Queer culture has become as fashionable on the gay scene
as the Kinky Gerlinky club. Hugh Mitchell and Kayode Olafimihan check it
A queer view
Derek Jarman considers himself a 'queer artist'. Tom Kalin's new film Swoon
is said to be 'queer cinema'. Writer Isling Mack-Nataff celebrates the
'queer aesthetic'. Sussex University offers a course on 'queory'. Trendy
cultural magazines such as Sight and Sound run features on 'queer
culture'. But what exactly is queer? How does it relate to the lesbian and
gay movement? And, more importantly, how does it relate to the concerns
A conference on 'New Queer Cinema', hosted by London's Institute of Contemporary
Arts, seemed to be a good place to try to answer some of these questions.
The conference attracted film directors, such as Jarman and Kalin, a range
of mainstream cultural critics and a large slice of the lesbian and gay
movement. Yet anyone who attended hoping to be introduced to the pleasures
of queer would have been sorely disappointed. Far from throwing light on
the nature of queer cinema, it was rather a conference in search of a subject.
Even self-proclaimed queers were unsure about what they meant by it. 'I
feel enormously uncomfortable', Kalin said, 'to be slipped through the filter
of new queer cinema'.
Queer might be the new buzzword, but its meaning seemed as obscure as a
post-postmodernist text. 'Are feature films queer?', asked one contributor.
The audience debated whether video shorts were queer. Some argued that John
Walters' films, featuring Divine and her carnival of perversions, should
be considered queer. And what about David Lynch or Russ Meyer, some wanted
to know, both of whom have a pretty queer view of heterosexuality? By the
end it seemed that the simplest way to identify queer films was to cast
an eye over any monthly programme of London's Scala cinema, which specialises
in some very queer films indeed.
The one thing on which everybody was agreed was that whatever else it may
or may not be, queer definitely is not gay. Queer studies lecturer Andy
Medhurst suggested queer cinema was a 'Colin- free zone', referring to Michael
Cashman's portrayal of the wimpy homosexual in Eastenders. In the queer
world wimpiness is just not PC. Then again, a film laden with such Colin-like
sentimentality as Torch Song Trilogy was still claimed as queer cinema
by some (probably because it features the essential queer icon - a man in
a dress). Given the queer necessity for being anti-gay, perhaps we could
soon be seeing Basic Instinct (picketed last year by queer activists
for its 'homophobia') given queer status.
For all the pretensions of queer politics to transcend the limitations of
the gay movement, what was most striking about the ICA conference was that
it replayed all the debates that have dogged lesbian and gay meetings for
the past decade and more. Women complained that there was no 'space' for
lesbian films within queer cinema. Black activists questioned whether queer
was simply 'white masculinist nationalism'. Thirtysomethings claimed that
queer cinema fetishised youth. And so on. The only thing new about new queer
cinema was that nobody seemed to remember that we have had all these debates
The queer movement has arisen out of disappointment and anger at the limitations
of gay politics. The past decade has seen a major setback for the lesbian
and gay movement. Not only has Aids been the source of major tragedy within
the gay community, but it has also become the focus for an anti-gay backlash.
Suddenly, gays and lesbians found that the so-called gains made in the past
two decades simply crumbled away. In the face of increasing public hostility
and violence, many homosexuals were forced back into the closet. It was
in this context that the queer movement was born.
In 1990 gay activists in New York formed Queer Nation. They eschewed respectability
and what they termed the 'assimilationist' strategy of the mainstream lesbian
and gay movement. Instead they flaunted their homosexuality and their differences
with straight society. Queer activists would walk into ultra-straight bars,
announce 'we will not be confined to gay bars when we socialise' and stage
a mass 'kiss-in'. The night after a bomb blast in a Greenwich village gay
bar, 1000 queer activists marched behind a banner which read 'Bash back'.
The tactics of Queer Nation New York were emulated by other Queer Nation
groups across North America. In Britain queer activists set up Outrage and
organised stunts like the 'kiss-in' at Piccadilly Circus and a 'queer march'
on Downing Street.
But behind the confrontational tactics of queer activists lies a pessimism
and fatalism that is as reactionary in its consequences as the search for
respectability that they reject. Frustrated by the lack of advance for gay
rights, advocates of queer simply make a virtue of their oppression. 'Queer',
writes Richard Smith, 'is about recognising how different we are from straights'
(Gay Times, May 1992). Accepting oppression as inevitable, queers
make the best of it by insisting that they don't want acceptance. The queer
insistence on difference is no radical assertion of gay rights, but mirrors
traditional right-wing arguments that social differences are as inevitable
as the natural ones we are born with.
In the absence of any broader strategy to challenge oppression, queer tactics
serve only to raise hostility and further isolate lesbians and gays. Confronting
straights in a bar is all very well in Greenwich village or San Francisco;
in Arkansas or Arizona it is a tactic that is likely to end up with you
in the morgue. In an article in Gay Times, lecturer Alan Sinfield
was forced to recognise how different the lives of queer activists are from
the majority of lesbians and gays:
From the 'academy', Sinfield observes, it is easy to forget the 'fears and
aspirations of those who are differently situated'. For most homosexuals,
the problem is not whether to attend a lesbian and gay seminar but how to
survive in a hostile world.
- 'I work at Sussex University. [The word queer] hasn't been used hostilely
in my hearing in, say, 15 years. Of course there is prejudice, but people
just wouldn't say anything so crude. I never see the Sun lying around - I
learn about it from 'Mediawatch'. As well as the student union society,
we have an English MA programme in lesbian and gay studies and an ongoing
seminar open to all members of the university.' (May 1992)
The advocates of queer appropriate the most reactionary aspects of gay politics
while ditching its positive elements. The gay movement based its strategy
on 'coming out' - the idea was that by making themselves visible, lesbians
and gay men could challenge oppression. Queer politics simply reforges the
'coming out' strategy in a more confrontational fashion. But while the gay
movement, initially at least, sought to locate the fight against oppression
as part of a broader social struggle, the advocates of queer express a despair
born out the failure of that struggle. The queer assertion of 'difference'
is an admission that there is no possibility of a common struggle with other
groups in society.
Disenchantment with social change has meant that queer politics has increasingly
turned to cultural struggle as a strategy for liberation. 'Culture', writes
queer theorist Paul Burston, 'becomes both the object of study and the site
of political critique' (Modern Review, October-November 1992). Queer
theory for Burston, 'concerns itself with the ways in which cultural texts
(books, plays, films, television, pop music, etc) help to shape sexuality'.
While queer-bashers take to the streets in increasing numbers, queer theorists
take to their armchairs to 'deconstruct' Eastenders and 'undress'
Madonna. Despite its image of militancy and activism, queer is more removed
from the real world than was much of the lesbian and gay movement.
The queer hostility to lesbians and gay men comes not from an aversion to
the politics of the movement but from a frustration at its failures. As
a result when queer activists demand to 'bash back', their targets are just
as likely to be other gays as anyone else. Hence the queer tactic of 'outing' - threatening
to expose closeted gay politicians and public figures. Elements of the queer
movement have taken this political strategy to its logical conclusion. 'We
will not tolerate any form of lesbian and gay philosophy', claimed the Toronto
queer magazine Bimbox last year. 'We will not tolerate their voluntary
assimilation into heterosexual culture...if we see lesbians and gays being
assaulted on the streets, we will not intervene, we will join in.' Queers
here join hands with queer- bashers in a common assault on lesbians and
Lacking a vision of the possibility of changing society as a whole, the
assumption of queer politics is that equality is simply aping 'white, heterosexual
values'. Equality, for queers, is itself a form of oppression. A movement
which promises radicalism, ends up by proclaiming the most reactionary message
of all - that there is nothing that can unite people, whether straight or
gay, in a common struggle for sexual and social equality.
How the west was unmade
As Clint Eastwood's new film Unforgiven wins critical acclaim,
Graham Bishop examines the role of the western in American life
Images of the old west seem like a permanent feature of American political
life. Looking for a metaphor to illustrate his campaign to revitalise America,
maverick Texan Ross Perot promised to 'clean out the barn'. He figured,
too, that peddling a fictitious story about a youth spent breaking wild
horses would be a vote winner. George Bush is constantly rattled by his
New Hampshire, country club Waspishness and prefers to highlight his tenuous
Texan connections. Hillary Clinton became embroiled in a shoot-out over
the folk wisdom of country crooner Tammy 'Stand by Your Man' Wynnette. It
seems the wild west can trap the American psyche like a steer on a Santa
Fe railroad cowcatcher.
While politicians continue to evoke the memory of the wild west as a metaphor
for rugged Americanism, it is, however, an image that is increasingly at
odds with the popular presentation of America's past. Clint Eastwood's new
film Unforgiven has justly won wide critical acclaim. Yet it is a
work that undermines popular myths about frontier life. Eastwood recreates
a world in which life was nasty, brutish and short. It is a film that makes
you grateful for flush toilets, roadside motels and factory farming. Eastwood's
wild west is a world, not of heroes and myth-makers, but of sadistic killers
who pay writers of penny-dreadfuls to fabricate their pasts. It is a world
in which guns misfire and ageing gunslingers fall off horses. It is above
all a world in which good and bad are inextricably intertwined, a world
at the heart of which lies a dark and terrible violence.
Unforgiven is the latest stage in the demythologising of the west.
Over the past four decades, as the meaning of American identity has become
increasingly fraught, the capacity of the western to embody the national
myth has crumbled. In the hands of directors like John Huston, John Ford,
Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, the western has become an
expression, not of national greatness, but of national anxieties.
The myth of the west developed out of the need to establish a national consensus.
In pre-civil war America, the National Republican Party seized on popular
resentment of the Indian role in the war of independence and their supposed
association with northern Democrats, whom many regarded as a vehicle for
British aristocratic interests. Long before the Indian wars, 'the redskin'
had become the villain of popular fiction. Music hall performers and novelists
like James Fenimore Cooper made contemporary stars out of Indian-killing
roughnecks. By the beginning of this century the frontier myth had become
central to the American self-image. With the dawn of the Hollywood age,
the genre spawned thousands of successful movies and became a metaphor for
all things American.
As Gary Cooper and John Wayne rode off into the sunset they exuded a sense
of a nation at peace with itself. The western created a moral universe which
clearly established the distinctions between good and bad, between American
and un-American. The nononsense, but kind-hearted, individual frontiersman
would sort out the wrong-doers every time. Bad guys, conveniently poker-faced
and clad in black, would end up behind bars or on Boot Hill. The western
lent nobility and historical depth to the American dream, an Alger Hiss
story with a six-gun. By the 1950s the moral struggle in the frontier towns
could symbolise both America's role as world policeman and the need to be
vigilant against the red menace. From here on, however, the western myth
became increasingly fraught.
Vietnam, racial conflict and urban decay all led to increasing questioning
of the American dream. This cynicism became projected on to the western.
Themes such as the loss of innocence, the moral ambiguity of good and evil
and an ambivalent view of violence suffused the films from the fifties onwards.
John Ford's classic, The Searchers (1956), showed John Wayne on a
quest motivated entirely by a poisonous racist hatred of Indians. Long before
Kevin Costner danced with the wolves, films like A Man Called Horse (1970)
endowed Indian culture with a validity of its own. Sergio Leone's 'spaghetti
westerns' (which made a star of Clint Eastwood) depicted life on the US-Mexican
frontier as one long amoral body count.
Clint Eastwood has taken this demystification of the western still further.
His first major Hollywood western, High Plains Drifter (1972), revealed
small-town America as rotten to the core. Eastwood went on to explore the
ambiguous relationship between good and evil in urban westerns like his
Dirty Harry films, in which the distinction between justice and blood-lust
Unforgiven brings together the corrosive effects of four decades
of the revisionist western on the same screen. Few taboos are left untouched.
Eastwood tells American audiences that their popular history is a lie. He
skilfully forces his audience to identify with amoral characters in totally
bleak surroundings, not least the Alberta skyline against which the film
was shot. Unforgiven is a darkly pessimistic film in which the central
character, William Munny, (played by Eastwood himself) escapes his former
life as a drunken gunslinger only to be drawn back into the cycle of violence
that has blighted his life. Eastwood's message is that, whatever you do,
you cannot escape the dark side of your nature.
Eastwood's return to the western form has resurrected the perennial debate
on whether the western is dead. In fact what has died is not the western,
but the ability to project in an unambiguous way the myth of good and evil,
of American and un-American, that the genre traditionally embodied. In a
nation fractured by racial divisions and beset by anxieties of the future,
simple morality tales are not convincing. As Unforgiven shows, in
today's America the western can no longer embody the myth of the west.
Rebel in crime
Derek Raymond's crime stories are a furious rant against the narrow
confines of British society. But how long, asks Andrew Calcutt, can he remain
'It really is a great pleasure to say all sorts of things to you which I
honestly couldn't say to the tabs or even the heavy Sundays.' Derek Raymond
lived up to his word, not least by declaring, 'I hope the royals fuck themselves
out of a job'. After a turbulent half-century, six marriages and a name-change,
he's still a rebel spirit.
Raymond was born Robert Cook in 1931. 'As soon as I could think', he says,
he rebelled against his upper middle class background: 'George Orwell was
the only other person who hated Eton as much as I did.' In his early twenties
he escaped to America. He returned to England in 1960 and into a very different
kind of life: 'In no time flat I was working for villains. A kind of front
man for their operations. I didn't have a police record and I had the right
accent for banking, meeting MPs or other punters.'
These eventful years ('Winds of change? It was a fucking hurricane, force
nine') provided the material for a series of angry novels, published under
the name Robin Cook. The first of these - The Crust on Its Uppers - has
now been reprinted by Serpent's Tail.
The tale of a high class con-man, The Crust on Its Uppers is written
in a mixture of Whitechapel villain-speak and Chelsea posh-talk: 'I made
a hybrid of our language and theirs. When it came to cutting up the proceeds
or just discussing operations in a general way, they'd speak their language
and we'd speak ours, and before you could say knife, the two, anyway in
my mind, coagulated.' The effect is all the more brutal because it is also
Raymond recalls his days fronting for criminals as 'one of the most interesting
experiences I could have had'. 'If you want to see how the police work,
the thing to do is to be grilled by them. It's no use touring round with
them in the back of a car. They can't say in front of you what they would
say to each other: "nick the cunt". When you've got information
which they badly need, then you see them as they really are. "Want
a cigarette, son? Well, you can't fucking have one." Under the bright
light for 17 hours.'
Raymond always saw himself as a writer: 'I happened to be a villain like
I happened to be a minicab driver or any other of the peculiar jobs I've
done. Ultimately I always wanted to write about whatever I was doing'. He
regards writing as an out-on-the-edge activity. 'If it wasn't risky, dangerous,
it wouldn't be very exciting to do. In I Was Dora Suarez I attempted
to get into the mind of a serial killer and it left me feeling covered with
shit and frightened for my reason.'
Raymond reckons that his class background allowed him to 'explode the grenade
in the drawing room'. 'With so much effect', he adds, 'that my early novels
were snuffed out'. He speaks contemptuously of the 'national genius for
not looking at what is staring you in the face'. Raymond was forced to embark
on a long period of exile.
While Britain rejected Cook, the French public feted him. In France he wrote
four more novels, bleak tales of sick killings in a morbid society. 'The
irony of my earlier books', he says, 'was replaced by despair, grief and
alarm'. The unnamed protagonist in these books is based at a central London
police station, known as the Factory. He is another rebel figure: 'a revolted
copper, as the French would say. Which is why he didn't get on very well,
except with one or two other revolted coppers.'
When Cook tried to publish the Factory novels he found that his own name
had been gazumped by another Robin Cook, the American author of Coma.
Thus was born Derek Raymond. Cook\Raymond is finally achieving recognition
in this country, and not before time. But here's the rub. In celebrating
Raymond as an icon of angst, the British media have begun the process of
sanitising his output.
Two years ago, the Sunday Correspondent rediscovered Raymond in a
magazine feature written by former New Musical Express semiotician
Ian Penman (latterly a sub-editor for TV Quick). The Correspondent
piece featured a portrait of Raymond-the-bohemian: beret, hands cupped
around a cigarette, face lit by the glare of a match. This image has already
become a cliche of the Soho dypso. And the more it is reprinted - for example,
on the jacket of Raymond's newly-published memoirs, Hidden Files - the
safer it becomes.
Channel 4 will present a toned-down version of the Factory novels next year.
The BBC may 'do' The Crust on Its Uppers as a sixties period piece.
In August the British Council paid for Raymond to go to Berlin where he
read from the forthcoming Factory novel Dead Man Upright. Derek Raymond
is being stiffed - set up as an acceptable rebel.
Raymond is resigned to the sanitisation of the Factory by Channel 4. 'I've
got no other source of income', he says, 'so let's just hope it's a bit
less crappy than Crossorado'. He intends to 'go on shouting from the back
of the bloody hall'. But there's never been an outlaw-writer, however sharp,
who could stop the media Factory processing his work and sterilising his
persona. The revolt of the lonely rebel always ends up as a pre-packaged
style. That's the way the crust crumbles, even for Derek Raymond.
- The Crust on Its Uppers, Serpent's Tail, £7.99 pbk
- Hidden Files, Little Brown, £15.99 hbk
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 49, November 1992