Know your past live your future

Quentin Crisp by Mark Moore

Quentin Crisp by Mark Moore

Illustration by Fernando Monroy based a photograph by Andrew MacPherson

Mark Moore is a Music Producer, DJ and Writer. He hit the number one spot around the world with his band S’Express and has worked with a plethora of artists including Prince, Seal, Carl Craig, William Orbit, Divine, Philip Glass, Malcolm McClaren (they had a US Billboard number 1 with Deep In Vogue which sampled the movie Paris Is Burning), and many more. He even had a cameo on the French And Saunders show.

Moore has written and published short stories and interviewed Siouxsie Sioux and John Waters for publications including i-D. 

When The Naked Civil Servant was first broadcast on national TV in 1975, it changed everything. The film told the story of Quentin Crisp, exquisitely portrayed by actor John Hurt. We had never quite seen a gay character like this in a film, or, for most people, anywhere at all. Previously, gay characters on the telly were effeminate, camp, mincing homosexuals who were shown as a figure of fun and ridicule. Or someone tragic to be pitied. Suddenly we were confronted with an OUT, effeminate homosexual who had such incredible wit and pathos that we laughed with him, rather than at him. We rooted for this underdog who dedicated his life to painting his nails, wearing rouge, lipstick and mascara, and fearlessly parading around London in the 1930s and onwards, all the while trying to avoid the daily queer-bashing and police persecution that were parts of his everyday life. This was a crusade, bringing his ‘affliction’ to the attention of the world, to show that people like him existed. In a word Mr Crisp, St Quentin the Willing Martyr, was an exhibitionist – and exhibitionism was a drug.

Before we go on, we must set the scene of those dark and ignorant times. Dirk Bogarde’s portrayal of a closeted homosexual being blackmailed in the film Victim (1961) paved the way to a modicum of progress. His depiction was so powerful that it helped liberalise the atmosphere around gay people in the build-up to the (partial) decriminalisation of gay male sex in 1967. Meanwhile, a comedian like Kenneth Williams, whilst never officially ‘out’, was so fragrantly queer in his witty movie, radio and TV performances that he became beloved by the nation. ‘He’s theatrical, not a queer,’ people would say. However, the radio show, Round The Horne, on which Williams appeared as one the Julian and Sandy duo, was rife with gay innuendo and even had parts in spoken Polari (gay slang for those who are new at this). Soon gay-coded words like ‘naff’ (‘not available for fucking’) became mainstays of everyday conversation although the straights never quite figured out its exact meaning.

Other comedians and TV presenters followed in the footsteps of Mr Williams. Frankie Howerd and the fey campery of Larry Grayson soon became mainstream TV, adored by middle England. John Inman camped it up delightfully on the TV show Are You Being Served?. Drag superstar Danny La Rue, the Ru Paul of his day, took drag out from the clubs and on to the West End theatre and prime time Saturday night TV. He was adored by millions of mums, grannies and the straight public. Danny played it straight too for a while. A confirmed bachelor, Danny claimed to be ‘married to the business’.  Just don’t call it by its name! The mere utterance of a label such as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ would destroy the whole illusion that these were emasculated, unthreatening poofs and instead turn them into something real and dangerous. Something sexual. Limp wrists and queeny dizziness were otherwise perfectly acceptable. That is unless you were a gay male who didn’t fit into the designated lavender box. 

Gay liberation was in its early stages and hit back against this gay stereotyping as well as the mockery and ridicule that came with it. Even when affectionately done, as by Dick Emery’s flamboyant and (by the mid-70s) very much ‘out’ gay character Clarence (‘Oh hello, honkytonks!’), for the militant gay man this was just too much. Away with the stereotypes! We will wear leather outfits, checked cowboy shirts, dress as cops and construction workers and grow handlebar moustaches. We will work out at the gym. We will butch up! Never again will we be stereotypes! 

Around that time Harvey Fierstein (that’s Fierstein, not Weinstein) – the magnificent actor/playwright from The Torch Song Trilogy (why am I having to tell you this?) – was actually very fond of these stereotypical figures of ridicule. In Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet – the finest book and documentary ever made on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters in Hollywood and motion pictures – Fierstein says that he always felt that any visibility at that time (in the 70s) was better than no visibility at all. Of course, worse was to come. In the late 80s and 90s the stereotypical portrayal of gays in the movies transformed into those of deranged serial killers, often cross-dressing ones. The Silence of The LambsDressed To KillBasic InstinctCruising. Of course, Alfred Hitchcock had paved the way with a plethora of homicidal queer villains – RebeccaRopeStrangers On A TrainPsycho – but somehow, he did it with such style we kind of liked those villains.

Wasn’t I talking about Mr Crisp? So huge was his impact on TV that my father made my brother and I watch the show (we were kids) in the hope that we wouldn’t grow up prejudiced against the ‘afflicted'. My dear father, even with his heart in the right place, when joked to by my brother that he was gay, replied, ‘I hope not. Most homosexuals are very sad and tortured people. “Gay” really is the most inappropriate name you could give them.’ And I guess that’s just how it was in those days. Or perhaps he just met the wrong kind of gays. He was a lawyer after all so if he was just meeting the ones who were in trouble, it’s no wonder they were depressed.

Oh yes, Mr Crisp. Overnight he became the go to Gay for the UK before moving to and conquering America (aged 72) with his An Audience With Quentin Crisp live show and his many books, all of which displayed his unique wit and wisdom. He was a sensation and Sting wrote a song about him, Englishman In New York, but the one you want is Gina X Performance’s No G.D.M. Dedicated To Quentin Crisp. However, there was one problem. He was an effeminate homosexual. Yet again, the same stereotype was offered up to, and by the mainstream, and the gay activists did not like him one little bit. Then it got much, much worse. Mr Crisp believed that gays were NOT normal people and he didn’t believe in gay liberation. ‘The world would be better without homosexuals,’ he said. Talk about awkward. 

  Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I in Sally Potter's film 'Orlando'

Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I in Sally Potter's film 'Orlando'

Mr Crisp came from the early part of the 20th century where I’m sure he felt the full brunt of the agony of being queer, so I get why he felt the way he did in his brave, ironic and self-deprecating way. However, the timing of The Naked Civil Servant on TV – just before the punk revolution of 1976 – was serendipitous. Mr Crisp’s mix of narcissism and self-loathing, his ability to upset those who wanted him to tow the PC line, the shock tactics and the nihilism, it was all very punk. He attracted people of all sexual persuasions who felt they just didn’t fit in with any club that would have them as a member: individuals, freaks, outsiders and artists. I felt that, in spite of the things he said that upset the activists, he was still a shining beacon of hope for anyone who felt different, didn’t fit in, who refused to be invisible and for those who wanted the freedom to be themselves without apology. I will always love Mr Crisp for that.

Perhaps if I’m invited back I will write more about Mr Crisp and about how he wrote in one of his books that his number was in the phone book and that anyone could ring him. That’s when I started making my regular transatlantic phone calls to Mr Crisp. But that’s another story for another day.

Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch. Illustration by Fernando Monroy 

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