Mar 21, 2016

Quentin Crisp: Homophobic Gay Pioneer

This elegantly-attired, feminine person, who looks a lot like my Grandmother Davis,  is Quentin Crisp (1908-1999), who spent his life saying and doing exactly what he wanted.

He didn't like doing housework, so he didn't do any: "after four years, it doesn't get any worse."

He liked to wear makeup and feminine clothing, so he did, on the streets of London in the 1930s, even though he was constantly accosted, screamed at, and beat up.  Asked "Who do you think you are?", he replied, "I don't think I'm anyone but myself."

Like Jean Genet and Yukio Mishima, he grew up in an era where gay people were expected to hate themselves and each other.  And he never got over it.  He denigrated "homosexuals," even to gay audiences.  They usually laughed, thinking that he was joking.

He wasn't.

For most of his life, Quentin Crisp lived in poverty, working mostly as an artist's model, thought he had a wide circle of affluent friends charmed by his nonconformity and acerbic wit.

Then in 1968, he published The Naked Civil Servant, arguably the first gay autobiography -- at least the first I ever read -- a trenchant, witty account of of being completely true to yourself as gay and feminine in homophobic London. (The title comes from his job, posing naked for art students, for which he was paid by the government.)

In 1975, The Naked Civil Servant was made into a movie starring John Hurt, probably the first gay biography ever broadcast on American and British tv.  And suddenly the 67-year old Quentin Crisp was a celebrity.  He moved to a one-room apartment in New York, where he didn't do any housework.

He wrote more books -- How to Have a Life Style, How to Go to the Movies, The New York Diaries.  He appeared in movies -- Hamlet, Orlando, Homo Heights.  He went out to dinner, said witty, trenchant things -- actually, whatever he wanted -- and was taken to events, including Gay Pride events.

He was uncomfortable with his new role as a gay icon. The Gay Rights Movement was ridiculous.  "Homosexuality" was a disease, an affliction, and a curse.  Mothers who discovered that they were carrying a gay child should get an abortion.  And why hold AIDS benefits?  AIDS was just "a fad."

He went to his grave believing explicitly that every heterosexual, however vile, was superior to every gay person, however noble.

That didn't stop him from accepting invitations to appear at Gay Pride events.