Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Is intersectionality just an unintelligible theory? I don’t think so. To me it seems ordinary, everyday, commonplace, material–reflected in how we live and understand our lives. This is something I wrote in the conclusion to Queer London a few years ago:
Just as we need to recognize the vitality of queer urban culture, so we must also appreciate its exclusive and exclusionary nature. As the first half of this book suggests, men’s experiences of London were fractured by powerful differences of class, gender, age, ethnicity, and place. Where men found sex and sociability, the lives they led, and the dangers they faced depended, crucially, on these broader social differences. The privileges of class, wealth, and status meant it was always middle-class men who were more likely to find privacy and safety, who were most likely to avoid arrest – however contradictory their experiences may have been. This is not to suggest that working-class men did not find sex and sociability in London’s streets, cafes and lodgings. They did – and the lives they forged there could be vibrant and fulfilling. But the contrast between the dockside pub and the prestigious Trocadero, the Bermondsey cottage and the bachelor chambers, embodies the radical differences that drove men apart.
This emphasis on men’s divergent experiences of the city highlights the second theme running throughout this book: this was a distinctly queer urban culture. What do I mean by this? It was distinctly queer in the sense of being unfamiliar to a 21st century observer. The world mapped in this book is not a gay world as we would currently understand it. The places are different: Soho has retained its importance, but today it seems almost impossible that Waterloo Road or Edgware Road could have been the site of equally important, diverse, extensive, and vital queer enclaves between the wars. And, crucially, the people are different: like Cyril, they live different lives, and make sense of those lives in ways that can be disturbingly unintelligible. The historical task of recuperation – of finding “our” hidden history – is an inadequate paradigm within which to appreciate the complexities of the geography, culture and politics of queer life in the first half of the 20th century. Those very categories of identity – “gay” and “straight,” “homo” and “heterosexual” – that have often been taken for granted since the 1970s, are of limited use in understanding this history.
It was a distinctly queer urban culture, moreover, in the sense that it was created and inhabited by men who were irreducibly different from each other. It is impossible to discern a unitary and stable community in this world. Certainly, the men who frequented London’s commercial venues or public cruising grounds were brought together through similar desires for homosex, erotic pleasure, sociability, or intimacy. But the meanings they invested in those desires, the ways in which they understood their practices, and the urban lives they forged, differed sharply. Different modes of queerness – different ways of understanding sexual difference – converged at the same sites. Indeed, queer and “normal” converged at those sites, for definitions of masculine sexual “normality” within particular working-class cultures could encompass a remarkable range of sexual and emotional interactions between men. In moving through the city’s diverse queer spaces, men forged unique pathways, individualized cognitive maps of metropolitan life and selfhood. If these pathways often overlapped and intersected, they were, nonetheless, different in their geographical organization, and in what they meant to the men who created them.
When men encountered each other as they moved across London, they were just as likely to be reminded of their differences, as to recognize their commonalities; just as likely to react with disdain, disgust and rejection, as with desire and comradeship. This tension between distance and closeness – difference and sameness – was, moreover, integral to particular modes of self-understanding. Respectable “homosexuality” was predicated upon a disdainful repudiation of the quean’s visible difference or the workingman’s public sexual practices. Through his relationships with men the quean embodied broader understandings of his ineffably womanlike character. And in his same-sex encounters, the working-class “tough” enacted distinctive conceptions of manliness, status and domination against other men. Queer urban culture was the site of diverse intersecting modes of queerness and “normality,” coalescing around their desires for homosex, sociability and intimacy.