Nov 6, 2021 • 11M

Queer Heart

Quentin Crisp, Larry Kramer, and the '80s Gay Imaginary

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Huw Lemmey
sounds and voices from utopian drivel by Huw Lemmey
Episode details

Quentin Crisp

What does it mean to be “of your time”? I wanted to write “a man or woman of their time” here, but it strikes me that one hears “he was a man of his time” much more frequently than one hears “she was a woman of her time”, and that is instructive. The phrase has become a shorthand for dismissing any discussion of someone’s misdeeds, and hence, usually a man’s. Cecil Rhodes, Winston Churchill, John Lennon - “he was a man of his time” is a demand to stop talking. Yet it should be an invitation to go deeper into the conversation; while we reject it as a rhetorical tool, it is, in this way, always correct. Rhodes was a man of his time, but his time included Lobengula Khumalo, Roger Casement, Harriet Tubman and Vladimir Lenin. Only those who don’t really know the context of “their time” could possibly think it is a defence that would exonerate them, but it can help us understand them.

We can admit, those of us who hate the phrase, that there is also more than a grain of truth to it. We can reject it as a rhetorical demand to shut up, but we can’t reject it out-of-hand. Like the claim of “cancel culture”, we can recognise its bad faith utilisation while also acknowledging the conditions that allow it to be used. But when someone refuses to discuss someone’s life in the context of the society they lived in, it is just as bad faith, and it can be disorienting to imagine how they think the past even functioned, as if our own moral and political positions aren’t reliant upon their thinking and failings. I find this particularly acute when people discuss our LGBTQ elders without context, as though we do not stand on the shoulders of giants.

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