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Gay Lives

Robert Aldrich
Thames & Hudson
304 Pages $29.95

Review by Joe Palmer
Cross posted to 365 LGBT

George Santayana once wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Quite dire sounding. If it were left to American conservatives and evangelicals there might not be any substantial LGBT history to forget as all we’ve been in their sin-centric view is debauched abominations since being scapegoated for Jehovah’s  destruction of a legendary Sodom and Gomorrah. Robert Aldrich, Professor of European History at the University of Sydney, Australia, who has a special interest in the history of gender and sexuality, has written “Gay Lives”. It is the fifth of Aldrich’s twelve books to date that enumerate gender and sexuality. Aldrich was editor of”Gay Life and Culture: A World History” which offers a broader, yet detailed scope of the history that once dared not speak its name. With “Gay Lives” Aldrich has chosen to focus on eighty people from diverse times, cultures, and backgrounds whose lives often fell outside the boundaries of contemporary societies. If a “biographical survey from ancient Chinese courtiers to pioneers of gay liberation” seems a bit too scholarly for your reading tastes, with all of the associated negative connotations academia often carries, let me assure you that Aldrich provides fascinating reading on his subjects. Subjects are placed in thematic groups, eg: Ancient Ancestors, Founding Fathers and Mothers, Women Who Loved Women, and Radicals and Activists. A few figures that readers will immediately recognize, such as Oscar Wilde and Harvey Milk are included though Aldrich states in his introduction that the purpose is “not to offer a compendium of the lives of the ‘greatest gays'”. The stories of people such as the Ladies of Llangollen, Simon Nkoli, Carson McCullers, and Constantine Cavafy, Claude Cahun, and Antonio Rocco may be lesser known or lost to antiquity as are Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two Egyptian men who as joint “Overseer[s] of the Manicurists” kept a Pharaoh and his court stylish and were entombed together in preparation for the afterlife. They are all equally interesting when brought to life in Aldrich’s accomplished hands. Chapters are short; none longer than five pages. Aldrich’s richly detailed, concise writing style lent a “just one more page” reading experience for me from the book’s first entry on those mysterious Egyptians to the closing biography on Cuban born author Reinaldo Arenas.

Upon my first cursory look through the book I came across a number of names that I didn’t recognize. For example, the Chevalier d’Eon (1728 – 1810), a minor French royal and gender bender who, as a male, received a law degree, wrote volumes on finance, served as a military officer, and a diplomatic attache who spied in London. Rumors that Chevalier was in fact a woman created scandals for the English and French governments until the French government bribed d’Eon with a pension to return to France to live as a woman in exchange for the guarantee of abandoning politics. Chevalier’s plan to raise a company of female soldiers to fight in America’s War for Independence was refused by Louis XVI, and would later return to England to continue living as a woman. Chevalier claimed to have been born a woman though this was proven  biologically untrue upon death though she indeed may have been transgender. Rosa Bonheur was a name I’d encountered in passing during a stale art history lecture years ago that highlighted the painter’s accomplishments. Not till reading Aldrich’s passage on Bonheur did I know she challenged stereotypes by choosing to wear male clothing and painting subjects traditionally associated at the time with men, or that she lived with Nathalie Micas, a childhood friend, until Micas’ death, and lived the rest of her life with American painter Anna Klumpke, whom she made sole beneficiary. Of particular interest to me are the chapters on Lionel Wendt, Sri Lanka’s Wilhelm Von Gloeden; Nobuku Yoshiya, one of Japan’s pioneers in shōjo shōsetsu (girls fiction), a spiritual forerunner of yuri; Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim who enjoyed a passionate and against all odds affair during the height of Nazi Germany before Schragenheim was marched to a concentration camp; Indian painter Bhupen Khakhar for painting mature, nude males; and Tamotsu Yato, a photographer and associate of Yukio Mishima.

Some criticism was made of “Gay Life and Culture”, edited by Aldrich, by billing it as a world history when many of its authors’ primary focus was on Western cultures. The author addresses this concern by stating an effort was made to include non-Europeans. By my count there are no less than a dozen such entries, more if the stories of people of European descent, like T. E. Lawrence or Lionel Wendt, who were outsiders in other cultures are included. Noticeably absent are accounts of Native American Two Spirits such as We’Wha or Hastiin Klah who each had met a President (We’wha met Grover Cleveland and Klah met FDR), or men and women from other native cultures such as from the Pacific Islands. Likely many reasons to which we’re not privy factored into Aldrich’s choices. However, this is not so much a criticism on my part as it is a wish to read future accounts of historical forebears written by Aldrich.

A bibliography provides a welcome list of resources for the reader seeking more information on persons piquing individual interests.

The book itself is quite impressive. Debra Morton Hoyt’s jacket design is striking. The front cover combines black and white photographs of a stylish Radclyff Hall in profile and Von Gloeden’s dreaming Cain with the rainbow band book title sitting between the pair of images. The color strip contrasts with the photographs both visually and temporally to reach backwards through time to embrace and renew the lives and memories of historical LGBT figures. A portrait of Oscar Wilde adorns the back cover. Wilde gazing outward from 121 years ago at the reader or perhaps figuratively backward in time at those who came before him. The signature pages, which have a good weight and matte finish, are bound to the spine to ensure the covers and pages will remain intact and sturdy for many years. Remove the dust jacket and you will find black cloth and an embossed design of a pair of dolphins in yin-yang orientation. A fitting symbol given recent findings suggesting that homosexuality and bisexuality may be a reality for the mammals.  Numerous beautifully reproduced illustrations, many full page, with over fifty are in color, evoke the subjects of the various biographies, giving faces to names. Finally, spine lettering is sharp and distinct thanks to silver leafing.

“Gay Lives” reveals that the past was not always as straight laced as many insist on believing and should appeal to the history buff, the gossip oriented (Secrets and scandals and lies! Oh, my!), and the curious minded reader in search of good stories with memorable characters. Truth is often more interesting than fiction.

Check your local LGBT bookstore or purchase from Amazon.

September 5, 2017
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