With wit, style and formal invention, Huw Lemmey writes about some of the bad and weird sides of gay life in the city. Starting with Chubz: The Demonization of My Working Arse (2014) and continued in Red Tory (2019), he reads London through everyday gay life, exposing the bones of class differences through the adventures of gay narrators. Based on the podcast series of the same title, in Bad Gays: A Homosexual History, Huw and co-writer Ben Miller create a counterpoint to the heroic version of memorialising queer life by telling the stories of some ancestors we might prefer to forget.
In Chubz and Red Tory, Huw uses pulp and porn writing styles to invent narratives of gay encounters across class and political lines. The working class protagonist of Chubz hooks up with a popular but rather more middle-class left-wing journalist. In Red Tory, it’s the other way around, as Labour Party hack Tom hooks up with the more radical Otto, and has his head turned by his cocks and communist creed. These crossings of class and political lines within the space of the city are just the start, however. In both tales the drug culture around gay sex harbours new possibilities for ways, as the poet Arthur Rimbaud demanded, to derange the senses and transform one’s existence. In Huw’s work, urban gay culture is hardly a tender queer utopia, but it might suggest ways in which life outside of hetero-normie boredom might be possible.
McKenzie Wark: One thing I loved about your first book Chubz and second book Red Tory is that they’re such London books. Or more precisely, gay London books. Do you feel that there’s a specific way that the city appears when you’re a gay man?
Huw Lemmey: They’re very gay, very London books, I agree. Yes, I think there’s such a thing as a gay geography to most cities, cities being the birthplace of the modern homosexual. But London has its own flavour and history; in the past, it circulated around the historical locations of cruising grounds and especially bars, clubs, theatres, cinemas and cottages …
McKenzie: What do you mean by ‘cottages’? Is that British slang?
Huw: ‘Cottages’ are to the British what ‘tearooms’ are to Americans – public toilets where men go to have sex, what’s called ‘cottaging.’ They get their name because public toilets in parks are often designed to look like slightly twee single-storey country cottages.
McKenzie: How did gay liberation change the landscape of queer London?
Huw: Post-liberation saw the creation of gay enclaves – Soho, say, or Shepherds Bush. To an extent, this was always the case. Between the wars, certain streets like Piccadilly were where homosexuals might come together, with soldiers at the Hyde Park end and ‘queans’ around Soho, or rough trade around Waterloo or the docks. There still is that sort of dynamic; if someone were to talk to me about a Clapham gay or a Lambeth gay, a Kensington gay or a Haggerston gay, I could conjure up an image in my mind of who you were talking about – a combination of manners, self-conceptions, fashions and mores that the English define as ‘class.’
McKenzie: It’s like there was some brief window between liberation and gentrification –
Huw: I wonder if that’s true though. I mean we already use the word ‘liberation’ in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner to denote post-Stonewall gay politics, but in the UK, and I’m sure in the US, the social transformation that followed was slow and unevenly distributed. For a start, after ‘decriminalisation,’ police harassment of gay men in particular increased, not decreased, and throughout the 1980s social attitudes towards gay toleration got worse, not better. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that we got to a position that even resembles today, well after processes of gentrification were underway, at least in London. These categories are useful for thinking about the changes, but for people living through them those delineations are considerably more blurry, I think.
McKenzie: London is an old city with many psychogeographic peculiarities.
Huw: One thing I do think is interesting about London is although stratification is strong and gentrification has really reshaped the city, the nature of how it was built means that quite often there’s not a huge physical distance between extremely different class positions. This is obviously one of the real problems with the city: income inequality and the lack of care between different parts of the same community, and the siphoning of resources towards the wealthy. But one of the strange consequences of that is your proximity to the homes of people with markedly different lifestyles.
McKenzie: Has the overlay of Grindr and other apps put an end to the gay city as generations before might have known it? Or are there interesting ways the city can be gay and erotic that this enables that weren’t there before?
Huw: If you go on Grindr in London you could be within 100 metres of some guy living in his own penthouse apartment and someone else living in one of the most run-down houses of multiple occupancy in the borough; that’s a strange, transitory sense of geography to encounter handing out blowjobs.
...I hope that post-pandemic realisation about the vitality and serendipity of in-person encounters will lead to a healthy return for club culture, cruising, dark rooms […] but I’m sure the kids are also developing some previously unimaginable sexual innovation too…
McKenzie: One would like to think that still happens!
Huw: I think certain cultures have died away, not just down to Grindr but also from the other aspects of gentrification and the general commercial homogen-isation of London, and of course due to cops and councils. But there’s always going to be new elements of gay sociality and sex cultures emerging. Chemsex is just one facet of that. I think apps like Grindr can be an augmentation onto a wider sex culture – I hope so – rather than a fatalistic sense we’ve retreated to our little box rooms in shared houses just to cruise online. For me, I hope that post-pandemic realisation about the vitality and serendipity of in-person encounters will lead to a healthy return for club culture, cruising, dark rooms and so on, but I’m sure the kids are also developing some previously unimaginable sexual innovation too.
McKenzie: Chubz has this council estate psychogeography, whereas Red Tory is in this middle-class professional world. What I’d like to press you on a little more is the gay city and class.
Huw: Right. In England, in London, class is a messy affair, and part of both of those books was to twist these two notions of class – as an economic relationship and as a set of social mores – around this central strand of homosexuality. So, they both portray a different relation to queer desire, to being gay in public, to being gay within your social group, within the context of both of those ideas of class.
McKenzie: How does this connect to British gay writing?
Huw: In English literature the gay man has always had this role, at least for the assumed middle-class reader of the popular novel, as being something of a class chameleon and, as such, an audience surrogate. Isherwood in Goodbye to Berlin (1939) is this surrogate figure who, like a camera, can enter this demimonde on behalf of the reader, whereas, say, Nick in Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004) becomes the reader’s spy within the upper echelons of the Thatcherite order. You see the same thing occurring again and again, in Waugh, in Forster, and so on. There’s something slippery about the gay narrator – he has an ability to mimic the class he’s visiting.
McKenzie: A lot of writing by trans women is more about plunging out of the middle class. Tanya Jane Richards’ Tranz-mania (2006) would be an ex-ample with a London setting. Your books play with the gay male vector of sex between classes and locations in their own way.
Huw: That’s interesting because The Naked Civil Servant (1968), a gay memoir by Quentin Crisp that focuses a lot on how his queerness worked as a kind of gender deviance, also features this thing of someone plunging out of the middle class, as you put it, as Crisp’s flamboyant behaviour and dress – a deviation from the tightly regulated British masculinity of the interwar period – essentially pushed him out of the work that makes middle-class life possible. He lived in poverty for the rest of his life, and his sex life was really oriented around working class men. The protagonists of both Chubz and Red Tory take advantage of the peculiar types of (not always equitable) inter-class contact that exist within gay life. There are always people slipping between classes based on sexual desirability, based on a sort of class subterfuge. The ruling class is always, and has always been, full of camouflaged gays dressing up their accents and adopting graces, while every gay party has some middle-class gay in a tracksuit and playing up his northern accent or trade unionist grandfather in order to suggest he’s ‘prolier than thou.’ London has a whole genre of club nights, sex parties and porn dedicated to the image of ‘the scally,’ the stereotypical hetero-ish working class council estate lad, and they’re populated 90% by roleplaying college grads. This is part of the sexual tension of a nation tongue tied about sex and class.
McKenzie: Is this how class plays out in queer life: that for the rich public sex is more optional?
Huw: Perhaps so, yes. Or at least, in sex as with all things, wealth produces personal possibilities, opportunities, ease and power, and relieves you of much of the surveillance of the disciplinary regime.
McKenzie: Another thing I wanted to ask you about the gay city is if there’s a way to experience the city sexually as a bottom? Is the bottom city different from the top city? I mean, I have my own answer to that, but I’m curious how it plays in your books, particularly Chubz.
Huw: I’m curious as to your experience!
…this control of public space mixed with an urge to suppress vice that is, of course, anti-gay and anti-sex worker. But at the same time, it still rests on cis men’s ability to be, and to feel, relatively safe in public, at night, in deserted spaces like parks and ports…
McKenzie: I asked a (cis gay male) friend if it would be OK if I got fucked as a transsexual lesbian in the darkroom of the queer rave he co-hosts. His reply was that it could only improve it. But that would be with my girlfriend. I can’t cruise a space like that. I’m now relegated to a very particular kind of ‘anyone but cis men’ expanded-concept-lesbian play party.
Huw: Oh I’m sure. I think here part of the issue with discussing these different experiences of ‘sex and the city,’ as it were, has to be understood within a gendered and racialised frame. Cruising is something borne of this late-Victorian policing of proletarian sexuality, this control of public space mixed with an urge to suppress vice that is, of course, anti-gay and anti-sex worker. But at the same time, it still rests on cis men’s ability to be, and to feel, relatively safe in public, at night, in deserted spaces like parks and ports. There’s something ironic about that. Faced with an inability to exist within one social space, queer men were forced into another sort of illicit male-only public space that itself could only exist due to that male dominance, or even the threat of violence. Not that cruising is, or ever has been, safe; the risk of queer bashing, or racist violence for queer people of colour, and of course of police harassment, is all part of that same regime of control.
McKenzie: Which might give one distinctive insights, via sexuality, into how power works.
Huw: I think there’s definitely a link with how we then experience the city, the risks we take, where we feel comfortable, etc. … I think in Chubz there’s something going on between the main character’s overcoming other men’s relation to his bottomhood as a natural passivity, and how that leads him to more revelations about power.
McKenzie: Bottoming as praxis!
Huw: On a more instinctive, subjective level, there are strange, almost poetic moments and behaviours you notice. For example, sometimes a cruising spot can switch from being this place of an aggressive tension to a place of these special moments of intimacy. Or vice versa. Have you ever noticed in cruising grounds or darkrooms how there’s tops who stand still and wait, grabbing their cocks, and tops who pace like nervous panthers always looking? I think about those different energies all the time, and I think that’s definitely two ways of being in urban space. It’s like the pacey gay walker clutching his iced coffee as he rushes past the dawdling straights has an opposing energy out there.
McKenzie: Different kinds of hunger. I remember this from when I worked in a glory hole place in Sydney. But I was very bad at cruising. Different kind of queer, it turns out! Red Tory has this private chemsex party world going on in it. Which is interesting to me given how so much gay literature, as least that I’ve read, is more centred on cruising or the club at one end and the bedroom at the other. But as I read it there’s a class thing going on, so is this more a fictional version of a certain kind of bourgeois gay life?
Huw: It’s not so fictional. I think one thing you have to remember about London is the importance property relations and housing stock play in everything. So I think it’s fair to say there has been a collapse in queer spaces in London, although maybe the past has been over-romanticised, and the resurgence of newer spaces ignored. This ties in to hook-up apps which probably both catalysed the collapse, changing the nature of gay bars to becoming less focused on sex, and also filled a gap. But part of the problem which shapes so much desire in London is quite simply: where to fuck? Private space is at a premium, so many people share in insecure conditions, and even being able to host is an advertisable sexual asset in its own right.
McKenzie: Yes, ‘can host’ becomes a class statement. The full title of your second book is Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell, which reads like one of those distinctively London tabloid press screamer headlines. I’m interested in how queer and trans life always lives in the shadow of this sensational discourse.
Huw: There’s this thirsty desire for the most prurient narrativisation of drug use and sex as part of this lost demimonde. When you look back at how the Victorians constructed this disciplinary regime against both homosexuality and sex work, it was partly via these supposedly well-meaning forms of shock journalism. It was both prurient and moralistic, giving readers a kick out of the sordid stories while allowing them to distance themselves through a sense of moral superiority and sense of philanthropic concern. And legislation led directly from it.
That’s why Red Tory is focused as much on the press representations of chemsex as the parties themselves, and on how that relates to the wider ways in which British society and culture is narrativised by its uniquely violent, delirious and outright weird tabloid media. I think this sort of thing is intrinsically linked to the other aspect of the book, which is media hyperbole about politics and the left in general during the Corbyn era of British politics.
McKenzie: There’s plenty of bad behaviour in those books, particularly Red Tory, which has some really iffy gay characters. Whereas, for instance, Dennis Cooper’s fiction contains really bad gay characters. I guess I’m curious about your choice to write a kind of banality of bad gay-ness.
Huw: Honestly, almost all the characters in that book are thinly veiled amalgams of either public figures or gays I’ve met. Banality is a great word for it – I think there’s a type of gay, especially working in the media, who can skate through life as a sort of minor malevolent force through always siding with power and wielding his sexuality as a sort of shield. I mean, here I’m thinking of a small pool of specific people, but if there’s one there’s always more! What’s even better is friends of my friends have more than once asked if such and such a character was based on them. That’s not usually been the case, but I guess people recognise when they’re of a type.
McKenzie: It’s ironic that ‘queer’ was supposed to free us to fuck with codes of gender and sexuality, but if you want to get laid it helps to be legible as one or other stock character.
Huw: I think that’s honestly one of the real cast-iron negatives of the apps; they encourage this codification of your own desire in exactly this way and remove the serendipity of cruising or bars or parties or what have you. In reality, so much desire is created through chance discovery of something more embodied. Then again, there’s a lot of fun richness in having codes that are shared and read within communities, as long as you don’t take them too seriously.
McKenzie: In Red Tory gay sex is also a point of entry into writing about a sort of opportunistic world of political operators.
Huw: I do sometimes think there’s almost something camp about the level of banal intrigue and malicious gossip and conspiracising that makes up the political mainstream in Britain, especially when the gays get their sticky little fingers involved, from the sex scandals to the pettiness of MPs who wave through mass impoverishment, authoritarian border policies and so on getting up in arms about illicit garden parties. It’s all a theatre that perpetuates the necessary stasis for class rule.
McKenzie: The Bad Gays podcast and book you did with Ben Miller, on the other hand, has some really bad gays. Do you think straight culture is ready for that? Would it be ready for Bad Trans?
Huw: You know, I think part of the reason there has been such an enthusiastic uptake for the podcast of Bad Gays is precisely so much representation of gays in mainstream straight media has flipped towards outright adulation of these perfect alterity figures who can teach us so much, and the gays want some darkness back. So, I think the queer audience can definitely handle and appreciate something that explores the moral complexity of other queers, and who want to have conversations that don’t pat them on the head and treat them as mascots. Because otherwise it’s all got too banal.
McKenzie: Awesome. And that’s coming out also as a book?
Huw: The book deviates slightly from the podcast. While the podcast covers a range of queer figures, the book is specifically about the development of the white male gay as a political subject across history, and how the project of homosexuality has perhaps failed in that form, and what could come next. I’m sure there’s just as many rich and interesting trans histories: I’m a big fan of Morgan M Page’s One from the Vaults podcast, which offers a similar down-to-brass-tacks history of trans experiences.
McKenzie: She has a great one on Liz Carmichael, the trans entrepreneur-cum-scam artist. Who is your favourite bad gay?
Huw: Tom Driberg. He was a wannabe poet turned political journalist, a gossip columnist who later became Britain’s foremost filthy crossword setter, a communist who became a stalwart of the Labour Party National Executive Committee and finally a baron in the House of Lords. He was also a scurrilous gossip, a High Anglican devotee and an inveterate, greedy cocksucker. He said that sex was only enjoyable with someone you’d never meet again, while Winston Churchill said, ‘Tom Driberg is the sort of person who gives sodomy a bad name.’
McKenzie: What a great character! Not that it does justice to it, but your book Unknown Language (2020) is more weird gay, if that’s not too anachronistic a word. What led to this departure from your earlier style?
Huw: I was commissioned by the publisher, Ignota Books, to write a book that took the visions and cosmology of the 12th century mystic, polymath, composer and abbess Hildegard of Bingen and represent them in a new novel form that would be more accessible for a contemporary audience. I just realised that, while all my books contain a sort of otherwordly, delirious quality with relation to subjectivity, this needed a new approach to language and to world-building.
McKenzie: Do we need new forms for writing queer experience, where we might even dispense with queer and gay – and maybe trans – as categories?
Huw: Yes, although personally the terminology for self-identifying is a creative dead-end for me, which might be what you’re driving at there. The obsession with increasing taxonomisation in order to chase the Eldorado of a word which finally, exhaustively defines an experience of being is a fool’s errand.
McKenzie: I went on a date once with someone who had ‘aroflux’ in their profile. I had to look it up. Has a cute flag. I’m not knocking anyone’s chosen language about themselves, but I do think it’s a mistake to believe that the language of categories is any friend to desire.
Huw: Same here. I think there’s a value in being able to name something, name something about yourself, if that thing has been ignored or minimised or erased, of course. And there’s probably even more value in being able to form community based upon shared experiences that can be named or described. But when it begins to overdetermine and limit those experiences, to prohibit desires, then, at the very least, I’d say it’s not working for you, it’s working against you. Not that anyone is above this tendency; I spent years trying to figure out exactly how to describe the more perverse and polymorphous aspects of my sexual identity, of being in my body with other bodies, before giving up and sticking with ‘gay,’ I guess in the same form that a lot of people use the word ‘queer.’ Nothing is perfect but it’s sufficient.
McKenzie: I think as a writer I want to evade that consensus language, work around it, play around with it.
Huw: As writers we should be only too aware that the perfect word for experience, the word which carries a total meaning wrapped between its first and last letter that will be perfectly communicative to every audience, doesn’t and cannot exist, and that is the pleasure of trying to write. For me, the most productive task for queer writing, or writing about queer experience, is to move away from the obsession with creating and defining limits and policing identities and to move towards the real meat and potatoes of what makes these experiences and communities so meaningful: the contradictions, the gossip, the moments of explosive self-realisation and the anger and so on.
McKenzie: The world of categories and flags seems to be one of always being on one’s best behaviour. Which is maybe not helpful in dealing with the capacity we all have for bad behaviour. Although I wonder if the world is as ready for trans people to be as banal as that. We don’t get to be ordinary. We’re still cast as angels or devils.
Huw: One of the things I enjoyed about Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby (2021) was the lack of idealisation of the subjects and experiences, that it felt like it was written for queer people.
McKenzie: A key part of Detransition, Baby started as a self-published novella that circulated just among ‘girls like us.’ There are some brilliant cold reads of white Brooklyn t-girl culture in it. Which you can only do if you’re willing to giving up thinking queer writing has to be squeaky clean ‘representation.’ In both literature and politics, I think it’s better if we get to be what E. M. Foster called ‘rounded characters.’
Huw: For me, the baseline for any queer culture today is that its eyes have to be turned away from the straight audience, even if it knows the straight audience will soon be peering over its shoulder. That doesn’t mean that it has to be extreme or thrill-seeking or pornographic, it just means it needs to recognise that its baseline isn’t explaining its own existence on this earth.
McKenzie: To loop back to our main theme: is there space for an adult queer culture in cities anymore? Has queerness itself become gentrified? Is it even a gentrifying force now?
Huw: Queer life is like Marx’s old mole, always working underground and reading to break through into the surface. The intensity of the challenges it meets to find space, voice, face, etc., may fluctuate but there’s always going to be that rebellion against the boredom of the world, there’s always someone out there doing something pleasingly freaky.