Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Gay Scholars

A review of The Gay Academic edited by Louie Crew (1978)

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Holland was not so pleasant a place for gay men as it is today. In fact it was positively deadly. In 1730-31, in various cities throughout Holland including Amsterdam, 59 homosexual men and boys were burned, hanged, beheaded, garrotted, and even do=rowned for their “crimes”.

A wave of religious hysteria similar to the Massachusetts withhunts began in Utrecht in April 1730, which led the Dutch authorities to issue a proclamation against sodomy, which resulted in widespread torture, execution and banishment in more than twenty towns from the Hague to the tiny village of Zuidhorn – where 21 victims were scorched while alive and then strangled and burnt to ashes on 24 September 17311.

The available records list the names, ages and often the occupations of the 59 victims of this massive purge, and make for truly sickening reading. In amsterdam: Maurits van Eeden, house servant, and Cornelis Boes, 18, Keep’s servant, each immersed alive in a barrel of water and drowned, 24 June 1730. In Kampen: Abram ten Oosten, old clothes dealer, strangled on the scaffold and buried under the gallows, 22 July 1730. In Zuidhorn: Hendrick Eeuwes, 19, strangled and burnt; Gerrit Harms, 15, strangled and burnt; Tamme Jansz, 14, strangled and burnt.

This incident is only one of many reigns of terror admirably documented by Louis Crompton in his excellent essay “Gay Genocide: From Leviticus to Hitler”. As he notes, the expression “gay genocide” is not in very general use and sounds dramatic, but once we finish reading his accounts of the fate of homosexuals under the early Jews and Christians, in the American colonies (which didn’t abolish the death penalty for homosexuals until 1786), and under the German Nazis – not to mention the execution of some 60 gay men in England from 1805 to 1836 – the term “gay genocide” acquires a validity one cannot deny.

Crompton’s essay is included with 24 other articles in the American anthology The Gay Academic, edited by my former colleague Louie Crew. The idea behind the collection was basically to gather together a wide range of topics that are of particular interest to gay academics, from very practical issues such as where to seek a job if you’re a gay teacher, to the problems of teaching in a homophobic environment (which the academic community largely is), to more abstract questions within specialixzed fields such as linguistics or philosophy.

The anthology is somewhat overbalanced by its section on Literature, which contains no fewer than eight essays, including an excellent prolegomenon to concepts of gay literary criticism by Jacob Stockinger; an example of a course on gay literature by James Brogan; and a variety of essays on homosexual themes in the works of Mailer, Merrick, Vidal, Richard Howard, Hart Crane, Isherwood, Ackerley, and Rilke, most notably Karla Jay’s analysis of homosexual and lesbian themes in the works of Proust and Gide, with a particular focus upon the self-hatred of many of their characters: by far the best criticism I’ve read on a topic that so obviously demands critical attention, yet has not received it in the standard academic journals.

Although many of the essays are both enjoyable and illuminating, the book as a whole doesn’t quite pull it off. The subject of “homosexuality / homophobia” is so large and ambiguous that the interdisciplinary approach doesn’t quite succeed. The literature studies hang together well and inform one another – as do Barbara Gittings’ comments on library science and Julie Stanley’s linguistic view of lesbian separatism; and even the History section is largely literary in focus, containing as it does Stephen W. Foster’s nearly obsessive annotation of Burton’s Arabian Nights. But this unity rapidly dissipates as we enter the disciplines of Philosophy, Psychology, Theology, Science, Sociology and Political Science.

Many of the essays under these rubrics are subtitled, explicitly or implicitly, “Towards a Gay Analysis of . . . [Science, Philosophy, etc.]”; they really haven’t gotten to the analysis yet, and one wishes they had waited a few more years. What is rather embarrassingly revealed in the latter essays is that most of the writers are still doctoral candidates, or recent graduates, or newly appointed assistant professors. They haven’t yet come to grips with the content of their respective disciplines (as have the writers in the section on Literature), but are swamped by the techniques and jargon of their studies. They wrongly think they can impose a gay framework upon their most cherished moethods. An argument in favour of “dialogical” education techniques, for instance, reads the same as any other such argument despite being given a new gay context. Generally a single-discipline anthology would be more satisfactory, if only gay academics would give their views in such anthologies.

As it is, we are left with the strong feeling that “the gay academic” is a bit academic. One essay examines various philosophies for their inherent attitudes to gays, and concludes that since homophobia is largely due to ancestor worship, we can counter this by developing a philosophy of reincarnation: such a conclusion I find incomprehensible except in the Alice-in-Wondereland-logic of a philosophy classroom.

I’m not convinced that the anger that runs throughout many of the articles is very constructive. In many cases we are merel left with the hope that gays will be in the vanguard of a revolutionary new approach to various academic issues. Wishful thinking to the contrary, the only gay vanguard I have observed is in the theatre and ballet, and it is hardly revolutionary.

In sum, The Gay Academic suggests that the major contributions that the gay academic has to make are in the fields of literature and history, possibly also in psychology/sociology. Other fields such as political science might be best left to those on the Left and in the Women’s Movement. But the book remains a fine pioneering approach to the whole field, and I look forward to any new developments it may spawn. And considering the almost universally conservative and closeted nature of the academic environment, it is certainly a brave attempt.

Rictor Norton

(This review was originally published in Gay News in 1978. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

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