Marsha P. Johnson. Alan Turing. Bimini Bon-Boulash. Queer trailblazers the lot of them, representing the very best of the LGBT+ community. They’re the kind of individuals that fought for queer rights, saved us from WW2 and are currently bringing joy on the box amidst a national crisis, like a non-binary Vera Lynn (ask your nan).
These queer heroes are also the kind we hear about throughout LGBT+ history month (now on!), designed to increase visibility of queer lives in the national curriculum and wider community. But while it’s understandable that the good and the great are exalted, given that the fight for LGBT+ rights is far from over, this also means queer culture’s bad apples are rarely discussed.
Despicable queers have something to teach us, too, according to the creators of Bad Gays, a podcast dedicated to really terrible ones. “You constantly encounter queer figures who are at the least complicated, and often downright malicious,” writers Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller explain. “We wondered whether, in examining their lives, we could discover they also had something to tell us about what it is to be queer.”
Bad Gays is dedicated to queers of ill repute. If you’ve rinsed the LGBT+ category on Netflix, you’ll be familiar with some of the show’s subjects, like queer serial killers Aileen Wuornos, jailed for the murder of seven men, and Andrew Cunanan, who shot Gianni Versace in 1997. But chances are you may not be so across the queer aspects to British colonist Cecil Rhodes, or lesbian icon Radclyffe Hall’s apparent flirtation with Fascism.
And the show, which returns with new episodes in the early summer, is not just a history lesson. In drawing out a subject’s dicier side (a great number of Bad Gays flirted with far-right politics, for example) the show is an opportunity to tell a more nuanced story about our past and to address some of the more difficult aspects of our present (like, for example, the allure of far-right politics to gays and lesbians).
“Bad Gays help us tell a more complicated history about ourselves,” say the show’s creators, “a history that suggests that queerness is polymorphous, always taking new shapes, rethinking itself in relation to gender, power, and each other. Perhaps it’s important to remember that queerness is not in itself an ethical quality, nor a get out of jail free card.”
Here, the podcast hosts choose five Bad Gays to learn about in LGBT+ History Month:
“Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberal Party in the 1970s. He was a great figure to profile because he was prepared to hide his sexuality in order to achieve high political office, but also then chose to take advantage of his political power sexually. He ended up embroiled in a scandal where he was alleged to have conspired to murder a former lover who had become a nuisance and was threatening to damage his career. Despite Thorpe’s implication in an attempted political murder, a degree of queerphobia turned the victim, and the trial, into something of a joke.”
“At the end of the show we usually discuss whether we can say if the figure was a) really bad and b) really gay. Roger Casement is an unusual episode because he was definitely a hated figure in his own time – he was executed as a traitor by the British government for his participation in the Irish rebellion – but whom history has clearly absolved. As for whether he was really gay, there were suggestions after his death that his extremely raunchy sex diaries were forgeries designed to besmirch his good name, but we concluded that not only was Casement really gay, he was really, really gay.”
“Violette Morris, a French athlete with 14-inch biceps, discovered a love for trousers and fast driving while piloting ambulances for the Red Cross during the First World War. But her outrageous and mannish style – she dated Josephine Baker, smoked, and cut her breasts off to better fit behind the wheel of a race car – saw her cast out of respectable society. That she later became a Nazi spy allows us to ask what is the specifically lesbian relationship to far-right politics? The gay male one is more discussed and better-understood, but Morris offers us another lens.”
“Gertrude Stein is remembered as a novelist, playwright, poet, art collector and the hostess of a Paris salon that gathered the cream of interwar modernism, including Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Matisse. A semi-open lesbian, her books include Q.E.D., one of the earliest English-language lesbian novels. In the podcast we explore her later involvement in far-right, anti-Semitic, and fascist politics and the tension between her status as a feminist icon and her misogyny: at the salons, for example, she sat with the male artists and the wives and girlfriends had to stay in the kitchen.”
“Referred to in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America as “the polestar of human evil,” Roy Cohn was of counsel to the McCarthy hearings purging US government service of its gays and Communists and terrorising a generation of anti-racist and leftist activists. Later, he advised Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. He died in 1985 of AIDS-related illness, all the while vehemently refusing to admit he was HIV-positive: HIV was a disease for fags and weaklings, and he, he insisted, was neither.”