find at the end that he or she has.” I found the experience of reading the book more closely akin to reading through the world’s queerest, most highbrow supermarket tabloid. One is driven to turn the pages of Homintern not because of its compelling narrative arc or strong argumentative drive, but because one is eager to discover the salacious, scandalous details of the lives of one’s favorite gay modernists.
Yet a possible objection to this approach is that it privileges the “merely” personal and trivial above what is truly of value, the innovative and brilliant works of art that have made these figures worthy of note in the first place. Doesn’t focusing too intently on Djuna Barnes’s lesbian dalliances, one might ask, ultimately detract from the innovative stylistic techniques on display in Nightwood, which constitutes her most lasting contribution to modern literature? Woods responds to such critiques by reminding us that queerness, by virtue of its necessarily clandestine existence, is by necessity tied to the discourse of gossip, making it inextricable from the history of queer artistic achievement. “Absent from the official histories, authorised biographies and academic syllabuses, gay people passed alternative narratives from person to person,” he states. “We tell each other some of these stories over and over again for good reason. […] In times of stress or threat, they are reassuring. They lose none of their power, even their urgency, in the retelling.” Woods’s study implicitly defends the fact that when queer people encounter queer art, their desire to know the scuttlebutt surrounding the life the artist is part of their aesthetic experience — a truth that, I believe, any honest gay reader will readily admit. As the first international artistic movement to include a critical mass of practitioners whose identities seem recognizably homosexual to contemporary readers, modernism continues to provide special fascinations for those of us queers who long for an exalted history of innovation and creativity.
Indeed, I would maintain that, if for no other reason, Homintern is valuable as a durable repository of ephemeral moments of bitchiness and sleaze that are otherwise in danger of being buried in the archive. In the midst of his discussion of expatriot gay social life in Tangier, Woods reports that although Jack Kerouac was himself “not averse to receiving the occasional blow job from a man, [he] had little sympathy” for William Burroughs’s pining after Allen Ginsberg.
With characteristic incomprehension, he asked: “What’s all this love business between grownup men?” He was far more comfortable with Burroughs’ dalliance with a string of boys. Adult male love was another country altogether: “how on earth could they consummate this great romantic love with Vaseline and K.Y.?”
This homophobic vulgarity might seem, at first, beside the point when it comes the literary achievements of these three men. Yet will anyone familiar with this anecdote be able to read the all-but-explicit homoeroticism of On the Road the same way ever again? How might this attitude toward the merits of cross-generational versus intergenerational gay sex change our understanding of Kerouac’s transformation from a young radical to a late-in-life Catholic conservative? Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her groundbreaking work of queer theory Epistemology of the Closet, reminds us that, despite the fact that malicious gossip has often threatened the safety and security of queer people in a homophobic society, it has just as often resulted in “the refinement of necessary skills for making, testing, and using unrationalized and provisional hypotheses about what kinds of people there are to be found in one’s world.” Woods’s use of gossip in Homintern is in service of just such a project. His loose, impressionistic style teaches his reader to view the world through a new optic, one that categorizes queer alliances not as either a conspiracy or a minor thread within the otherwise “serious” narrative of cultural modernity, but as the story of cultural modernity itself.
This is what makes the book’s subtitle both accurate and problematic. The claim that “gay culture liberated the modern world” implies a kind of heroism grounded in superlative individual effort. Yet this is a form of queer exceptionalism the book actually militates against. Homintern is not collection of stories about singularly remarkable queers. Woods takes pains to specify that gay culture never intended to free the modern world, even if that was ultimately what happened. His insistence that the gay network imagined by nervous straights really did exist is an attempt to undermine a powerful counter-myth, one that even many queers deeply enmeshed in the Homintern themselves believed. This is the notion of the homosexual as an isolated individual, always and inevitably “single” even when in a long-term relationship, who is inherently opposed to collectivity. This myth has resulted in a celebration of “individuality” and “individual self-expression” at the expense of the social orientation of the “black and feminist counterparts” of the gay liberation movement. Although he never says so explicitly, he implies that this internalization of this myth of the isolated queer has resulted in a gay political movement problematically focused on the merely personal freedom associated with bourgeois liberalism and neoliberalism.
This is precisely the critique that has been launched against the mainstream gay liberation movement, especially by socialists and queers of color. In these accounts, the many recent triumphs of the gay rights movement have focused on integration into the cultural mainstream through the fundamentally conservative institutions of marriage and the military, rather than effecting more profound social and economic revolutions. Despite his extensive discussions of lesbian coteries and the world made by African-American queers of the Harlem Renaissance, Woods admits that “[t]he main history available to us, in terms of the modern development of gay identities and their subcultures, is Western. Similarly, it is more male than female, more bourgeois than proletarian, more white than black,” which means that his book features a disproportionate number of middle-class white gay men. Yet his account of how the Homintern renovated the 20th-century cultural world offers a powerful account of how we might imagine a more inclusive and intersectional modern queer movement beyond the limits of liberal individualism. “Isolating [gays] was a way to control them,” he says. “So, one of their best strategies of resistance was to congregate. Networks and groups, no matter how loosely knit and informal, achieved progress without having to devise an actual programme.”
In the current political climate, Homintern provides a timely reminder of the importance of queer solidarity in the face a reactionary social climate. Increasingly large numbers of young people reject traditional labels for their sexual identities, suggesting to some that we are fast becoming “post-gay.” At the same time, however, a recent study shows that the United States’s acceptance of LGBT individuals has gone down in 2017 — to less than 50 percent of the population — likely a result of the legitimacy granted to hate groups of all types by the current administration. Despite increased queer visibility and institutional legitimacy, many heterosexuals are, apparently, still suspicious of those who live outside normative structures of desire. Historical progress is never as linear as we hope it will be, but Homintern shows that this is no reason to give into despair. In the face of a hostile cultural environment, queer collectivity is in and of itself a force for political transformation: the more, the merrier.