Gregory Woods has been writing about gay and lesbian history since the 1980s. His new book, Homintern, studies a long-established conspiracy theory: that gay people are out to fuck up the natural order of things. The idea that, like those pesky communists and Jews, LGBT people have historically been creating underground networks and plotting across international borders—gearing up for some kind of pink revolution.
The idea is ridiculous, of course, but as a diligent historian, Woods outlines with detail how these fears have been harbored, from the Nazis in 1930s Berlin through to Christian evangelicals during the AIDS pandemic. He tells both sides of the story, too; looking not only at the persecution of gay people, but drawing on the lives and works of figures like Somerset Maugham, Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag, and James Baldwin, in order to figure out why gay people traveled so much (it was usually to flee their oppressors) and why gay networks formed (mostly for sex and solidarity).
While the book sets out to mock the idea of a "gay mafia," it does—accidentally or otherwise—chart the huge influence gay sensibility has on Western culture. Susan Sontag once said that "homosexual aestheticism" was one of the "pioneering forces of modern sensibility." With Sontag's words in mind, I called up Gregory to ask him why underground gay culture is so fabulous that governments actually saw it as a threat.
VICE: What was your motivation for writing this book?
Gregory Woods: I think of it as a sequel to a history of gay male literature I wrote in the 1990s. I focused on the 20th century, because that was when most of the literature available was published, but I felt there was a lot more to be said about the influence of gay culture. There is a strong sense in gay media and in cultural criticism that our history is Anglophone—British or American. I wanted to go against that and emphasize the history of gay culture in Europe and beyond, and also widen out and look at networks of lesbian women too.
Where does the term "homintern" come from?
In the late 20s and early 30s, there was an organization called the "Comintern"—"Communist International"—that was set up by Lenin and was concerned with spreading communism internationally across borders. It was seen by powers in the west as a threat. It was in the news at the time, and a lot of gay men came up with the camp joke that there was also a homintern.
What they were implying in this pun was that homosexual people could achieve influence across the barriers that society normally worked with. This mythic organization the homintern could forge alliances across national boundaries or class boundaries, for example, and make a kind of alternative realm of existence for people who were forced to live their lives in very confined and secretive ways. It was a joke, but it was also a dream, a possibility, a way of meeting other people from other societies and resisting oppression.
Was the idea of the homintern quite dangerous in some people's minds?
Yes. The idea that homosexuals exist became more well known around the start of the 20th century—mostly from scientists and sexologists, who were labeling this identity. At the same time, scandals such as Oscar Wilde's trial or Radclyffe Hall's obscenity trial about her book The Well of Loneliness became prominent. This visibility panicked people—and created an idea of a mass of homosexual people hiding behind closed doors, or in the bushes. They thought of homosexuality as a threatening, subversive presence that could organize.
The idea of gay people as one homogenous group seems ludicrous, but you do make a case for pockets of culture where gay people have, historically, been more likely to congregate: fashion, theater, and literary circles. Why do you think gay people have been more drawn to these fields?
It's hard. There can't be anything genetically making gay people more creative. And yet one looks around the world and sees this pattern.
I suppose one answer is to look at the idea of "feminine" men and "masculine" women. Individuals who don't fit standard gender roles are forced to reinvent themselves to pass as masculine men and feminine women. They have to reinvent the world around themselves in order to fit in with it. One way to do that is to construct your own aesthetic. Growing up not being able to take one’s gender role for granted and never question it forces one to think: How am I going to get away with this?
Alice B. Tolkas and Gertrude Stein in their salon in Paris in 1922. Photo by Man Ray
You mention how many American writers like James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, and Allen Ginsberg were drawn to Paris in the early 20th century. Why was this?
It was partly a question of economy—European currencies were cheap against the dollar. It was what Stein called "a lost generation" of artists and writers who were swept up in the fashion of young people going to Europe, at least until the Wall Street Crash in 1929. I suppose there was a hangover from the naughty 1890s, of late 19th century aestheticism, that was still attractive to some Americans. With Paris, there was also the attraction of the Napoleonic Code—a more liberal legal system than there was in the US or Britain.
Even today, gays and lesbians in America today are more likely to have passports. If it's been drummed into you that you don't fit into the society that you grew up in, maybe you start looking elsewhere.
After writing the book, what is your conclusion? Did governments actually have anything to be worried about? Were gays really politically organizing?
The fear centered around the sense that gays were talking in secret—and not just about their sex lives, but we were organizing against nation states. So of course the occasional discovery of a homosexual spy would be taken as confirmation that this was what was happening. This suspicion was felt on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. But actually there doesn't seem to be any truth behind this; it's very hard to imagine gay people as a mass of subversives in the present day. Today, they're just as likely to be voting for the right as the left, wanting to protect their pockets and livelihoods just as everyone else does.
At the beginning of the book, I say that the homintern is the presence of homosexual men and women in modern society. Then I say there is no such thing as the homintern. I'm happy with this. There's no formally organized network of same-sex oriented people looking to work against the interests of the heterosexual majority. Then again, it's culturally interesting to look at groups forming and reforming, alliances across boundaries, flexible and formless masses of people exerting a cultural influence. Because it makes for something so creatively different.
Oscar Wilde. Photo via Wikimedia
So what impact has this "formless mass" of LGBT people helped shape modern Western culture?
It's not simply that gay people have been involved in the arts—straight people have a pretty good record of that, too—but that gay people did so from a fresh perspective, seeing things aslant from a position of difference. You only have to think of Oscar Wilde's paradoxes to see this process in action. They cast a fresh light on what had been thought of as fixed gender roles, subverting them by demonstrating, in the flesh, the possibility of living as a masculine woman or a feminine woman. This in turn generated a completely fresh aesthetic—in fashion, of course, but then also in dance and cinema and theater, and ultimately in popular culture. I also feel that many of these people were, in themselves, in the way they presented themselves in daily life, Wilde or Quentin Crisp, Radclyffe Hall and Gertrude Stein, all living embodiments of a queerness that more ordinary folk could marvel at and learn from, maybe even imitate.
Historically, gay people have found one another through necessity. How has the decriminalization of homosexuality and limited assimilation of LGBT people changed the need for those networks and connections?
It's similar to what we used to say in the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s—that we were working toward a society where there would be no need for a gay movement. Because ideally, we would live in a world where there would be no discrimination and no need to distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual. I don't for a moment believe the whole of humanity is heading in that direction, but if we were, I'd worry that with total assimilation of acceptance, there wouldn't be the impetus or energy for gay people to connect, or to make something out of an unfortunate situation, oppression, or difference. Where would the sparks of creativity come from?
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