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Visualizing same-sex desire

History is surfeited with examples of the interactions between society and individual sexuality. Same-sex desire in particular has been, up until the present moment, a topic largely shrouded in shame, secrecy, and silence. As a result, it is often visualized through the image of ‘the closet,’ conveying notions of entrapment, protection, and potential liberation. Dominic Janes, author of Picturing the Closet: Male Secrecy and Homosexual Visibility in Britain, recently sat down with us to talk about the visualization of same-sex desire in eighteenth-century Britain to the present.

How can you picture ‘the closet?’ Doesn’t it intend to keep same-sex desire invisible?

But the point is that it often fails to do just that. This is what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick attacked in her book, Epistemology of the Closet (1990), through conceptualizing the closet as ‘the defining structure for gay oppression in this century.’ The closet was a space of darkness and fear precisely because of its fragility. Moreover, she argued, the role of the ‘camply’ effeminate man was deployed in order to create a spectacle of the closet as an open secret. These issues are not peripheral to the struggle for individual self-determination and self-expression over the last several decades. As the preface to the second (2008) edition of her book made clear, Sedgwick had not merely been exploring the category of the homosexual as a homophobic creation, but had been doing so at a time when the experience of AIDS had led to a massive political backlash against lesbian and gay liberation in the United States and around the world. Something that was particularly dangerous about the closet at this time was that it implied that only a small proportion of the population possessed problematic forms of sexual desire since only they, the flamboyant few, were clearly visible.

How can you picture ‘the closet’ prior to the twentieth century, when the term first came into use?

The force of Sedgwick’s arguments presented clear evidence for the phenomenon of the closet before that particular term came into use. It might be best to say that there is a history of closet-like formations that relate to the fear or reality of being revealed as say, a sodomite in the nineteenth century, a homosexual in the early twentieth century, or as gay in the decades thereafter. This means you can ask to extent people thought they could identify an ‘obvious’ sodomite before the construction of the homosexual as a type of person during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Moreover, we can ask what roles secrecy and denial played in relation to the visual expression of same-sex desire before the term ‘the closet’ came into widespread use in the latter part of the twentieth century.

For example?

The cover of Picturing the Closet uses part of a fascinating print, ‘How d’Ye Like Me,’ which was published in London by Carington Bowles on 19 November 1772. The classical discourse of the hermaphrodite was referenced in this work by depicting this simpering figure with a vestigial sword and a prominent vulva-like crease where his penis ought to be. This figure is a ‘macaroni,’ a forerunner of the dandies of the Regency associated with effete Continental tastes (such as for Italian food) that had supposedly been picked up on the Grand Tour. Those who argue that it was only through the trials of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) that dandified behaviour became firmly associated with sodomy would suggest that earlier effeminacy debates were all about gender rather than sexual tastes. But in fact this print was published in the wake of a major sodomy scandal concerning Captain Robert Jones, who was a fashionable figure in London society. The cover of the book suggests that we need to look at images such as this print again and explore a longer history that reflects the social legibility of transgressive sexual desires.

You’ve emphasized the importance of looking at visual culture since the eighteenth century. Does this topic still matter today? 

While gay and lesbian rights are barely entrenched in some parts of the world, there is a mood of justified satisfaction in some countries, including the United Kingdom, where same-sex marriage has been signed into law. But I am not convinced that we have, in any sense, reached the sexuality equivalent of Francis Fukyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992). If the closet was never a single construction but evolved to contain new sexual secrets, it is hardly likely to disappear for good in the age of paedophile scandal. In Britain, the former TV presenter Jimmy Saville (1926-2011) has become the media face of sexual perversion in a way that directly echoes the earlier spectacularisation of various ‘effeminate’ men as sexual perverts. ‘Coming out’ as gay or queer as a normative process may not, in fact, spell the end of a cultural structure that seeks to focus on coded spectacle. It may be that homosexuality as the secret of the twentieth-century closet was simply a phase in the ongoing life of a much more deep-rooted cultural construction.

What led you to write about this subject?

In 2009, I published Victorian Reformation: The Fight over Idolatry in the Church of England, 1840-1860 with OUP. In that study, I focused on disputes over elaborate Catholic rituals and argued that the reinterpretation of such religiosity by Protestant opponents as a site of Gothic excitement led to the production of texts (such as novels and newspapers) that were sold as commodities. In this way, the challenging, bodily ‘primitiveness’ of medieval Catholic forms of ritual and material culture was uneasily incorporated into the world of Victorian textuality and capitalism. It became clear to me that sodomy and effeminacy were entwined as themes that underlay attacks on various aspects of Victorian Catholicism. I then wondered what led Oscar Wilde’s satanic creation, Dorian Gray, to collect exquisitely embroidered ecclesiastical vestments. This led me to a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship focused on exploring the subject of queer visibility and invisibility in what turned out to be a very long nineteenth century.

Image Credit: “Union Jack at Harrods” by Cassia Noelle. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

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