“There are of course many lgbtq heroes and many will be named in the course of Pride week in London. However, heroism takes many forms, not all of which get the publicity they deserve. In Westminster Abbey there is the tomb of the unknown warrior. I would therefore like to advocate the idea not of a tomb but of a living, shouting, parading memorial to those millions of lgbtq heroes who are, or were, only known to smaller circles of friends, lovers and colleagues.
It is important, I think, to focus not just on those who were, in contemporary terms, out and proud, but also many others who were what we might call ‘in the closet’. They found ways, more or less easily, to cope with the pressures of a society in which prejudice was rife. I am, in particular, thinking about those who have attempted to reconcile their sexual identity with their religious beliefs. In recent research that I have been carrying out I have been exploring lives lived in the ecclesiastical closet which had formed so as to construct a place in which to contain same-sex desire and to display its signs in coded forms decipherable to those in the know.
This meant that some churches in the earlier part of the twentieth century were able to provide a degree of safety and community in a time of rising homophobia. Yet, a closeted life of service to God and the community, however redemptive of personal sin, placed distinct limits on the further development and elaboration of queer self-expression. In the classic model of later twentieth-century gay liberation it was precisely through emergence from this closet interpreted as a place of religiously inspired repression that modern gay subjectivity was achieved. According to this viewpoint the duty of the closeted homosexual is to ‘come out’ and to emerge as unambiguously gay.
However, another way to look at things is to say that modern gay subjectivity was formed out of past queer cultural constructions. Because of the long history of homophobia such cultural constructions of same-sex desire are partly and inherently derived from the experience of repression, secrecy and shame. So we should salute those heroes of the past from before the act of the legalisation of same-sex acts who attempted to reconcile social justice with the truth of their own personal desires.”
Dominic Janes is UAL Professor of Cultural and Visual Studies and the author of Visions of Queer Martyrdom from John Henry Newman to Derek Jarman (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
On 25 June Dominic Janes presents Visual Arts and Queer Secrets, where he will be in discussion with three of today’s leading exponents of queer art history and visual culture, Prof. Whitney Davis (Berkeley), Prof. Jason Edwards (York) and Prof. Reina Lewis (UAL) to explore the continued importance of sexual secrets in the year that sees the 25th anniversary of the publication of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book Epistemology of the Closet. Find out more and book your place