Critical Censorship of Gay Literature

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

Sodom: or, The Quintessence of Debauchery, attributed to that rakish libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and published in Antwerp in 1684, has the distinction of being the first literary work to be censored in England on the grounds of obscenity and pornography. It is appropriate that English-American anti-smut laws chose at their first victim a fine example of homosexual Restoration erotica, for homosexual literature has almost always been the single literary tradition to suffer the most at the repressive hands of censors and the no less repressive hands of scholars, critics, editors of so-called definitive anthologies and authors of so-called standard biographies, and of course teachers who would not touch such a tradition — if they even knew it existed.

Although the constitutionality of censorship laws is a never- ending debate, militant and aggressive sweeps under the carpet are no longer serious overt threats to the realistic expression of the homosexual experience. Sodom, for example, was finally republished in 1966. It is important to note, however, that the censorship of the recent past has accomplished much of its goal, for homosexual literature written before 1900 is still generally unavailable. Several collections such as Eros: An Anthology of Male Friendship (ed. Patrick Anderson and Alistair Sutherland, New York, 1963) and the less timorous Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850 to 1900 (ed. Brian Reade, New York, 1970) can introduce serious students to the historically important literary tradition that lies hidden in unexpurgated Latin editions and limited private printings. But for the most part, the homosexual literary tradition has been entered into the Index Librorum Prohibitorum and then shelved in the cherry cabinet because of its ten-letter word.

The most serious threat to the liberation of homosexual literary history is the censorship of the outstanding scholars, editors and critics of the past who sometimes acknowledged their meddling with the unsavory theme of a certain work, but who usually omitted in silence the offensive passages and facts. John Quincy Adams in his definitive edition of Chief Pre- Shakespearean Drama politely indicated, by a series of startling asterisks, that he did not care to print the obscene jokes that appear in The Killing of Abel, the first vernacular mystery play in medieval English literature. But he failed to mention that most of these jokes are homosexual puns upon Cain's oral-genital and oral-anal intercourse with his "boye" Garcio, with the Devil, and even with his brother Abel. Hyder E. Rollins, in his standard anthology of The Renaissance in England, candidly refuses to print much of the finer poetry of Shakespeare's contemporary, Richard Barnfield, not because The Affectionate Shepheard (1594) or Cynthia, with Certayne Sonnets (1595) contain obscene passages, but because Rollins considered their overtly homosexual themes to be "unsavory," "cloying and offensive." For an enlightened mind, Barnfield's poetry is no more cloying than many another Elizabethan courtier's pastoral complaint for the unrequited love of his cruel fair. From a gay point of view the fact that the beloved is "a lovely Ladde" rather than a disdainful maiden — a Ganymede rather than an Amaryllis — is a positive joy and a fountain of friendship upon the monotonous field of heterosexual corn.

Rollins' editorial heavy-handedness is fairly typical of the more responsible scholars, and although the modern reader may smirk at such a priggish attitude, at least Rollins had the decency to own up to his deletions. But such is not the case of numerous other scholars and translators, reputed to be even greater than Rollins. The modern student, as unable to read Greek or Latin as are most of his professors, is repeatedly confronted by mystifying asterisks, iniquitously ponderous Latin substitutions for the merely coarse jests of Catullus, mistranslations such as "friend" for "pederast" (paidikos), and reams of pages that are silently elided. Scholarly research in this field consists of a liturgy of excommunication. If we wish to offer serious criticism of the homosexual passages in the Idylls of Theocritus, we must be prepared to juggle with the Latin passages in the English translation from the Greek by A.S.F. Gow — whose translation is a must for scholarly footnotes. The same obstacle will be found in W.R. Paton's definitive-but-dull translation of the twelve volumes of the Greek Anthology. As for the so-called complete works of Lucian, the scholarly translators eschew even asterisks and Latinizations, and bury in a footnote the fact that several entire dialogues and numerous passages have been omitted passim.

The classic Standard Edition, Benjamin Jowett's Plato, translates "beautiful boy" (kalos) as a milder "fair youth," and "the love of boys" (pederastis, meaning "pederasty") as "friendship" — thus effectively obscuring the intergenerational aspects of Platonic pedagogy. In fact, the translations of and commentaries upon Plato's Symposium have been so refined since Marsilio Ficino's Neoplatonic bowdlerization of 1473 that we quite nonchalantly use the ubiquitous catch-all "Platonic love" to describe John Donne's blatantly heterosexual love-lyrics — without realizing that Platonic love is not possible until a lovely lad's chin is covered by soft down, and is quite impossible in respect of a girl. Plato's Phaedrus has suffered an even worse reversal, for Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier, sanctioned by the Renaissance insensibility to plagiarism, paraphrased the passage about an army of homosexual lovers, inserting female pronouns for male pronouns in the rights places, so as to envision an unconquerable army of courtiers whose courage was sustained by their watchful mistresses; in the original the two male lovers fought side by side, but in the heterosexual version the mistresses had to be perched atop the battlements miles away from the mêlée of battle! Scholars have not noticed this disparity of distance, and how it fails to support the original theme about courage. Neither are critics well versed in the fact that in the Phaedrus Socrates quite explicitly condones sexual intercourse between friends, "friends who may not yet have their full spiritual wings, but who have nevertheless sprouted their feathers and will mount together the ladder of perfection for their love's sake." This passage has been ignored to such an extent that few readers understood the relevance of the quotations from the Phaedrus that appear in Mary Renault's The Charioteer and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Readers of modern homosexual literature, even when censorship has not been applied to the modern literature, have thus been deprived of a sense of the continuity of the homosexual tradition.

Scholars busy themselves so much with suppressing the facts that hardly anyone is aware that way back in 1925 it was discovered that some of Whitman's finest erotic poetry was originally written to "he" and "him" and then heterosexualized for publication. This suppression is admittedly the "authorized" edition in the sense that it was authorized by the author himself — but it is nevertheless less than honest for critics to talk about Whitman's "latency" as if this documentation did not exist. Surely the evidence supports the evidence for suppression — that is conscious self-censorship — rather than unconscious latency.

The typical manner in which homosexual literature is mistreated is historically illustrated by the way in which Shakespeare's Sonnets — and their notorious "problem" — have been handled. These sonnets are of course guilty of pathology by pronouns, so the first important editor, John Benson, in 1640 remedied the situation by replacing each "he" and "him" by "she" and "her," thus evading the irregularity of one Renaissance gentleman's addressing another as his sweet wag and master- mistress without being kicked in the codpiece for his impropriety. Benson's blatant editorial dishonesty has since been corrected, but the more ambiguous sonnets are still deliberately omitted from lower-level anthologies apparently compiled for courteous gentlewoman readers. The substantial scholars Edmund Malone and Edward Dyce contended (in 1790 and 1832 respectively) that Shakespeare's intimacy of address was merely a Renaissance convention, a view that is still fashionable today. In 1890 Angelo Olivieri documented this view by citing the use of similar terms of endearment by Poliziano, Martelli, Bembo, and Michelangelo — apparently unaware of the fact that Poliziano and Bembo were publicly well-known overt homosexuals and Martelli and Michelangelo at least came under the suspicion by their contemporaries. By the time this controversy over Shakespeare's love-diction would wear it self out, critics had erected several monuments to their own euphemistic imaginations. Platitudes about the "friendship convention" are now part of the Renaissance critical canon despite their lack of foundation. As for the literary, rather than the linguistic, convention, the only other sonnet sequence addressed by one man to a fair youth in English Renaissance literature was Barnfield's Certayne sonnets, containing lines as overtly homosexual as "Sometimes I wish that I his pillow were,/ so might I steale a kisse." Claes Schaar in Elizabethan Sonnet Themes suggests that Barnfield's sonnets directly influenced Shakespeare's, including the famous "treasure/pleasure" rhyme, but the common teacher in today's classroom has never heard of Richard Barnfield, and would be shocked to learn of the Theocritean- Virgilian homoerotic tradition that lay behind the "mere Renaissance convention."

The major obstacle for a critic-as-gay-liberator to overcome is the very curious assumption that homosexual writers express a merely homosexual truth arising from the "ghetto" of their experience, while heterosexual writers are somehow capable of expressing "universal" truth — which apparently is relevant even to homosexual readers. We could similarly hold that blacks write only for blacks, Jews only for Jews, women only for women, and Whigs only for Whigs. But even an eighteenth- century decorous gentleman would concede that the majority of those who possessed refined taste could not always and invariably perceive, much less define, universal truth.

One of the poems in the Collected Edition of Stephen Spender's work now ends with the universal (albeit sad and cynical) truth: "Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have an affair, a railway fare, or a revolution." There is no valid reason why this should be regarded as being more universal than the lines as they originally appeared in the First Edition: "Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have a boy, a railway fare, or a revolution." In terms of technical competence the original version is better than the revised version, avoiding a supernumerary syllable and the jolting repetition of "affair" and "fare." The Collected Edition version certainly is not more "universal": it is simply been censored to be more vague. Thus all-inclusiveness is achieved at the expense of evasiveness.

A universality gained, as in Michelangelo's Sonnets, but a typographical shift from signor to signora, graphically undermines the dubious metaphysic about the validity of the "canon." The experience of gay, black, and women readers seriously discredits "universality" as a viable critical concept, hopefully assigning it to the same antiquarian's niche now occupied by scholarly "objectivity" and the pathetic fallacy. This is not to debunk the notion that a significant and relevant work of art should have a reasonably generous breadth and some degree of sympathy with humanity, but surely Mark André Raffalovich's line "Our lives are wired like our gardenias" strikes an sympathetic chord in heterosexuals who have never camped it up to relieve the anxiety of social ridicule. If "universality" is everywhere and consistently defined narrowly in terms of either the biases of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexual males or in terms of neutrality/nonsexuality/impersonality — as in the heterosexual overpraise of Auden's "Lay your sleeping head" — then we have a clear indication of the failure of liberal humanism in the Western world.

Contemporary critics frequently deprive homosexual literature of its intrinsic worth by maintaining that such literature is narrow, thus betraying the implicit assumption that heterosexual readers do not have the imaginative wherewithal to critically apply a homosexual situation to their own. So a little change of emphasis, as for example the heterosexual love triangle in the movie version of the homosexual love triangle in Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana, or the elimination of the homosexual character Perry from the movie version of Midnight Cowboy, are the necessary distortion by which homosexual themes are made comprehensible for heterosexual minds limited by their "universality."

Most of those critics and educators who take the historical approach because of their partially correct view that knowledge of historical milieu and biography can deepen our understanding of an author's work, strangely abandon this approach when they examine a homosexual writer's work or a (possibly) homosexual theme in a specific work. By ignoring such circumstances, they would have us believe that every homosexual theme in literature is an anomaly, in accordance with the prejudice that homosexual behavior is itself "queer." The classic argument is that the love of Achilles and Patroclus not only is a "spiritual comradeship" in itself, but proof positive that "in the beginning" masculine love was "pure," and "degenerated" into "perversion." Homer himself acknowledged that hustling was already a thriving business, and that Achilles "longed for Patroclus' strength and his manhood." In the opinions of Lucian, Aeschylus and Plutarch — relying upon their knowledge of works now lost or destroyed — Achilles was regarded as Patroclus' wife.

Although the critics romantically pursue any suggestion that a poet may have had a secret mistress, when it comes to the biographies of possibly homosexual authors who did not suffer the public humiliation of Oscar Wilde, the standard cliché is "But there's no real evidence." Thus, though John Aubrey said that Sir Francis Bacon was a "paiderastos" and "had ganimeds and favorites," Aubrey cannot be trusted because he was a sensationalistic gossip-monger; although Sir Simonds D'Ewes knew of a "very effeminate-faced youth" who was Bacon's "catamite and bedfellow," D'Ewes cannot be trusted because he was a Puritan extremist; and although even Lady Ann Bacon complained of "that Bloody Percy" whom Francis kept "yea as a coach companion and bed companion" (presumably the servant Henry Percy to whom Bacon left a sum of money in his will) her testimony is untrustworthy because she had a mental condition in later life. We learn a great deal more about what is said to constitute "trustworthy evidence" when we realize that James Orchard Holliwell in his 1845 edition of D'Ewes' Autobiography — the only available edition — silently deletes the entire passage in which D'Ewes talks about Bacon's homosexuality (vol. I, ch. 10, p. 192; the passage is printed separately by a (gay?) mischief-maker in a collection of miscellaneous tracts in the British Library, bound under the unconnected title Historia Vitae et Regni Richardi II, 1729). By such means as this deliberate suppression, the Father of Modern Science, regarded as the veritable incarnation of the ideal "universal Western man," remains untainted by the narrowness of his love.

Even if an author is convicted of homosexual acts, critics will go to outrageous lengths to protect his purity. Nicholas Udall, headmaster of Eton in 1534-41 and author of Roister Doister, the first regular English comedy divided into five acts, was sent to the Marshalsea for committing "buggery" with a certain Thomas Cheyney, but the scholars concur that the secretary of the Privy Council carelessly misspelled "buggery" when he meant "burglary." Apparently it is better — according to heterosexual critics — for an English worthy to be a thief than a homosexual.

If the critic recognizes that an author is almost certainly latent if not overt, the critic seldom proceeds with an analysis of the possible influence of the author's love upon his or her literary works. The biographical head-notes in every sophomore anthology suggest the importance of Petrarch's love for Laura, of Dante's love for Beatrice, of Wordsworth's love for Annette, but seldom are we told that Oscar's love for Bosie informs some of his prose, or that the homosexual's need for a public mask is a factor contributing to the satire on social disguise in The Importance of Being Earnest; or that Whitman's love for Peter Doyle influenced his prophetic theory of comradeship; or that A.E. Housman's unrequited love for A.J. Jackson contributed to the bitter but restrained sorrow of much of his poetry; or that Edna St. Vincent Millay's frequent references to Sappho or Lesbos are not prompted by her love for Eugene; or that Tennyson's love for Arthur Hugh Hallam prompted him to write that most "universal" or sentiments: "'Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all."

In some ways this lack of awareness is all to the good, for when a critic whose knowledge of homosexual love is gathered from psychoanalytical primers rather than experience in the gay subculture decides to correlate an author's love-life and his literary life, the analytical composite can be quite grotesque if not monstrous. Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been reduced to a pathological document of pregenital perversity, allegedly illustrating "oral aggression" and "anal voyeurism" (whatever that is). Yes, Albee has publicaly acknowledged that he is homosexual, and yes, Martha is conceivably a bitch-queen in drag, but surely we can also see the play as a thoroughgoing critique of the social masquerade played by heterosexuals. And "anality" (which really is not an overriding feature of male homosexual literature) is surely less present in Albee's drama than in Chaucer's Miller's Tale.

As the taboo against homosexual love gradually has gradually lessened — at least in "learned" journals — critics have discovered, and exploited, a fertile field for research and criticism. They have ventured forth into this largely virgin territory woefully ill equipped for their investigation. Most have used the short-cut of a ready-made critical tool in Freudian psycho-analytic theory and other pop psychologies, unaware that homosexual literature is no more a single monolithic canon than the mythical phenomenon of the single homosexual personality. Critics and teachers who never even mention the Oedipus complex while discussing heterosexual literature are suddenly glib with theories about castration anxiety, pregenital fixations, and nipple substitutes in homosexual literature — as though homosexual literature were somehow "more Freudian" than heterosexual literature. Lesbian criticism in particular is dominated by neo-Freudian (Lacanian and Kleinian) psychoanalytical theories about the relationship of the female child and her mother. Critics are immune to the necessity of establishing a table of statistically significant data to support their theories, and have readily constructed, for example, a comprehensive theory of "homosexual aesthetics" based solely upon the work of Aubrey Beardsley. Thus scènes du toilette have been found to be characteristic of homosexual literature in general — though the nearest correlation in Pindar's Odes, for example, is a wrestler applying oil in preparation for an Olympic contest. Or the critics will construct, as did Sartre, a metaphysic of masturbation based upon the early work of Jean Genet — quite disregarding the total lack of a profound erotic ontology in, for example, the equally homosexual theme of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (once we realize that its "heroine" is the author's boyfriend).

No critic seems to have grappled with the immense difficulty of defining "homosexual literature" in terms wide enough to support an all-inclusive theory about the nature of such literature. "Homosexual literature," as a monolith, would have to be represented not only by literature with a dominant and overt homosexual theme written by an overt homosexual, but all the seemingly disparate categories of literature with a dominant and overt homosexual theme written by a latent homosexual; literature with an overt heterosexual theme written by an overt homosexual; literature with a bisexual theme written by a latent homosexual; literature with a latent lesbian theme written by a latent or overt bisexual and vice versa; literature with an overt homosexual theme written by an overt heterosexual; and a truly vast number of mathematical possibilities of literature with positive or negative, dominant or subordinate, overt or latent, male or female homosexual or bisexual or heterosexual themes written by guilty or proud overt or latent homosexual or bisexual or heterosexual male or female authors. Before one knows what's happening, the entire Western literary tradition will be subsumed within the homosexual literary tradiion. A final correlation of a significant number of these works will succeed at best in offering merely suggestive support for detecting several "major" themes in several "major" categories, though it will certainly undermine our confident definition of "heterosexual literature" and will seriously blur most of our prejudicial distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual love. Our newfound sophistication resulting from such an attempt at being definitive will make us more than chuckle at Eric Partridge's assertion, in Shakespeare's Bawdy, that Shakespeare could not possibly have been homosexual because none of his bawdy jests are from the woman's point of view.

Any wide survey of the body of homosexual literature will, hopefully, undercut our dependence upon the Freudian hierarchy of erotic phases, for we shall find no devouring mother in the myth of Ganymede, no anal fixation in Andrew Marvell's "Definition of Love," no castration anxiety in Goethe's West-Easterly Divan, no gender confusion in Whitman's Leavesof Grass, no close-binding-intimate mother in James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. There are so many exceptions to the rule that no rule can be established.

But let us examine in somewhat more detail the non-sequiturs and semantic obscurantism that impregnate most Freudian analyses of homosexual literature. The substantive issue in such literature is homosexual love, or the ambiguously intermingled erotic, emotional, and spiritual relationship between members of the same sex. The critics not only evade this fully human emotion, but degrade it by stripping it of all its nuances and by focusing solely upon the exclusively sexual penetration (or desire to penetrate) of one male by another, or one female by another — concomitant with a fear of penetrating the other sex. Thus while the critic of heterosexual literature can use all the terms and ideas listed under LOVE in the Syntopicon to the University of Chicago's series of Great Books of the Western World (of which, incidentally, nearly one-third of the authors represented were homosexual), the critic of homosexual literature is reduced to ferreting out obscene puns.

If the work in question is an innocuous love-lyric addressed by one male to another, usually devoid of pointers to the author's preference for fellatio, buggery, or frottage, the critic will go on to discuss the poem in the entirely irrelevant terms of the author's supposed fear of or dislike for women. John says "I love you, Henry," and the critic tells us "John hates Mary," though Mary has not even been mentioned in the poem. Now this is radically unfair: a literary work must be judged, appreciated, and understood by what it expresses, not by what it does not express. It has been said of Jean Genet that "in spite of his total inability to imagine men who are not homosexuals, he does offer variety within his own particular range" (Phillip Thody, Jean Genet, 1968), and the critics solemnly nod their heads concurring in recognizing this "dubiously limited" achievement. Yet a critic who similarly pointed out that "in spite of his total inability to imagine men who are not heterosexuals, Henry Fielding does offer variety within his own particular range," would be laughed to scorn. But there are in fact far more heterosexual writers who are unable to imagine homosexual characters than vice versa. The allegedly universal range of heterosexual literature is far more circumscribed than the range of homosexual literature, for the former does indeed tend to present a dull vista of heterosexuality while the latter more often than not runs the gamut of hetero-, homo- and bisexual experiences, as in James Purdy's Eustace Chisholm and the Works.

But the critics seemingly will continue naïvely to discuss homosexual literature in terms of the general opposite of what is specifically expressed. A gay man's love-lyric to a single person is construed as evidence of the author's masochism (all homosexuals are self-destructive), his compulsive promiscuity (all homosexuals are compulsive and promiscuous), his fear of women (all homosexual men fear women), and, if there are mythological allusions, his pederastic fixation — for is not such a poem by the very nature of its pronouns already a pathological document?

Such criticism is not only textually irrelevant, but operates from the dangerous sociological principle that human emotions can be lockstepped into mutually exclusive sexual dichotomies. If I love Goodness it may be philosophically tenable to assume that I therefore hate Evil, but it is certainly not very perceptive to suggest that my love for Gerald cannot coexist with my love, or at least my respect and admiration and affection, for Mary. Homosexual literature is analyuzed in terms of theories about exclusive homosexuality, when in fact much gay and lesbian literature is written by persons who have loved both men and women sometime during their lives. In the eighteenth century any educated gentleman referred to "the other sex" when he meant the other sex: our penchant for speaking of "the opposite sex" is a dehumanizing mathematical proposition.

By far the most iniquitous application of this type of non-sequitur reasoning is the assumption that homosexual experience necessarily impairs an author's imaginative abilities. The view that Verlaine corrupted Rimbaud's art as well as his morality is a commonplace in even the most liberal of biographies, and the less-than-great statures of Tennessee Williams, W.H. Auden, and a host of other writers have been attributed to their homosexual loves. Such causal reasoning rises stinking from the sulphurous depths of the hell over which the medieval demon Backbiter sits in his bigoted pride, spewing venom round about him. It is absurd to suggest that Sophocles, for example, is less great because he loved a wine-waiter; or that the breadth of vision of Goethe, for example, was impaired by his pederastic flirtations with Ferdinand, among others. Let us candidly admit that most homosexual literature is mediocre — like most literature in general — but let us no less candidly acknowledge that the plethora of decidedly minor heterosexual authors discovered by the horrified student of graduate seminars are equally second- and third-rate. As a statistical fact, there happen to be far more minor heterosexual authors than minor homosexual authors.

Of far more interest than a general theory about the type of literature arising from a homosexual author's relation to his or her homosexual loves or repressions — and of far more fruitful discovery — are the number of specific theories about the literature arising from a homosexual author's relation to a potentially hostile audience. For example: To what extent is the use of mythology a tactic of evasion? How serious is Proust's deliberate distortion of homosexual experience in order to save all the life-affirming qualities for his pseudo-"heroines"? How much pseudo-homosexual literature can be uncovered if we earnestly endeavor to discover the manipulation of other-sex personae? What would be the results of a scientifically conducted study of readers' reactions to identical poems by authors identified alternative as male or female, and what would this reveal about prejudiced reading patterns? To what extent have homosexual authors been duped into condemning themselves in order to satisfy their readers' and editors' expectations?

The constantly recurring "problem" that critics have sent for themselves — whether homosexual literature in general is "normal" or "abnormal" — is abysmally dull in comparison to the wealth of other topics crying out for research and criticism: How does male homosexual literature differ from female homosexual literature? Is lesbian literature written by males (e.g. Balzac, D.H. Lawrence, Henry James) a "bastard genre"? What are the archetypal initiatory patterns in "the school story"? What is the formula of gay confessionals and coming-out stories? What is the extent of inter-imitation in homosexual literary circles such as the Beat Poets of San Francisco, and is it more creative than in-breeding? What are the sexual politics of contemporary gay women's poetry in the underground media? Why have pederastic themes become relatively scarce since 1920? How are anti-gay editorial policies implemented by learned journals and publishing houses, and how does this distort our sense of what is being researched and our awareness of critical interest? Is sickness a metaphor for self-discovery, and is this metaphor still viable in a gay liberation context? With what frequency is the typical beautiful girl modelled uon the archetypal beautiful boy? Homosexual literature in itself an in relation to its two-thousand-year-old tradition is a vastly intriguing topic, its rhetorical topoi and themes quite worthy of investigation for their own sake, with a diversity sufficient to engage a lifetime of critical endeavor for the critic who is truly a literary critic rather than a moralist.

But the barriers will be difficult to overcome. The strategies of degradation have been so successful that modern readers confront any literary expression of homosexual love as a bizarrerie, supporting our Western cultural prejudice that homosexual love itself is a rare offshoot from the mainstream. The abominable sin unfut to be named among Christian critics is forcefully buried if it is named, just as devout medieval monks literally defaced with tar innumerable manuscripts containing gay drinking songs. The reconstruction of what has been lost of the tradition will entail a program similar to etymological back-formation and may be as difficult as piecing together the few fragments of Sappho's poetry that escaped the wholesale burning of her books decreed by Pope Gregory VII in A.D. 1073. The ingenuity spent upon literary stigmatization — even in the 1970s the term "unnatural" went unchallenged in dissertations by doctoral candidates who should have had a greater awareness of biological possibility — seriously impairs the credibility of most heterosexual critics and scholars. When even that most humane and tolerant of translators, Helen Waddell, translates the last line of a poem by Ausonius as "Flowers that were once bewailed names of kings" — omitting "and boys" (et puerorum) in the original and thus censoring the reference to the homoerotic mythological icon of sacrified boy-gods — the critic-as-gay-liberator realizes the inherent untrustworthiness of virtually all heterosexual lovers of literature who wrote before the Stonewall Riots in 1969 — and most who have written since. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that our educational and critical tradtions, originating in the homosexual environments of the Greek palaestra and the English boys' school, should have become the staunchest oppressors of the homosexual's rightful literary heritage.

(This essay was originally published in Gay Sunshine Journal, No. 23 (November-December 1974). I have made a few amendments, but not attempted to bring it up to date with more contemporary examples. A long chapter on censorship appears in my recent book The Myth of the Modern Homosexual.)

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Critical Censorship of Gay Literature", Gay History and Literature, 18 Nov. 1999, updated 18 June 2008 <>.

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