High Moral Climates


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

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, that great propagator of pornography Mary Wilson — whom a contemporary called "the reviver of erotic literature in the present century" — strictly forbade the description of homosexual love in any of the erotic fiction and poetry which she published.

In The Voluptuarian Cabinet she wrote:

It is much to be regretted, that some of the very best French works should be deformed by passages descriptive of Socratic love but it is still more to be lamented that such ideas should ever be transferred into our language. I speak not merely the feelings of a woman upon the subject, for were I a man, I should consider it highly criminal to propagate doctrines, the adoption of which is attended with such horrible consequences. Let us have all kinds of orthodox futuition [copulation] but not heterodox fasions.

This strikingly illustrates that the censorship of homoerotica is advocated not merely by the Lord Longfords of history, but even by those who earn their living by disseminating salacious literature. Of course economic factors are also involved: Miss Wilson, for example, had a vested interest in such institutions as brothels (she tried to set up a Temple of Priapus), and one of the "horrible consequences" of exposure to homoerotica might well mean less custom for straight houses of ill fame.

Also, and not surprisingly, publishers of whatever complexion generally seek the "wider audience." "Special fare" for transvestites, foot fetishists, paedophiles and homosexuals has a limited audience in even the most tolerant climates. In general, however, the releative scarcity of homoerotica is due to a genuine aversion to homosexuality that runs throughout all levels of Western society. An ancient proverb justifies the most rampant heterosexual fornicating by the principle that "there's no harm where a good child's got" — whereas non-procreative intercourse leads to no children whatever, good or bad.

Indeed, this aversion to homosexuality seems to be well nigh constant ever since the triumph of Christianity in Western Eruope. The Church, for example, was responsible for the most wanton act of suppression to which any creative artist has ever been subjected: the destruction of the amatory verse of Sappho of Lesbos. Her work had long been criticized for looseness — particularly for its lesbian content — and in the fourth century Gregory Nazianzen ordered its public destruction; the final destruction was accomplished in Rome and Constantinople in 1073 by Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand). Out of a total of nearly 9,000 lines, only 50 remain (some of them discovered stuffing the mouths of mummified crocodiles), and most of these are only incomprehensible half-lines from mutilated papyri (a fragment is on display in the British Museum).

The works of Sappho that remain are more amatory than erotic, for example:

The gods bless you
May you sleep then
on some tender
girl friend's breast

(From the translation of Mary Barnard, University of California Press, 1958). But their paucity has been a blessing to homophobic scholars such as Edward Marion Cox (The Poems of Sappho, 1925) who was all too happy to find "not proven" the "alleged moral derelictions" and "such scandalous traditions" connoted by the name of the Tenth Muse.

But let us return to the present century. Censorship of course affects the whole of society, but it is a matter of particular concern to gays and lesbians because its victim tends to be the bulk of gay and lesbian literature whether or not it is explicitly erotic. This is because a gay subject is automatically reviled as obscene in the same way that gay people are automatically despised as those who "indulge in homosexual practices." That is, most people fail to distinguish between homosexual acts on the one hand and homosexual persons/feelings/lifestyles on the other; this focus solely upon sex is perpetuated by the term "homosexual," though most people are content with the terms "cocksucker," "bugger," etc. (and, in days gone by, "tribade," though for some people today "lesbian" also has a purely carnal meaning). Thus it has been difficult to convince some people that gay organizations are not sex clubs, and to persuade them that "gay rights" refer not solely to the age at which a man can fuck a boy, but to such thigns as non-discrimination in employment and child custody.

In England, any talk of non-sexual homosexual topics such as gay rights was virtually inconceivable until the past two decades. There is not a single erotic passage in Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), yet instead of being appreciated as a plea for pity, Radclyffe Hall found herself in court listening to the debate which successfully declared her novel to be obscene, and on November 17, 1928, 247 copies of the book were flung into the furnace in a cellar of Scotland Yard.

This was a landmark in the history of literary obscenity trials, and proved conclusively that even the least titillating fiction about lesbians was an intolerable outrage. It was censored not for being naughty, but for being morally poisonous. A contemporary newspaper attack reads:

This pestilence is devastating the younger generation. It is wrecking young lives. It is defiling young souls. ... I have heard it whispered about by young men and young women who do not and cannot grasp its unutterable putrefaction. ... this novel forces upon our society a disagreeable task which it has hitherto shirked, the task of cleansing itself from the leprosy of these lepers, and making the air clean and wholesome once more.

The ban against The Well of Loneliness held firm for more than twenty years, and English literature still has not quite recovered form the effects of the trial, just as British gay society has not quite recovered from the effects of the trial of Oscar Wilde. But this was England, with its high moral climate, where the typical attitude was: "These things are as old as time and as long as people keep quiet about them it is entirely their own affair." Although the English people have a highly developed sense of privacy, they have enacted no laws to guarantee the right to privacy, so once people cease keeping quiet and begin frightening the horses, their affairs become a matter of public concern.

In the United States, in 1929, Radclyffe Hall's novel was declared not to be obscene; and it fared well in other countries as well. The difference in "standards" between England and other countries has changed little in the ensuing years. British censoriousness is a laughing-stock for many foreign writers, so much so that they have come to the conclusion that British readers get the kind of anodyne literature they deserve. Thus at the front of the UK edition of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (published by Anthony Blond in 1968) we read:

Wanting in every way to adapt to the high moral climate that currently envelops the British Isles, the author has allowed certain excisions to be made in the American text.

To wit: the more explicit passages dealing particularly with gay sex and sadism have been filleted away. For example, because of censorship, something seems odd about the following passage (in the Panther paperback edition, 1976, page 146), when Myra checks Rusty for a hernia:

"All right. You won't have to remove your shorts ..."
He gave a sigh of relief ... too soon.
"However, I shall have to insert my hand inside the shorts."
"Oh." Dismay and defeat.
"I think you'll agree that's a statesmanlike compromise." On that bright note, I slid my left hand up the inside of his left thigh. He wriggled involuntarily as I forced my fingers past the leg opening of the shorts. I took my hand away.
"Jesus," he whispered. "I almost threw up."
"I'm sorry. But I have to be thorough. I'll be gentler this." [sic] Again my hand pushed past the damp cloth, [sic] Then I let it drop and removed my hand.
He gave a deep sigh. "I guess that's it."
"Yes, I think so."

The two typographical errors seem to call our attention to the fact that the text has been tampered with. Why did Rusty almost throw up? Because in the text of the American edition there occurs a short description of how Myra not only squeezed his balls, but forced them back up into "the ancient cavity" in the pelvis from which they had originally descended. It is a small "excision," but it renders incomprehensible Rusty's gag-reflex, and lessens our appreciation for Myra's delight in sadism, and her tasteless thoroughness.

These and other "excisions" — all minor (though one man's trivial may be another man's profound) — mar the brilliant surface of Vidal's novel, but in all fairness it must be admitted that the rape scene is nearly complete, and a highlight of homoerotic literature:

I lowered the examination table until it was just two feet from the floor. "Lie down," I ordered. "On your stomach."
Mystified, he did as he was told. I then tied his bound hands to the top of the metal table. He was, as they say, entirely in my power. [...]
"Now then, up on your knees."
"But ..." A hard slap across the buttocks put an end to all objections. He pulled himself up on his knees, legs tight together and buttocks clenched shut. He resembled a pyramid whose base was his head and white-socked feet, and whose apex was his rectum. I was now ready for the final rite.

This rite which involves the use of an over-sized dildo, strapped to the waist of that transsexual virago Myra, but which I shan't bother to quote further because parts of the scene have been "excised" by greater pens than mine. The novel is a shocking, outrageous and hilarious satire on the myths of virility and feminity, and a masterpiece of bad taste: even worse taste in the UK bowdlerized version, which is all part of Vidal's "one big joke" attitude to such matters.

Not that it is easy to get hold of copies of uncensored American editions. Her Majesty's Customs have standards all their own. In 1976 Gay News tried to import copies of the US edition of Richard Amory's Frost because the UK edition had gone out of print. The shipment was confiscated by HM Customs. The situation was explained to them. They did not appreciate legal arguments or the irony of refusing entrance to a book that had previously been published in England. The novel was obscene. It ought to be burnt. It was burnt.

So also was a single copy of Teleny meant for the private perusal of GN editor Denis Lemon. There were difficulties with shipments of Loovis's Gay Spirit, and similar difficulties with the "Trader Dick" classified advertising section of The Advocate. Imported copies of The Gay Liberation Book by Richmond and Noguera were seized in the early 1970s, either because it had a photograph of two naked men, or because one frame of a cartoon in it depicts fellatio. Regardless: it demonstrates how easily even the most bona fide gay works can be seized and censored without causing a public outcry. In the later 1970s the Obscene Publications Squad of Scotland Yard seized a copy of Pasolini's film Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom, a work based upon, but artistically superior to, the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom.

The situation has not improved greatly in the past twenty years. Gays the Word bookstore in London has been regularly raided for importing gay books, even ones that are published in England and Europe, with a detrimental effect on its business. In May 1998 an unsolicited German-language manuscript sent for consideration to Gay Men's Press was intercepted at Dover, and resulted in a raid by Customs officials on the publisher's offices and the confiscation of their computers "for investigation," thus forcing them to cease trading until the return of the computers. Would the virtual shutdown of a large mainstream (read: non-gay) publisher be tolerated on such a spurious excuse?

In the British Museum there is a small terracotta figure (Greek, 200 B.C.), titled "Women Gossiping." Dolores Klaich, author of Woman Plus Woman, had a postcard of this, for she instinctively felt that "the women, obviously, are not gossiping," but she put aside her interpretation in the face of British archeological experts. But "later, when I found that, as a matter of course, early British translators of a Sappho love poem rendered the woman with whom the poet had been in love as a man (it took almost 200 years for the pronoun to be straightened out), I framed the postcard and began thinking Conspiracy." Quite. And so it will continue.


Copyright © 1977, 1998 Rictor Norton.


CITATION: Rictor Norton, "High Moral Climates", Gay History and Literature, 16 November 2000 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/moral.htm>


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