Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley
One of my closest friends is a gay man who is twenty plus years older than me. Most days, we take a walk though the local cemetery, The Woodlands (where Eakins and Stockton are buried among others). Early on in our ritual, we noticed a headstone for a couple, but the couple in this case were both men. Sadly, it was one of those couple headstones where one partner is still alive, and the other has died years ago. My friend said that it was likely that the husband had died of AIDS. When I asked him why, he pointed out the death date and the link to the AIDS epidemic. Seriously, after a conversation like that, you never look at tombstones the same way.
I found myself thinking about that as I read Peter Ackroyd’s Queer City.
Queer City is another entry into what I call Ackroyd’s London History series (London, The Thames, London Under), and, as the title indicts, follows the history of London’s Queer residents and culture. Queer here meaning homosexual and trans, which dates further back than you would think. Ackroyd’s Queer City is a bit close to a chronical history, in a way that the other London books are not, though much of the flow and hither and there is still present. You are either going to love this poetic style or hate it.
There is a level of almost catty gossip and sly humor to Ackroyd’s non-fiction books. Even a massive tome that is London doesn’t feel anyway near that long because of his tone. It engages the reader, moving the book far past a simple history book. So, we have observations like, “They were a tribe of Ganymedes and he was their Zeus”.
Yet, the book covers so much. Ackroyd starts during the Pre-Roman/Roman era, detailing even how gladiators weren’t perhaps quite the men we think they were (apparently, they really like perfume). He then moves to the advent of Christianity and the Anglo -Saxons. He does discuss not only homosexual men but women as well, noting that society’s view of women was also reflected in how society (not law, but society) viewed homosexual relationships.
Being Ackroyd, he is particularly interesting when discussing literature. There is a detailed look at Chaucer’s homosexual pilgrims as well as the view of the erotic theatre of Elizabeth’s time (“the codpieces were padded so the cods looked plumper”).
But he also doesn’t hesitate to describe punishment dealt out to those who did not fit the norm. We learn not only of whippings and beatings, but also of women slicing off a penis of an accused homosexual. We hear of what happened to two women, one of whom had married the other while disguised as a man. We learn more about those women who Waters wrote so well about in Tipping the Velvet. As well as certain Mrs. Bradshaw, who will get approving looks from Disc fans. We learn about the view of homosexuality and the arrival of AIDS in Britain. This last section of the book is perhaps the quickest and almost glossed over. I found myself wondering if this time period was too personal for Ackroyd to comfortably write about, at least in times of his story (Ackroyd’s long term partner Brian Kuhn died of AIDS in the 1990s).
It is this last section of the book that is at once the most hopeful and most touching. In the same chapter where he discusses the AIDS epidemic, he looks at the legislation of gay marriage as well as the phrase “check our privilege”, and this too made me think about the differences between then and now. How some younger members of queer culture (or transgender culture) are somewhat dismissive of those that came before. A trans person was dismissive of older homosexual because of lack of awareness of what that generation had endured. He was not aware of men and women being unable and even forbidden to attend the sick and death beds of loved ones. The word Stonewall to this young person meant little more than a Civil War Reference. The student lacked awareness and inability to see beyond or outside his own pain/frame of reference. It is also possible that this young man (his preferred description) had been condensed to by older homosexual/trans population. One can sense a missed discussion between groups. It is case like this that Ackroyd seems to be thinking about when he talks about checking privilege. He doesn’t claim immunity, but he is pushing towards an ability to talk, to discuss, to learn, to be better. Ackroyd is making a cause of understanding each other, in a way that the city he writes so passionately about seems to understand its residents.