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The 'Conspiracy' of the 'Homintern'. (Essay).

THERE WAS NO such thing as "the Homintern." It existed only as a camp joke or an imagined plot. The Comintern, or Communist International, was a real organization set up by Lenin in 1919 and dissolved in 1943. The camp term "Homintem" is often said to have been coined by Cyril Connolly or W. H. Auden, but Harold Norse claimed it for himself. Most likely, various people invented it at the same time. The humorous implication was that queer people made up a secret, world-wide network of lovers and friends, a "Homosexual International."

The only people who ever took this simple play on words seriously were those who feared the spread of homosexual influence. In mere conversations, they saw plots; in groups of friends, conspiracies. While it's true that some gay people became central to literature and modem culture in general, the "Homosexual International" was often superficially international and incidentally homosexual. Commented one writer on the persistence of this conspiracy theory through much of the 20th century: "The Homintern theory...is a constant obsession of certain journalists and crops up from time-to-time not only in the popular press but in the pages of otherwise respectable literary journals." The writer was Gore Vidal, in 1970, but it could just as well have been said decades earlier or later.

In a 1936 attack on the poet Stefan George ("Aufzeichnung Stefan George betreffend"), for example, Rudolf Borchardt claimed that the German press and publishing houses were dominated by gay men. Merely a variation on the anti-Semitic myths of Nazism, such paranoia seems unsurprising for the place and time. But one finds the same complaint being voiced in England at the same time, now coming from the Left. The best known example is George Orwell's attitude toward the Auden group. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), Orwell's alter ego, the failed poet Gordon Comstock, rails against an English cultural review called The Primrose Quarterly, "one of those poisonous literary papers in which the fashionable Nancy Boy and the professional Roman Catholic walk bras dessus, bras dessous." Comstock, who was, like Orwell, neither gay nor Catholic, regards the quarterly's contributors as "a coterie of moneyed highbrows" and "that pansy crowd." ("The sods! The bloody sods!") In a later rant he comes back to the idea of th e excessive cultural influence of "fashionable Nancy boys." In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Orwell, speaking now in his own voice, refers several times to the Auden group as "the Nancy poets," and he speaks of their tendency to "scratch each other's backs"--presumably a veiled reference to sodomy as well as to mutual assistance.

Fifty years after Orwell, Valentine Cunningham marred his otherwise impressive book, British Writers in the Thirties (1989), with the repeated suggestion that some cultural networks wielded a power that was somehow illegitimate because its members were predominantly gay men. Speaking of the Auden group, he seems both bewildered and disturbed to have to report that: "The shared male bed lay behind many of the coterie's dedications"--as if heterosexuals never dedicate their books to their lovers! Cunningham describes this group and others in conventionally conspiratorial terms as "coteries bonded by shared private codes, covert languages and publicly inadmissible passions." One group even becomes "the magic homosexual circle." Cunningham cannot leave the point alone. He speaks of "the homosexual nature of much 30's cliquery," "the period's crowd of homosexuals," "the homosexual core of the clique," and "this homosexual coterie." One group of friends and collaborators is "a covey of homosexual chums." (Homosexua l men always have "chums" in this book.)

Although there is an implied triviality and exoticism to all of these expressions, Cunningham chooses to take them very seriously indeed, as labels that carry a strong suggestion of a subversive departure from the values of family, religion, and state. A coterie or a clique is assumed to be held together by misplaced loyalties. Any group that sees itself as marginal, he implies, is likely to be only weakly committed to the national (or imperial) project. When Wyndham Lewis wrote in the 1930's of "the intense 'outcast' esprit de corps of the pathic," he was using a French phrase that evokes the militaristic togetherness of an enemy to describe what might, from a different point of view, be interpreted as the solidarity of the oppressed. That Cunningham, writing in the late 19 80's, was still using this kind of language to diminish the Homintern, such as it was, is rather depressing.

It was during the Cold War period that the various national security services of the "Free World"--notably the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover--followed the Soviets and the Nazis by taking seriously the possibility that gay people could constitute a potentially subversive conspiracy. In 1953 the Eisenhower administration enacted a purge of homosexual "security risks" in government. The argument was that such people were vulnerable to blackmail by Soviet agents and were themselves, therefore, prone to become Russian spies. Pressure was put on the USA's allies in NATO to take similar purgative measures. Thus, "sex perverts" came to be closely associated with spies in the public imagination. And yet, the entry under "Homosexuality" in Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen's reliable Encyclopedia of Espionage (1998) names just nine gay men and one bisexual: Alfred Redl, Guy Burgess, the bisexual Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, Alan Turing, James A. Mintkenbaugh, William Martin, Bernon Mitchell, John Vassall, and Maurice Ol dfield. The latter had to resign his position as co-ordinator of UK security and intelligence in Northern Ireland after he was found to be gay; there was no suggestion that in his previous incarnation as Director General of M16 he ever spied for anyone but his own Whitehall masters. Similarly, there has never been any suggestion that Alan Turing ever betrayed the Allied war effort; on the contrary, he is known to have saved that effort by cracking the Germans' secret code for military planning. So, we arrive at a grand total of just seven gay individuals who actually betrayed the interests of their own nations.

In the liberal arts, where few great national interests are at stake and matters of life and death tend to be only theoretically engaged, similar prejudices have often prevailed. For over a century, anxieties about homosexual exclusivity have consistently shaped the critical reception of work by artists known by the critics to be gay. Following a review of a book about Benjamin Britten, for example, correspondence in the Times Literary Supplement (February 19, 1949) hinted at Britten's homosexuality and spoke of "the small but powerful sect that threatens to kill with kindness one of the most naturally gifted of contemporary British composers." It is not clear whether this was a reference to the group of colleagues and friends with whom Britten surrounded himself professionally at Aldeburgh or, considering the hints these remarks follow, gay friends in particular. The ambiguity seems deliberate.

The composer William Walton responded to the feeling that he was being eclipsed by Britten by creating his own conspiracy theory. When Britten was offered the post of musical director at Covent Garden, Walton remarked: "There are enough buggers in the place already, it's time it was stopped." According to Michael Tippett, Walton mixed with a group of composers (Constant Lambert, Elizabeth Lutyens, and Alan Rawsthorne) who "all had great chips on their shoulder and entertained absurd fantasies about a homosexual conspiracy in music, led by Britten and Peter Pears." On one occasion Walton whined, "Everyone is queer and I'm just normal, so my music will never succeed." The heterosexual coterie of Walton, Lambert, Thomas Beecham and their chums coped with the conspicuous success of Britten and Pears with sodomy jokes based on fractured titles: "Twilight of the Sods," "The Bugger's Opera," "The Stem of the Crew," and so on. On one occasion, Charles Mackerras, who was working as the musical director on Britten's N oye's Fludde, made a disparaging remark to John Cranko about the number of boys in the piece. Cranko, who was gay himself, passed on the remark to Britten. (Cranko explained: "When suddenly you hear something like that, however long you may have worked together, suddenly you hate that person.") Disgruntled at having thus been betrayed to the maestro, Mackerras conjured up the usual spectre, saying that Cranko "was a homosexual, and I'm not, and there is a sort of Freemasonry among them."

Similarly, the presence of gay men in the vanguard of the visual and performing arts gave rise to talk of a network of "queer" artists, dealers, and curators who were allegedly conspiring to promote their favorites at the expense of other talent. Such a rumor cropped up with reference to the Abstract Expressionists in New York. In 1959, in the magazine Arts, Hilton Kramer expressed his thinly veiled homophobia when he attacked Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns as purveyors of "the window decorator's aesthetic." In the early 1960's, like-minded critics whipped up a flurry of disquiet around the plays of Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Edward Albee. That the three major American dramatists were known to be gay was bad enough; that they were purveying an unwholesome version of masculinity and femininity--creating weak male and strong female characters--was seen as intolerable. In 1963, Howard Taubman, drama critic for The New York Times, offered a "Primer" of "Helpful hints on how to scan the intimatio ns and symbols of homosexuality in our theater"--in other words, on how to survey and police dramatic works. for putatively queer material.

Once these rumors got started, they didn't readily go away. In The Real Life of Laurence Olivier (1996), Roger Lewis, while mistakenly insisting that Olivier was entirely heterosexual, gratuitously holds forth about a gay conspiracy in English public life:

[L]et's face it, in the acting profession, and in the arts in England (and in politics: there are over eighty homosexual Members of Parliament [out of 650]), it is practically impossible to become successful, or to garner honors, if you are too exclusively heterosexual. ...It is a conspiracy--as bad as anti-Semitism. Literary editors, television producers, theatre critics, publishers, opera, ballet, museum curating: domains all controlled by [homosexuals]."

(How, then, does he account for the "straight" Olivier's undeniable success?) He also speaks of "the extent of theatre's homosexual mafia," and compiles a little list of its alleged membership, including H. M. Tennant, Hugh Beaumont, the Ivy Restaurant, Terence Rattigan, the Royal Court Theatre, Tony Richardson, and John Dexter. All important people and institutions, to be sure, but hardly a who's who of London's postwar theatrical establishment.

In the mid-90's the fact that media moguls David Geffen, Barry Diller, and Sandy Gallin, designer Calvin Klein, painter Ross Bleckner, and writer Fran Lebowitz were all close friends gave rise to rumors of a "Gay Mafia" (or "Velvet Mafia") in charge of Hollywood. Once such clusters were identified as working in each other's interests, it was a short step to the inference that they were working in the interests of gayness as a whole and excluding heterosexuals. The presence of more than one gay person evokes the possibility of a perverse cultural coup. I'm reminded of how President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and his supporters keep calling the cabinet of British Prime Minister Tony Blair a "gay mafia" merely because it used to include two gay ministers.

One viable response to such outspoken attacks on any sign of gay influence would be to embrace this notion of cultural conspiracy, whether ironically or in earnest. Just as W. H. Auden and Harold Norse cheerfully took ownership of the Homintern joke, we might decide that being thought to wield such cultural power isn't such a bad thing. Indeed some gay people have contributed to the rumor that there's a secret cabal of some sort. Even before the so-called Homintern, Proust wrote of "a freemasonry far more extensive, more powerful and less suspected than that of the Lodges." Painter Francis Bacon ranted about "a Jewish, homosexual mafia" working against his interests in Manhattan after he failed to secure a collaboration with the photographer Peter Beard. Proust, a gay man and a Jew himself, recognized that certain persecuted minorities are forced to adopt defensive formations or a "freemasonry," but saw this tendency as more likely to play a beneficial role in society than a destructive one. (Note: even as la te as 1948, Gore Vidal was still using the term "freemasonry" to mean a discreet network. "It was a form of freemasonry," he said in The City and the Pillar.)

Loyal alliances among artists and writers are creative and productive. One has only to think of a few such groups to be persuaded of this: Natalie Barney's salons at 20, rue Jacob in Paris, the Ballets Russes, the Ballets Suedois, the Beats, the Bloomsbury Group, the "Nancy poets," and so on. Where would modem culture be without them? The willingness of gay men and lesbians to associate across national boundaries throughout the last century led to some extraordinary encounters, some fleeting, others more enduring. To begin to understand the full cultural potential of such meetings, just imagine the conversations that took place between these pairs of individuals: Sergei Eisenstein and Noel Coward, Tamara de Lempicka and Adrienne Monnier, Yukio Mishima and James Merrill, Una Troubridge and Vaslav Nijinsky, Angus Wilson and Alberto Arbasino, Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol, Roger Casement and Magnus Hirschfeld, Willa Cather and Stephen Tennant, John Minton and Gerard Reve, Anthony Blunt and Ludwig Wittgenste in, Rene Crevel and Gertrude Stein, Federico Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane, May Sarton and Virginia Woolf. This is a random list of international encounters, all of them richly suggestive meetings of creative individuals who just happened to be gay. But there are those who think any such encounter must inevitably be perverted or sinister--or both. Where we see gay cultural transactions, they see a subversive plot.

Gregory Woods's latest poetry collection is The District Commissioner's Dreams (Carcanet Press).
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Title Annotation:cultural homophobia
Author:Woods, Gregory
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2003
Words:2326
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