The magnificently named Sir Peregrine Worsthorne has been getting hot and bothered lately about a novel written by Phillip Henshaw, King of the Badgers. Or, to be strictly accurate, he has been getting hot and bothered by what he calls in a head-to-head debate with Henshaw in The Spectator the ‘brazen […] portray[al of] the promiscuous and squalid side of homosexuality’ in this and other contemporary gay novels. I don’t feel I have anything particular to contribute to the debate per se since Henshaw acquits himself well enough. I will note in passing that I don’t recognise Worsthorne’s depiction of modern Britain as a place where only ‘the rigorous restraints of today’s politically correct culture – imposed from above’ protect gay people from the physical consequences of straight disapproval of our sexual activities. I think the default straight attitude to gay people these days is a kind of weary disinterest – “do they have to keep going on about it?” I’m not so naïve as to claim this is the same as approval, but it’s a long way from the ‘disgust’ Worsthorne claims surrounds me on every side. So far as I can see, straight people just don’t care about Teh Gays.
Or, at least, most of them don’t. I make an exception for those straight people who seem desperate to prove that they’re not gay. The ones who are curiously obsessed – often more obsessed than actual gay people – with specific sexual acts. The kinds of people (men, usually) who rigorously police their own behaviour and speech for any signs of incipient homosexuality, and are constantly ready with a cry of “no homo” if they worry they night have started to seem a bit gay. Interestingly, based on his contribution to the debate in The Spectator, Worsthorne seems to fit into this category himself:
The Victorians were adept at [same-sex passionate friendship]. Tennyson’s most intensely emotional poem is about his love for another man. The saintly John Henry Newman adored Hurrell Froude and was himself adored by Ambrose St John. But it was a highly personal romantic love […]. In my youth at school and university […] and in the army I too had passionate friendships with other men. We wrote letters and poems to each other, kissed and embraced to the point of orgasm — at Stowe notoriously on a sofa with George Melly — and all went swimmingly until one day in Holland in the war a fellow officer, who tragically went on to have his balls shot off, on a camp bed broke the romantic rule by trying to put his flagstaff-size penis up my bum.
It was a painful shock which ended my homosexual adventures, since in those punitive years homosexuality for many owed more to the attractions of a glamorous secret cult — easy to abandon — than to a lifelong sexual orientation.
Let’s parse the personal behaviour Worsthorne has described here. He hasn’t described emotionless, non-affectionate sexual activity taking place between two straight people in a single-sex environment – what is sometimes called ‘situational homosexuality’.* Neither has he described asexual romance taking place between two people of the same sex – the tradition of the ‘passionate friendship’ that he discusses. What he has described are associations with a number of different men which were simultaneously romantic (‘we wrote letters and poems to each other, kissed’) and sexual (‘embraced to the point of orgasm’). There is, so far as I can see, only one term that adequately describes these associations – they are homosexual relationships, in the fullest sense of that term.
Worsthorne doesn’t see it like that. It turns out that, in Worsthorne’s terms, the obvious meaning of taking pleasure in romantically-charged sex with members of your own sex can be neatly sidestepped with a claim of “no homo”. Worsthorne, it appears, would only have been a homo if he’d enjoyed the receptive role in anal sex. Because this was instead a ‘painful shock’ – more lube might have overcome the first part of this difficulty – Worsthorne is satisfied that he is in fact straight. Male homosexuality has been reduced to a single sexual act, and because Worsthorne has never practised this act with pleasure, he seems certain that this claim of “no homo” will be persuasive.
Most “no homo” claims strike me as a bit desperate, but this one seems especially so. I’m not sure, for example, how many straight men would agree with Worsthorne that writing love poetry to other men and ‘embracing to the point of orgasm’ with them is robustly heterosexual. I suspect a number might reply to his claim of “no homo” with an incredulous “Yes homo, dude – way homo”. Then, too, I’m struck by the preoccupation with a particular sexual act. There’s a whole range of sexual activities that gay men can indulge in – many of them covered, I suspect, under that euphemistic ‘embrace to the point of orgasm’ that the young Worsthorne shared with his multiple same-sex lovers – and they’re all sex. The insistence that other forms of homosexual sex aren’t really gay reminds me of nothing so much as those American teenagers who think they’re stringent upholders of the virginity pledge, yet have somehow managed to persuade themselves that oral sex isn’t really sex. They’re both examples of the tortuous logic that can result from trying to finesse the conflict between an externally imposed moral code and a spontaneous sexual desire that cannot easily be denied.
Worsthorne’s comments don’t really make me angry, as such. The implied wish that gay people would just have the decency to go back in the closet is annoying, and the suggestion that those who don’t are responsible for whatever negative consequences befall them is crass. But Peregrine Worsthorne is Peregrine Worsthorne – the man who reviled Margaret Thatcher for being insufficiently Tory – so I don’t think anyone expects anything else from him. But there’s something about Worsthorne’s contribution to this debate that’s rather sad, I think.
After explaining that his gay relationships were only ever the result of a fascination with a ‘glamorous secret cult’, Worsthorne goes on to acknowledge that’s not the whole story:
Morality for me also played a part. For although a Catholic can just about talk himself into believing in the divine origins of physical love, the idea that God could smile on buggery or sodomy was and is quite out of the question.
That doesn’t sound to me like someone who was only pretending when he fell so repeatedly and so passionately in love as a young man. That doesn’t sound like a man who enjoyed dallying with a ‘glamorous secret cult’ but felt no personal connection to it. That sounds to me like a man who felt those things – even the sexual desire – deeply, but persuaded himself they were sinful, and so must be denied. That sounds to me like a man who deliberately shut off a part of himself, and now lashes out at later generations who refused to follow him into self-denial, who not only enjoy their passionate same-sex love affairs, but enjoy them openly.
I’ve no idea if Worsthorne might, if he was growing up now instead of in the early-middle years of the 20th Century, describe himself as bisexual or gay – Wikipedia says he has been married twice, widowed once, and has a number of children, but he wouldn’t be the first closeted gay man to follow that route. Possibly he would maintain his assertion that falling in passionate, romantic love with your own sex, and expressing that love sexually, is perfectly straight behaviour. But I can’t shake the feeling that, whatever term he chose to identify with, had he been able to openly acknowledge and celebrate his same-sex desires, he might now be able to conceive of something positive in the whole gamut of love and sex. As it is, all he can recommend is ‘austere’ self-denial:
Perhaps a better hope might be for a new outbreak of austere puritan homosexuality — once quite popular on the Continent — which aimed not so much at encouraging the ugly lusts of men as at saving men from the voluptuous wiles of women — thereby saving both sexes from today’s sad free-fall from decency, modesty and grace.
How very sad to see something so life-affirming as sex in such overwhelmingly negative terms. What an empty, joyless life Worsthorne must have had if he followed his own advice.
* – I’m taking the term at face value here but, for the record, I’m pretty sceptical about the concept of situational homosexuality. My personal belief is that situational homosexuality refers, not to a temporary change in a person’s sexual orientation, but a temporary relaxation of social prohibitions against same-sex activity – i.e. that situational homosexuals are in fact bisexuals giving themselves permission to act on impulses that they otherwise suppress. But this is only my opinion.