The Homophobic Imagination

by Rictor Norton (with Louie Crew)

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.

The following essay is the editorial written for The Homosexual Imagination, a special issue of College English, the official journal of The National Council of Teachers of English, which was edited by myself and Louie Crew in 1974. This was the first all-gay issue of an academic journal, and can be regarded as one of the roots in the development of Gay and Lesbian Studies in colleges and universities. Although 1974 may seem like a long time ago, I am reprinting the essay here partly because it has interest as an historic document, and partly because much of what it says seems to be still valid. (One word of clarification regarding changing language: in 1974 the word "gay" still meant both "gay and lesbian" (e.g. the lesbians who were active in the Gay Liberation Front preferred calling themselves Gay rather than Lesbian) and that is the way it was used in the essay

Part 1: Introduction

Homosexual literature is written, read, criticized, and taught within a generally hostile environment. Although we may argue about the degrees of such hostility, and although we may debate its precise nature with regard to different kinds of repression, suppression, and oppression, this pervasive hostility is nevertheless an indisputable fact. To recognize this is to appreciate the sociology of literature. In a very real sense the writing, criticism, and teaching of homosexual literature is subordinate to the political state of homosexuals in our society. A celebration and understanding of the homosexual imagination requires an understanding of the homophobic imagination.

Many contemporary manifestations of the homosexual imagination are clearly political in import, as in Jonathan Katz's documentary drama Come Out!, passages of which exhibit the homophobic imagination by way of early American trial judgments wherein homosexuals are condemned to hell as well as to the pillory, prison, or death; and Daniel Curzon's novel Something You Do in the Dark, the title theme being a convincing indictment of modern homophobic society. And even the earlier homosexual imagination contains political reference to the homophobic imagination, however carefully examined, as in Marlowe's Edward II; or however muted, as in Housman's observation that "They're taking him to prison for the nameless and abominable colour of his hair"; or however quiet with the seeds of gay liberation, as in the last lines of Cocteau's Le Livre Blanc: "But I will not agree to be tolerated. This damages my love of love and of liberty."

All of our contributors [to the special issue of College English] have responded to our invitation "to celebrate the homosexual imagination" from "a pro-gay viewpoint," and all of them have recognized the need for some comment upon the homophobic imagination during the course of each discussion. We are quite pleased with the positive thrust of this collection of essays as a whole, and not at all apologetic for the tentativeness of some of the conclusions due to the lack of a traditional groove in which to work, and we are pleased that the overall tone of the collection is more celebrative than angry. However, during the more-than-a-year-long preparation of this collection, we have communicated with several hundred gay academics and writers, from the United States, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, France, the Netherlands, and Japan, and we have come to a greater appreciation of the fact that we have some reasons for grave concern. We do not want this resulting editorial to prejudge the essays that follow. Rather we would like to use this opportunity to explore in some detail the kinds of effects that homophobia may have upon literature, criticism, and teaching.

The homosexual imagination consists, in part, of an immediately felt awareness of the most brutal forms of degradation by which civilizing institutions have sought to suppress that imagination. Within our terms of reference in this particular issue of College English homosexual critics have had their genuine interpretive voices stifled by blindly prejudiced publishers; homosexual authors are currently circulating hundreds of manuscripts which editors are refusing to publish because of the homosexual content; homosexual teachers at this moment are being fired and denied promotions; homosexual students have been convicted of kissing in public, sent to Atascadero State Mental Hospital in California, and there subjected to involuntary electro-convulsive conditioning. It is an old story that love between consenting adult persons of the same gender is illegal in most states and reviled in all, that homosexuals are legally prohibited from employment as teachers in most states, and that faculty advisors in many Colleges of Education are required by law to state which of their student candidates are known to be homosexual and therefore to be denied teacher certification. The oppression of homosexuals is becoming an increasingly familiar story, but one that must be repeated at every opportunity until it becomes so familiar as to bring society to its senses.

(continued on page 2)

SOURCE: Rictor Norton and Louie Crew, "The Homophobic Imagination: An Editorial", in Rictor Norton and Louie Crew (eds), The Homosexual Imagination, College English, Vol. 36, No. 3 (November 1974), pp. 272-90; copyright 1974 by The National Council of Teachers of English.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "The Homophobic Imagination (1974)." Updated 18 June 2008 <>.

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