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 Photograph by James M Barrettt.
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Gregory Woods

The Making of a Gay Reader

Professor Gregory Woods retired from a long and distinguished academic career in December 2013. To mark the occasion, Litter is reprinting this essay, first published in 1994 as an introduction to Woods' book of reviews and essay, 'This Is No Book: A Gay Reader' (Mushroom Publications, 1994).


How do you become a gay reader? What does gay reading involve? We are often told that many lesbians and gay men - mainly those who do not come out when they first find out that they are gay, and who therefore do not have suitable friends to talk to - come to terms with their discovered sexuality by reading books. It may be that by reading you discover that you are not the only queer on the planet; or that there are hostile strangers who wish you dead; or even that you will, after all, be able to work out a way of living your life as you choose. Your development may be marked as much by your encounters with particular texts as by conversations or physical events. Certainly, in the nineteen-sixties, when I grew up, books gave me what television did not. I constructed my identity as a gay man by reading fiction before I actually met and made love with other gay men. I was amazed at Plato's Symposium long before I witnessed the simple fact of two men kissing.

In 1966 I had been sent to a minor Catholic public school, because my father, uncle and elder brother had all been there before me. Notorious as 'hotbeds' of homosexuality, the English public schools had prepared generations of adolescents for the rigours of imperial life by policing them with Greek, Latin, rugby football, beatings, cold baths and casual brutality. We boys knew the rumours about same-sex boarding schools, and many did their best to live up to them. All our gossip was about each other's relationships. It was assumed we could discreetly do more or less as we liked for the time being, as long as we had stopped being queer when we left. But it was those of us who believed we could not become heterosexual, who had the least relaxed time of it. What with all the fear and guilt, our beds were rarely hot.

We watched the distant world outside with interest. The passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalized sex between men over 21. We read the small ads in OZ and International Times and dreamed of daring to reply to them. We learned the new use of the word 'gay'. But notwithstanding the theoretical Platonism of our environment, we were closely policed. In my final year, while looking through the files of the school's Law Society, I found a letter from the Homosexual Law Reform Society. It was a brief expression of regret, that the school had been forced to withdraw its invitation to a speaker. No other outside speaker - humanist or communist or whatever - had ever been vetoed.

It occurred to me that, without ignoring or going against what I had been taught, my best strategy for exam passing was to concentrate on subjects that interested me. So for my History of Art A-level, which I sat in 1970, I wrote a dissertation on Donatello and an essay on David Hockney. In both, I tackled the question of sexuality, if not head-on, at least in the oblique manner that I judged to be expedient. When it came to English, I found myself writing an essay on Hamlet's relationship with Horatio. Apparently, I had already learnt (but not actually been taught) the limits of academic openness: for although my essay proposed a homosexual relationship, my concluding paragraph coolly dismissed the very idea. The fact that I still remember doing this suggests how intensely I felt both the need to write about such things and the unstated pressure not to.

Before leaving school I had read what now seems to me quite an impressive array of gay literature, from Peter Whigham's translations of Catullus to Mann's Death in Venice, Plato's Symposium to Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and Another Country. I had found Thom Gunn's The Sense of Movement in the school library, and drawn my own conclusions about its 'hidden' meanings. Already a compulsive browser in second-hand bookshops, I had mustered a small collection of contemporary gay fiction, both English and American. This post-adolescent enthusiasm was no mere search for texts to masturbate to. It was that too, of course; but it was part of the re-shaping of my personality that followed the physical transformations of puberty. It also laid the foundation for all my subsequent scholarship. But what strikes me as most interesting from my present perspective is that, although I was in the middle of one of the most expensive and elitist educations on offer anywhere in the world, as a gay man I was an autodidact. All of my gay cultural knowledge was self-taught.

In 1971 I went to one of Britain's new, purpose-built universities, which prided themselves on their modernity and progressiveness. In my first week as an undergraduate, during a seminar on W.H. Auden's poem 'Lay your sleeping head my love,' we spoke of the poem's addressee as 'she' throughout the first hour of our discussion. Finally, our tutor told us that Auden was homosexual. Did this information, he asked, change the meaning of the poem. True to the liberalism expected of our generation, we decided at once that there was no significant, qualitative difference between homosexual and heterosexual love, and none, therefore, between the love poems each might produce. We handled the knowledge Auden was gay, in other words, by denying that it mattered he was gay. I doubted our argument, and went back to my room feeling that the issue had not been faced. But I was not equipped, with either confidence or evidence, to have argued the contrary view.

The following year, I attended a seminar on Allen Ginsberg's 'America', chaired by a young male lecturer with long hair and fashionable earrings. When asked if the poet was homosexual, he felt it was appropriate to reply 'Oh yes! He's as queer as a coot!' After more than twenty years I can still hear his tone, see his face, and feel my own discomfort. The statement, while superficially acknowledging the sexual issue, was in fact a clear signal that the subject was to be dismissed from any serious level of discussion. After all, weren't we all adults - too sophisticated to make an issue of it? Compliant as ever, we let the matter drop.

In my final year as an undergraduate, I went to a seminar on A Passage To India. The lecturer, a socialist, asked me a complicated question about the politics of the book. I replied that E.M Forster's obvious, but still covert, erotic interest in the untouchable youth in the courtroom scenes undermined, or even invalidated, whatever other social point he was trying to make. Unless we confronted the author's homosexuality, I argued, we could not come to any serious conclusion about the totality of his political views. Still in the closet at the time, I was embarrassed to have brought up the subject - it still made me blush - but quite proud to have done so without being struck by lightning. Far from taking my point, the lecturer accused me of not listening to what was said in class. The question was repeated for me, in an angry tone, in much the same words as the first time, but slowly and 'patiently' as though I were an idiot. Angry at being humiliated in this way, I repeated my original reply in the same sarcastic, slow pace. My point was ignored. The politics question was put to another student, and the discussion went off in the direction our tutor had preordained.

Somehow undiscouraged, I eventually registered to write a Ph.D thesis on gay men's poetry. In the years that followed, it was always made clear to me, by implication, that my research would have to be both broader and more detailed than in any comparable thesis on a more 'respectable' topic. What was also clear was that I needed a more receptive audience for my work than was available even in a progressive academic department. So in the late 1970s I began reviewing books for Alison Hennegan at Gay News. Literary journalism was my way of combining my roles as a scholar and an activist. It remains so today. Whether I write for gay newspapers or predominantly straight cultural journals, I have - to use a dated phrase - gay liberationist aims. The same goes for my works as a university lecturer.

While teaching at a university in southern Italy in 1984, I decided to give a series of unpaid lectures on homosexuality and English literature. The series was advertised in the Italian gay press. Days before the first lecture, my professor - a communist, who sincerely believed himself committed to La Lotta, the 'struggle' - forced me to add the following note to all publicity material: 'These lectures have no relation to the English language and literature department in Professor X's department'.

In 1986, chairing an undergraduate seminar on 'Lay your sleeping head my love,' I withheld the information that the poet was gay until half an hour's discussion of his attitude to his 'girlfriend' had taken place. When asked 'If I told you that he was homosexual, would you read it differently?' I heard exactly the same answers which we had given to the same question when I was a student. Nothing, it seemed, had changed.

In April 1989 I attended an interview for an academic post at a northern university. Two questions I was asked were not unexpected: Was Shakespeare a homosexual? Is E.M. Forster's Maurice a good book? This was the first interview at which I had to answer both. If you want to survive you're expected to answer 'No' to both. This is easy enough in the case of Shakespeare, since there was no concept of 'a homosexual' in his time. But I am not sure I agree with all of Forster's detractors, many of them motivated by homophobia, that Maurice is so awful. Precisely because of its uneasy commitment to important social issues, I rather liked it. It may be a botched job, but that is by no means only Forster's fault.

In July 1989 I attended a meeting of A-level examiners in a London hotel. At lunch I sat opposite the most friendly and approachable of my fellow examiners, a middle-aged woman, who had shown in the meeting range of humane and liberal attitudes to the students whose work we were reading, and a generous approach to assessment. Half-way through the meal, she asked about my SILENCE = DEATH lapel button. When I told her it was a slogan from the AIDS crisis, she asked in apparently genuine bewilderment, 'Why are you interested in THAT?'

One of the outcomes of my search for gay readings has been that I am often accused of 'reading things into' books in which those 'things' did not previously exist: sexual things into innocent contexts, queer things into straight texts. Gay readings are said to spoil books, whereas censorious straight readings are considered 'universal' and, therefore, more than adequate to the requirements of any but the most filthy-minded of readers. When Jeffrey Meyers reviewed Articulate Flesh, my book about gay men's poetry, his fiercest criticism of it was that it was 'primarily intended ... for a homosexual audience' and that it was consequently 'unlikely to convince an objective reader'. This contrast between the lordly objectivity of heterosexual readings (that is, of readings which distance themselves from, or even obliterate, a text's gay meanings) and the sordid subjectivity of gay readings is ignorant drivel. But it is the prevailing view. In exactly the same way, our culture still values white readers over black, and male over female. In such a situation, reading itself, inevitably becomes a dissident act, however modest.

The title of this book ['This Is No Book: A Gay Reader'] comes from 'So Long', a poem in which Walt Whitman identifies his physical life so closely with his poetry that he admits no distinction between the two. He writes:

Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man.

While not all readers are pleased to be caught holding the poet's body in their laps, Whitman's strategy of implicating his readers in his own sex life - or in his written fantasies, at least - is seriously meant as a plea that the barriers between literature and social life should be collapsed. This is why I have chosen to quote him here. Very little gay literature is escapist. We read texts - even our science fiction, pornography or romance - which deal with the realities either imposed on or created by us. We read about the situations into which our bodies place us, and the positions into which we put our bodies. While you can't catch a virus from a book (although William Burroughs might argue otherwise) you can learn about the health care, political resistance and safer sexual strategies about which straight writers are so often ignorant or, worse still, so culpably misleading. Whether you live in the remote countryside or in crowded inner-city alienation, gay readings can turn your solitude into solidarity. Few texts could have a nobler purpose than this.


 Copyright © Gregory Woods, 1994 and 2014.