Gay Life Stories by Robert Aldrich

(Only briefly discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

This book gives a voice to more than eighty people from every major continent and from all walks of life and it includes poets and philosophers, rulers and spies, activists and artists. Alongside such celebrated figures as Michelangelo, Frederick the Great and Harvey Milk are lesser-known but no less surprising individuals: Dong Xian and the Chinese emperor Ai, whose passion flourished in the 1st century BC; the unfortunate Robert de Péronne, first to be burned at the stake for sodomy; Katharine Philips, writing proto-lesbian poetry in 17th-century England; and ‘Aimée’ and ‘Jaguar’, whose love defied the death camps of wartime Germany. With many striking illustrations – including paintings, drawings, photographs and archival documents – Gay Life Stories will entertain, give pause for thought, and ultimately celebrate the diversity of human history.

It takes an eclectic, multinational view of the subject which introduced many figures I had not heard of. It includes the female as well as male experience of gay life too. Some times the essays were just a little too condensed, leaving one wanting more

You can dip into this book anywhere – there are interesting thematic chapter divisions – but I found myself reading it cover to cover as if it was a cultural survey, and that’s testament to its sheer readability. Lovely book, brilliantly written, great illustrations, quality production values: a book to treasure.

Most gays live obscure, unreported lives: those which have been documented are exceptional. Nor should it surprise anyone that figures who have written about their sexuality predominate.

There is even room for the deeply unpleasant Ronnie Kray, a London gangster who could hardly be said to be a LGBT role model. Nonetheless, Kray’s story reveal something about “gay” life in London in the 1960s and Kray’s dealings with the decidedly dodgy Tory grandee Bob Boothby who stood uo for homosexual law reform).

I hope that when reading the book, readers take away several things. First of all, “we are everywhere,” to quote the gay liberation slogan. Though individuals and their societies have lived out their same-sex yearnings in very different ways, the ancestors of today’s gay men and lesbians were omnipresent. This doesn’t mean that antiquity’s “pederasts,” the early modern age’s “sodomites,” and today’s “homosexuals,” “gays,” and “queers” are all the same — far from it. And in the non-Western world, the profile of those with same-sex orientation is different again. I hope readers will learn about the diversity of gay lives.

Particularly interesting were:

Alair Gomes – the construction of this photographic world aimed to “transcend his personality,” creating a “proto-religious” state.

Image for The Genius of Donald Friend. Drawings from the Diaries 1942-1989Donald Friend – Born in Sydney, Friend grew up in the artistic circle of his bohemian mother and showed early talent both as an artist and a writer. Friend did not mince words about his sexual preferences, depicting himself as “a middle-aged pederast who’s going to seed” in his journal. His relationships were mostly with adolescent boys. For example, in the 1960s Friend wrote in his diary of a 10 year old boy: “[He] spent the night with me. I hope life will continue forever to offer me delicious surprises … and that I will always be delighted and surprised. He goes about the act of love with a charmingly self-possessed grace: gaily, affectionately, and enthusiastically. And in these matters he’s very inventive and not at all sentimental for all the caresses.” A few boys became his lifelong friends, particularly Attilio Guarracino, whom he met when Guarracino was 19 years old, however, in interviews with Kerry Negara, some of Friend’s former victims report being ashamed and traumatised by their childhood sexual experiences with him.

Especially interesting were:

Magnus Enckell – symbolist painter. “His love affairs with men have not been denied … Enckell’s naked men and boys are openly erotic and sensual.”

Eugene Jansson – a Swedish painter known for his night-time land- and cityscapes dominated by shades of blue. Towards the end of his life, from about 1904, he mainly painted male nudes. The earlier of these phases has caused him to sometimes be referred to as blåmålaren, “the blue-painter”.

Tannis Tsarouchis – filled his canvases with images of vulnerable men and (to a much lesser extent) strong women

Tamtsu Yatu  – Japanese photographer and occasional actor responsible for pioneering Japanese homoerotic photography and creating iconic black-and-white images of the Japanese male. He was a friend and collaborator of the writer Yukio Mishima

Lionel Wendt – a Ceylon pianist, photographer, literature collector, critic, and cinematographer.

”In some ways, a sex act is in most senses over and done with rather quickly. It may be public or private, it may be repeated or it may be casual. But it doesn’t so much undermine society as the idea of a continuing emotional relationship because that sort of relationship – love, if you like, or even a long-term partnership – tends to undermine the idea that homosexuality is a deviance, that it is something that is relegated to dark rooms and back streets.

”That then imposes questions, as we see today with discussions about gay marriage, about the normality of standard relationships … It also makes it more difficult for people to close their eyes to it.”

”As a historian, I’m fascinated at how, in a place like Colombo in the 1930s, there could be someone like him, whose sexuality was an open secret that didn’t seem to cause any problem.’And his artistic works combined many of these elements of Western and Eastern traditions in what we would today call cultural hybridity.”

”Even in our own liberal Western countries, we know there are lots of acts of violence against homosexuals; comments by political figures on the right wing about homosexuality,’

‘Some were ‘out and proud’ but some wouldn’t have known what that meant,’. Most of them have left some traces of their sexuality – those traces are in their art, writing, memoirs, and sometimes in the court records that are available, because they were arrested and tried for various crimes.””would no doubt have had sexual liaisons with young men” and, even in old age, was said to chase young fellows because Athenian mores ”not only tolerated but applauded emotional and sexual intercourse between men, though with certain caveats”.

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