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Why we need to get to know the “bad gays” of history

LGBTQ history often focuses on the heroes. The creators of the Bad Gays podcast explain their mission to fill in the gaps.

Lawrence of Arabia in 1927, dressed in Arab clothing.
Lawrence of Arabia in 1927, dressed in the clothing of the Arabs he fought for — and against — during the colonial independence movement.
Bettmann Archive

LGBTQ Pride Month is a time to celebrate the queer people in history who have fought for equal rights.

But how should we talk about influential queer figures who don’t fit that narrative?

That’s the idea behind the new podcast Bad Gays from writers Ben Miller and Huw Lemmey. LGBTQ history is often ignored or misrepresented in pop culture. Even among historians, the focus at times has been on finding and recognizing the queer heroes. Bad Gays, focusing on the “evil and complicated gay men in history,” tries to tell some of the stories that get left out.

Each installment of the podcast’s 10-episode first season centers on a particular historical figure. Some are famous, like Lawrence of Arabia, but questions about their sexual identity have often been considered more as scandals or footnotes than as important details of their story.

And “bad” can be as slippery a term as “gay” for Bad Gays’ subjects. (The title is a clever misdirect; it’s not just about villains, and definitely not about performative enthusiasm for brunch.) “Some of them are bad because they went along with the prevailing spirit of their time,” Miller says. “Some of them might have been considered bad at the time or might be considered bad in popular conversation, but actually we end up coming to a more sympathetic understanding of them.”

Bad Gays’ first episode concerns a less well-known figure: Nazi leader Ernst Röhm, “the world’s first openly gay politician.” The show later turns to perhaps the first publisher of gay, lesbian, and transgender magazines — who tried to appease the Nazis. Lawrence of Arabia makes his appearance, along with BDSM fiction he writes that is tied to his deeply problematic work in the colonial Middle East.

Listeners also hear about a very different side of Andrew Sullivan, the contemporary writer who helped popularize the conservative case for gay marriage and continues to argue against perceived radicalism in the LGBTQ community. An actual spy struggles with layers of concealed identity, and the season ends with a fixture of the McCarthy era and Donald Trump mentor, Roy Cohn, who aids a witch hunt against imagined gay spies in the US government. (Bad Gays labels him the “Polestar of Human Evil.”)

Each of these subjects becomes totally fascinating through Bad Gays lens; the rigorous research and eye for telling details evoke the feeling of unraveling a mystery. It’s also pretty funny — each episode ends with reality TV-style snap judgments of “bad gay or not bad gay?”

I reached out to Miller and Lemmey to find out how they managed to make a podcast on a really difficult and sensitive topic accessible and a joy to listen to.

“We did want to make a show that people could sort of laugh along to. We wanted to make a show that was kind of juicy,” Miller told me, adding, “But there’s something more than just fun to be had.”

Lemmey and Miller just released a bonus episode on Andy Warhol with artist and writer Sholem Krishtalka, and plan to release season two in the next few months. In the meantime, our conversation about how they choose their subjects, debates over gay identity in history, “evil twink energy,” and how we might learn from the mistakes of the bad gays, is below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tim Williams

I admit I probably wouldn’t listen as raptly to a Good Gays podcast. So how do you critique the badness in gay history versus sort of reveling in it?

Huw Lemmey

For us, the interest is not to perpetuate the idea of these good and bad role models, but to use the idea of the “bad gay” to talk about things that just focusing on activist heroes or authors or artists might not allow you access to. For example, Lawrence of Arabia or, actually, most of our subjects.

So, yeah, I think that the title is slightly tongue in cheek and sort of eye-catching.

Tim Williams

The show is, so far, about the bad gay men of history because, as you repeatedly note, “men are definitionally the most bad.” Define definitionally. Why are these specific men the ones chosen?

Ben Miller

I suppose it’s my word. I mean, I suppose that phrase began as a bit of a joke really. But like all jokes, it has its roots somewhere real.

Some of [the subjects] are bad because they went along with the prevailing spirit of their time, a spirit which in some cases has changed; in some cases unfortunately it hasn’t. Some of them are bad because they do specifically evil things. Some of them might have been considered bad at the time or might be considered bad in popular conversation, but actually we end up coming to a more sympathetic understanding of them.

In terms of why men are bad, I suppose it has to do with cultural and social construction of patriarchy in which men have more power and power leads to abuse. So I don’t think it’s some sort of radical feminist conviction that men are biologically evil, but instead kind of an understanding about power and how it is abused — which is also a theme, of course, that keeps coming up in the show itself.

I think on the question of your stereotypical “good gay” — I mean, one of the people that we profile, Andrew Sullivan, is someone whose entire kind of public career has been about embodying and promoting the good gay as a lifestyle. So the ones who go around screaming how good they are often are the most kind of problematic and chewy and interesting.

Huw Lemmey

We’ve tried to stay away from too many serial killers. There were a lot of serial killers, and some of them have very interesting stories. But these stories reflect something more interesting about gay identity.

Tim Williams

I think that comes through very clear in the one true crime episode, about two rich nihilist lovers, Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, who planned the “perfect” murder together in Chicago during the Jazz Age. There are really interesting ideas in the episode about the death penalty and the birth of psychology. The “insanity” defense was sort of brought out of this case.

Ben Miller

In that particular case, the kind of “born this way” line about gay people is first used in a big splashy public setting not as an activist plea but as a kind of excuse for murder, in the context of this very strange trial. And I think we both found that really fascinating.

[Loeb and Leopold’s lawyer took on the case to attack the death penalty. He brought in supposed psychological experts to try to prove that these two men, who were famous for their lack of remorse for anything, were incapable of acting differently. And the lawyer linked their nihilism to their gayness, without quite naming it.]

Tim Williams

There are these revealing moments in the show found in private letters. The two Chicago lovers have a falling out at one point, and Leopold writes a “Can We Still Be Friends?” letter. Which is just brutal in how it tries to be businesslike and cordial about the dangers they face from public scrutiny as gay men while still making clear his true feelings.

Huw Lemmey

Well, I think part of that is the way that history [works] and what we retained from the archives, especially in the 19th and 20th century, the spaces where people could be open about their emotions which now survive.

So the private letters is one of the few aspects of that archive that probably still survive. And obviously in lots of cases don’t survive. ... There’s lots of cases especially from those of the middle of the 20th century of men burning all their archives of letters — some really important — because they were terrified of being exposed.

Tim Williams

There’s a running joke on the show about “evil twink energy” being the downfall of everyone you profile. I’m going to attempt a partial defense of one of these guys, Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, or Bosie. He’s kind of a rich layabout who becomes involved with the writer Oscar Wilde and then abandons him again and again. Bosie’s indiscretion arguably helps land Wilde in jail on charges of gross indecency for his same-sex relationships. But Bosie is also a younger, less successful writer looking up to this older man.

And this question kind of gets to the fraught relationships between older, more powerful men and their younger lovers, sometimes teenagers. Is it possible to read the Wilde situation differently?

Huw Lemmey

[Laughs] Yeah, I think the evil twink thing is a bit of an in-joke which emerged quite organically, but I think it’s a stand-in for this idea of men making bad decisions based on their own desire. Wilde definitely being one. There’s plenty of people warning him that he was engaging in a bad relationship.

Like you said, [Bosie] was a young guy who could easily be influenced. But his real crime is not his sort of evil twink energy surrounding Oscar Wilde. I mean, his behavior is really appalling toward Oscar Wilde, especially after [Wilde’s] been convicted and prosecuted and jailed. But it’s also what happened after Wilde’s death and Bosie’s engagement in far-right politics and his unrepentant anti-Semitism. ...

I think King James I and VI is [another] really good example. He allows his desire for Buckingham [his confidant and likely his lover] to overcome what might be a sensible political decision or to ignore the advice of his friends and counselors. He just kept promoting this completely unqualified young guy higher and higher in British nobility and aristocracy. So this really threatens James’s project of absolutism because the merchants upon whom power rested at the time were becoming more and more angry.

Tim Williams

There seems to be some debate among historians about how we should treat the language used in these private letters and other correspondence from the era, about how we might perceive “correctly” or “incorrectly” gay identity in historical documents.

Huw Lemmey

Well, you know, I’m not a historian, so I think Ben should cover that for me. Mine is an impulsive response, which is that if a guy wrote me a letter saying [like Buckingham said to James I and VI] that he was my dog and he loves sleeping in my bed etc., etc. — I know what I’d think of it.

Ben Miller

In history there’s this truism that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there. And I do believe that in a sense the past is full of totally unrecognizable practices and is basically unrecoverable.

So for us, when we talk about a figure like James I and VI, to use the term “gay” is on the one hand totally absurd because it makes absolutely no sense given the historical context in which he lived. On the other hand, what do we learn by including him in a series of shows about different kinds of bad or evil gay men in history?

Tim Williams

There’s the literal Nazi on the show, but another interesting figure is Frederich Radszuweit. He was one of the first publishers of LGBTQ magazines, who at one point seems so enthusiastic in his appeasement of the Nazis that he inspired the newspaper headline “Third Gender Welcomes the Third Reich.” Why does he go to such lengths to defend Nazism?

Ben Miller

Well, maybe that’s a question that’s better asked of the Nazis. The headline is from a straight newspaper of the time. You can imagine exactly how that headline gets written if you think like a newspaper editor. Because you see an article in a gay magazine praising a Nazi, and you know the writing of that headline becomes irresistible.

I think the way that Radszuweit survives [the Nazi regime until his death from tuberculosis] was in the idea of collaborating.

He sees where the winds are blowing; he thinks, well, maybe we can convince them or maybe we can kind of bring them around on the facts. And I think it’s not too difficult to find some evidence of similar thinking today.

Tim Williams

One of the most interesting arguments I think you make on the show is that Andrew Sullivan sort of invented gay marriage and that the conservative case he made for it was actually a devastating setback for LGBTQ rights. [Miller and Lemmey see in Sullivan’s work the idea that gay marriage — and making queer people’s lives look more like those of rich white straight people — is the end goal of the LGBTQ rights movement.]

Ben Miller

I mean, “devastating setback” is maybe somewhat overstating the case. And terms like gay marriage and ideas of relationship recognition have been a part of a lot of different kinds of activism, about which people might have a lot of different kinds of feelings since well before Sullivan.

Huw Lemmey

What I think is interesting is the gay marriage that we got, at least in the English-speaking world. In the US, the decision is written by Anthony Kennedy, who’s a right-wing Catholic conservative, and in the UK the gay marriage bill is brought forward by David Cameron, who is a quite right-wing Conservative Party prime minister. The conservative case for gay marriage is the case that we ended up getting. That’s the version of it that won, and the story that that case tells, which is a story about gay people existing throughout time.

Ben Miller

This sort of move toward tolerance, and then the final move of tolerance is to provide legal and social acceptance — so long as the relationship and the social model looks exactly the same as everything else does. And the achievement of that sameness gets labeled as “dignity,” and that’s the word that keeps coming up in Kennedy’s decision.

Tim Williams

Does learning about the bad gays of history offer any defense against repeating these mistakes in the future?

Ben Miller

I think it just might. The question that Huw and I end the first season with is: What route out of heterosexuality do we take? What kind of a life do we make for ourselves? And I think those questions are always informed by knowing the decisions that people have made in the past.

We did want to make a show that people could sort of laugh along to. We wanted to make a show that was kind of juicy. But also I think it’s of profound importance, this question. Can we take this route that is all about solidifying our own personal power ... or try to make a world that everyone can live in?