Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2001

Who’s Who In Gay and Lesbian History From Antiquity to World War II, edited by Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon

reviewed by George Broadhead

Yet another Who’s Who! (readers may recall the review of Warren Allen Smith’s Who’s Who in Hell in G&LH, Autumn 2000). However, at a mere 502 pages, this Routledge tome is modest compared with the 1,238 pages of the Smith one.

Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History is one of 23 reference books currently published in Routledge’s Who’s Who series. Of the 110 contributors only six are British, with a high proportion coming from the US and Australia. As the introduction points out, the book covers figures who have had an impact on lesbian and gay life throughout history, and not merely individuals who were or are themselves homosexuals. They are confined to Europe, North and South America, South Africa and Australasia. Many are well known in literature, politics, painting and philosophy (to name but a few walks of life), but a lot more are nonentities.

Thus we have, in alphabetical order, Alexander the Great rubbing shoulders with Francesco Algarotti, an eighteenth-century Italian essayist, and Ivor Novello with a Mexican poet named Salvador Novo. (Incidentally, on the subject of Novello, it was amusing to read that in his own circle he referred to his musical The Dancing Years as The Prancing Queers.)

I found the contributions on Biblical figures – e.g. Jesus, Lot and St Paul – very dubious since they indulge in the sort of whitewashing practised by gay Christians and their apologists. The entry on Lot, for instance, by Adam Carr from Melbourne, Australia, concludes: “Christian and Jewish fundamentalists [my emphasis] continue to quote the [Sodom] story along with other Biblical texts as a rationale for the persecution and discrimination against gay men.” Carr seems unaware that this and other Biblical passages are also cited by the mainstream Christian churches, including the Anglican and Roman Catholic. The orthodox interpretation of the Sodom story, in particular, is featured in Issues in Human Sexuality: a Statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England, published in 1991.

In the Who’s Who in Hell book, I was especially interested in the entries that were lesbian or gay. In Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History, it was the non-believers I noted in particular, though none are identified as such. These include the gay humanist writer E. M. Forster, the gay atheist mathematician Alan Turing (of Enigma Code fame), the gay atheist writer André Gide and the gay atheist poet A. E. Housman. Also included is the remarkably (for his time) gay-supportive moral philosopher and legal reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). The contribution about him is by David West of the Australian National University, who writes: “Bentham’s attempt to found morality on rational and enlightened principles takes human well-being, pleasure or ‘utility’ as the ultimate standard”, thus placing him firmly in the humanist tradition. The “enlightened principles” extended to homosexuality and pederasty. As David West puts it: “According to Boralivi, he was responsible for ‘the earliest scholarly essay on homosexuality presently known to exist in the English language’. His voluminous ... writings on ‘pederasty’ were radical for his own time, and remained radical at least until gay liberation”; and “Bentham was daringly consistent in his application of the principles of rationality to the still unmentionable sin ... At a time when the punishment for sodomy was either hanging or the pillory – a punishment often no less fatal – Bentham’s ethical principle had radical implications indeed.” West continues: “He rehearses free-thinking arguments against religious morality, which eagerly offers human pleasures as sacrifices to a spiteful God ... The Church’s commitment to fertility also rests on shaky ground. Or, as Bentham acidly remarks: ‘If then merely out of regard to population it were right that pederasts should be burnt alive, monks should be roasted alive by a slow fire.’ ”

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Created : Sunday, 2001-05-13 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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