In celebrating queer history, we often take time to remember the pioneering figures who weren’t able to be out and proud during their lifetimes. Anne Lister, Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing, to name but a few. But how do we approach the sticky subject of the gays of history who, perhaps, aren’t so worthy of celebrating? This is the exact topic Ben Miller and Huw Lemmey focus on in Bad Gays: A Homosexual History.
Giving an alternative view of queer history through its most lamentable figures, Miller and Lemmey go deep on Hadrian, James VI and I, Lawrence of Arabia, J Edgar Hoover and Ronnie Kray, and don’t let up on the debauched details of their lives.
Starting its life as a podcast, Bad Gays very much feels like a distillation of that project. Not to say that the text in this book is a mere transcript of certain episodes, far from it, but it does suffer from some dense writing and the inclusion of Kenneth Williams-esque cheeky asides that jar rather than amuse.
Scrolling through the episode list of the podcast, I am left wondering why the authors chose who they did to include in the book. The podcast has some genuinely left-of-field choices, such as Morrissey, Cecil Rhodes, Benjamin Britten and Cressida Dick. The book very much sticks to less-controversial choices, a rare piece of conservatism from their radical political publishing house, Verso.
All this aside however, Bad Gays can surely boast being one of the most original queer history books of recent years, and something that is sure to garner much conversation and debate. Let’s hope that Miller and Lemmey are more far-reaching with the next volume.
Barry Pierce is a journalist and cultural commentator