Simon Callow “searches for facts among the fantasies” in Heroes and Exiles: Gay Icons Through the Ages by Tom Ambrose. Here is a bit of that exploration. -Editor
The National Portrait Gallery’s recent exhibition Gay Icons was somewhat baffling – Nelson Mandela a gay icon? The manager of Elton John’s football club? Tom Ambrose’s subtitle for his new book – Gay Icons Through the Ages – seems to share the exhibition’s confusion of purpose. What is a gay icon, to begin with? Someone who has special meaning for gay people? Judy Garland, for example? Or someone whose actions stand as a model and an inspiration specifically for gay people? It seems that the latter is the focus of Ambrose’s attentions, but if so, he has selected a very rum group for our admiration. He seems to think it a disgrace that the 19th-century Gothic novelist William Beckford was encouraged to leave the country because of his ardent and intemperate pursuit of an 11-year-old schoolboy (in whom he quickly lost interest when the boy turned out, by the time he was 16, to be “interested only in millinery”), and feels that the Swedish Count Fersen had his human rights intolerably compromised by not being allowed to host schoolboy orgies. Ambrose’s general view seems to be that the slavish pursuit of one’s sexual impulses at whatever cost to anyone else is a definition of heroism.
This view is allied to an absurdly sentimental and unhistorical conception of sexual history, which leads him to construct a prelapsarian model of an ancient Greece in which male homosexuals were “once the most respected members of . . . society”. No they weren’t: many of the most respected members of ancient Greek society were homosexuals, an entirely different proposition. Even this is a misleading formula: there was of course no group in Greek society designated as homosexuals (Ambrose fastidiously refrains from using the word gay for anyone from before the 1950s, but liberally scatters across the whole of human history a term coined in 1870). It is true that in ancient Greece many men and boys, under a fairly strict code of limitations, engaged in homosexual acts, but this, along with a range of heterosexual practices, was considered a normal expression of their emotional and sexual impulses. They were neither respected nor condemned for it. Ambrose next claims that the elevation to the heroic pantheon of the tyrannicides Aristogeiton and Harmodius, who were lovers, “equated” homosexuality with heroism and civic responsibility. What it did was to affirm that engaging in homosexual acts was no bar to heroism or civic responsibility, but an informed historical perspective was perhaps not to be expected from a writer who refers to Plato as “the acclaimed Roman philosopher”.