The Naked Civil Servant

TNCS 3(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

My dislike of effeminates means that I found ‘stately homo’  Crisp distasteful until I was old enough to appreciate his savage wit and wisdom.

In 1931, gay liberation was not a movement—it was simply unthinkable. But in that year, Quentin Crisp made the courageous decision to “come out” as a homosexual. This exhibitionist with the henna-dyed hair was harrassed, ridiculed and beaten. Nevertheless, he claimed his right to be himself—whatever the consequences. The Naked Civil Servant is both a comic masterpiece and a unique testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Crisp was born in 1908, and while he covers his early years with insight and wit (he declares that those who are thought witty are those who laugh and listen politely to others) the story really gets going when he moves to London.

By this time, Crisp has accepted that he is a homosexual and has decided to confront the world with his existence instead of shading himself in public, his head down.  He slathers his face with make-up, styles his hair in dramatic waves and wears flowing, feminine fashions.  He monitors every step, one foot precisely in front of the other.

Thus he sets out in 1930’s London, often drawing crowds of people who follow him hurling insults, catcalls and rocks.  He is often attacked, and relates in a dispassionate voice the techniques he used to get out of trouble, when possible.  Of course, it was often not possible.  Several times he is beaten, he often fears for his life and danger is ever-present.  His presence inside large buildings would often cause a tumult and shopping is an obstacle course of insults and rude clerks.

But still, he often finds work – in commercial art, publishing houses and even an engineering firm.  This is no mean feat – his description of arriving for job interviews is a delight to read, but I suspect it wasn’t nearly as amusing to live the experience.  Eventually he becomes a model for art students, a civil servant in his mind and thus the title.

Along comes World War II, and he is called in for his physical. A doctor told him with a hectoring voice meant to induce shame that he exhibited all the signs of sexual perversion.  Crisp happily agrees, telling him upfront that he is a homosexual.  This destroys the doctor’s authority, and he huddles with others to discuss what to do.  The whole scene is delivered with witheringly precise descriptions of one absurdity after another.

He idealizes the feminine side of himself, and indeed with all homosexuals, but at the same time, he is fervently in awe of masculinity, assigning it the treasured word of “normal”.  And he is by turns dismissive and protective of masculine gay men.

I admire his defiance of the world’s efforts to shame him, but years of being followed by screaming mobs and inspiring chaos wherever he went must have warped his mind.  No human is capable of withstanding that sort of abuse without acquiring scars, but Crisp writes of his deepest disappointment with other gay people who criticized his open defiance of convention.

In the end, Crisp walked with his head up, but didn’t dare look around, and while he was careful to place each foot just so, he was still watching every step.

There are hilarious descriptions of encounters with parents, friends, employers, soldiers and sailors, and the law


“after the first year the dust really doesn’t get any worse”

When the telegram announcing my father’s death arrived, I felt nothing except irritation at the thought of having to go home, attend the funeral, and come back.”

“I would have been tempted to say that he was ill did I not know that health consists of having the same diseases as one’s neighbours.”

“‘Immaturity’ is one more word that requires definition. To men it means the inability to stand on one’s own two feet. A woman flings it at anyone who doesn’t want to marry her. Here I find myself for once inclined toward the masculine view.”

“Homosexuals were ashamed. They resented not being in the mainstream of life. The feeling varied from irritation to the anguish of irrevocable exile. It had little to do with God or the neighbours or the police. It was private and irremediable.”

“If a man were to look over the fence on one side of his garden and observe that the neighbor on his left had laid his garden path round a central lawn; and were to look over the fence on the other side of his garden and observe that the neighbor on his right had laid his path down the middle of the lawn, and were then to lay his own garden path diagonally from one corner to the other, that man’s soul would be lost. Originality is only to be praised when not prefaced by the look to right and left.”

“A fair share of anything is starvation diet to an egomaniac.”

“Fear and hatred do not seem to find expression in tears.”

“Without knowing it, I was acquiring that haughty bearing which is characteristic of so many eccentrics. What other expression would you expect to find on the face of anyone who knows that if he turns his head too quickly, he will see on the faces of others glares of stark terror or grimaces of hatred? Aloofness is the posture of self-defense.”

“What I wanted most of all was to use sex as a weapon to allure, subjugate, and, if possible, destroy the personality of others.”

“So black was the way ahead that my progress consisted of long periods of inert despondency punctuated by spasmodic lurches forward towards any small chink of light that I thought I saw…As the years went by, it did not get lighter but I became accustomed to the dark”

“Vice is its own reward.”

“The average woman, unless she is particularly ill-favoured, regards loving and being loved as a normal part of life. If a man says he loves her she believes him. Indeed some women are convinced they are adored by men who can be seen by all to be running in the opposite direction. For homosexuals this is not so. Love and admiration have to be won against heavy odds. Any declaration of affection requires proof. So many approaches made to them are insincere – even hostile. What better proof of love can there be than money? A ten-shilling note showed incontrovertibly just how mad about you a man is. Even in the minds of some women a confusion exists between love and money if the quantity is large enough. They evade the charge of mercenariness by using the cash they extort from one man to deal a bludgeoning blow of humiliation upon another. Some homosexuals attempt this gambit, but it is risky. The giving of money is a masculine act and blurs the internal image.”

“Then my hostess said, “Oh, Denis (as my name was before I dyed it) never plays the part of a man.”

“I learned very early in life that I was always going to need people more than they needed me.”

TNCS 2“When a third wave of poverty overwhelmed me, I knew with even greater certitude than when I had lived in Clerkenwell that the only complete solution to my problem was suicide. I never brought it off. I was afraid. A lifetime of never making positive decisions, accepting instead the lesser of the evils presented to me, had atrophied my will. It was not so much that I longed for death as that I didn’t long for life. Emptiness, though, was not a sufficiently definite feeling to lead to a violent act. Instead of sitting in my room and balancing the relative convenience of various ways of ending it all, I ought to have been busy trying to summon up a reasonable amount of despair. Hopelessness was thinly spread like drizzle over my whole outlook. But, in an emergency, I could not find a puddle of despondency deep enough to drown in.”

“Sometimes I wore a fringe so deep it obscured the way ahead. This hardly mattered. There were always others to look where I was going.”

“I have known female whores who spoke very bitterly of their calling.”If they don’t like my face, they can put a cushion over it. I know it’s not that they’re interested in.” But to the boys this profession never seemed shameful. It was their daytime occupations for which they felt the need to apologize. In some instances, these were lower class or humdrum or, worst of all, unfeminine. At least whoring was never that.”

“Masturbation is not only an expression of self-regard: it is also the natural emotional outlet of those who, before anything has reared its ugly head, have already accepted as inevitable the wide gulf between their real futures and the expectations of their fantasies. The habit fitted snugly into my well-established world of make-believe.”

“The whole set of stylizations that are known as “camp” (a word that I was hearing then for the first time) was, in 1926, self-explanatory. Women moved and gesticulated in this way. Homosexuals wished for obvious reasons to copy them. The strange thing about “camp” is that it has been fossilized. The mannerisms have never changed. If I were now to see a woman sitting with her knees clamped together, one hand on her hip and the other lightly touching her back hair, I should think, “Either she scored her last social triumph in 1926 or it is a man in drag.”

“Perhaps “camp” is set in the ‘twenties because after that differences between the sexes – especially visible differences – began to fade. This, of course, has never mattered to women in the least. They know they are women. To homosexuals, who must, with every breath they draw, with every step they take, demonstrate that they are feminine, it is frustrating. They look back in sorrow to that more formal era and try to relive it.”

“In the cafe there was a lot of stylized cattiness, but this was never unkindly meant. Nothing at all was meant by it. It was a formal game of innuendos about other people being older than they said, about their teeth being false and their hair being a wig. Such conversation was thought to be smart and so very feminine. It was better, I need hardly say, to seem like a truly appalling woman than not like a woman at all.”

“My outlook was so limited that I assumed that all deviates were openly despised and rejected. Their grief and their fear drew my melancholy nature strongly. At first I only wanted to wallow in their misery, but, as time went by, I longed to reach its very essence. Finally I desired to represent it. By this process I managed to shift homosexuality from being a burden to being a cause. The weight lifted and some of the guilt evaporated.”

“I was from birth an object of mild ridicule because of my movements – especially the perpetual flutter of my hands – and my voice. Like the voices of a number of homosexuals, this is an insinuating blend of eagerness and caution in which even such words as “hello” and “goodbye” seem not so much uttered as divulged. But these natural outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual disgrace were not enough. People could say that I was ignorant of them or was trying without success to hide them. I wanted it to be known that I was not ashamed and therefore had to display symptoms that could not be thought to be accidental.”

“As soon as I put my uniform on, the rest of my life solidified around me like a plaster cast. From that moment on, my friends were anyone who could put up with the disgrace; my occupation, any job from which I was not given the sack; my playground, any cafe or restaurant from which I was not barred or any street corner from which the police did not move me on.”

“Like the voice of a number of homosexuals, this is an insinuating blend of eagerness and caution in which even such words as “hello” and “goodbye” seem not so much uttered as divulged.”

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