Podcasters Huw Lemmey & Ben Miller Want You To Know the 'Bad Gays'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday January 8, 2023
Originally published on January 4, 2023

Ben Miller and Huw Lemmey
Ben Miller and Huw Lemmey  

Authors Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller approach LGTBQ+ history from a unique angle on their "Bad Gays" podcast, which is, as the title suggests, not necessarily about the shining figures of virtue that we've all heard about, be they Enigma codebreaker (and victim of government persecution) Alan Turing or Harvey Milk, the martyr for freedom and equality whose message was all about giving hope to the next gay generation.

Lemmey and Miller focus instead on more complicated historical figures. In their recently-published book, also titled "Bad Gays," the two adopt fairly narrow criteria for which historical figures to include — with one exception, they are all gay men, for instance. Even so, they document a surprising breadth of badness that ranges from "somewhat naughty" to "downright evil," including no less a notorious figure than Ernst Röhm, the out Nazi who paid with his life when Hitler betrayed him (and a lot of others) on the "Night of Long Knives."

T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)
T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)  

Röhm is an extreme example, along with Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover; most of the men the book talks about fall into a middle ground, from the paradoxical British and Scottish monarch (King James VI, who commissioned the version of the Bible that claims gay sex is an "abomination," but who had male lovers himself); to the blindly colonial (such as T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia), to those who were "bad" only because they defied the powers of their time. The book is a compendium of a much richer and fuller gay history than much of what we've seen before.

And above telling us the stories of individual gay men throughout history, the book challenges our modern notions of homosexuality as an identity, making a compelling argument for how and why the "gay" of today is different from that of yesteryear, and how those conceptions are profoundly, inextricably bound up with colonialism, money, and class.

"Bad Gays" is an entertainingly erudite illumination of a history that bad straights like Ron DeSantis and his ilk will never allow to be taught in schools — which is why it's all but required reading for anyone who wants to be deeply informed about who we are and where we came from.

EDGE had the pleasure of chatting with Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller and learning about the strange and marvelous history of "Bad Gays."

"Joe" Carstairs
"Joe" Carstairs  

EDGE: The book is based on your podcast. What was the seed of inspiration that led to the podcast?

Huw Lemmey: We had this idea for a podcast that came about through research for other things I was writing. These fascinating figures kept coming up who were gay men, and I realized that they weren't being thought about within the context of their sexuality, even though quite often their sexuality was quite influential on their lives. I was talking to Ben about it and saying, "Why is queer history so often given to us as a positive history of heroes, of reclaiming the stories?" Ben explained to me how early gay history emerged as a response to the stigmatization of gay people in order to say, "We aren't just these people living in the shadows. We actually come from this long line of influential, important people who've changed the world."

I said to Ben, "Well, I'd like to do a podcast where we discuss the anti-heroes or the villains, what stories their lives might tell us also about how homosexuality came to be, and hopefully it'll be entertaining along the way. Would you be interested in joining me?"

The book came out of the podcast because we kept having similar stories emerging, or stories that had similar contexts around race or similar issues. Probably the most important one of those is the relationship between homosexuality and colonialism. We were quite careful about selecting exactly who we were going to feature in the book, in order to tell the story that was a bit deeper, and that dealt with some of those issues in a way that hadn't really been dealt with before — not in a popular history book, at least.

Ben Miller: One of the great things about doing the show is the opportunity to every week go to some really different place. So, we'll go to 15th-century Japan, and then we'll go to Victorian London, and then we'll go to some eccentric British oil heir taking over an island in the Bahamas and ruling it with their life partner, who is a foot-tall leather doll named Lord Tod Wadley. I'm not making that up.

[Editor's Note: Indeed, he is not; The story of "Joe" Carstairs, who was seemingly either trans or non-binary, is recounted in the biography "The Queen of Whale Cay," by Kate Summerscale.]

The book format pushed us towards a more in-depth kind of storytelling. We wanted to have all of the different profiles in the book add up to a bigger and more comprehensive argument about how we think a more interesting, and a truer, conversation about queer history could look.

The Kray Brothers
The Kray Brothers  

EDGE: You make the case that our current notions around how we think about homosexuality in general is deeply connected to forces in history like colonialism, capitalism, the exploitation of workers, and the manipulation of law and society by the ruling class. You must have taken note of how Singapore recently shed a holdover of British colonialism and decriminalized sex between men.

Huw Lemmey: I think I'm right in saying that the single the law in a Singaporean penal code is a direct copy and paste of the British colonial codes. It's quite interesting, doing some of this research. The law [against sex between men] in Jamaica and the law in Singapore are worded exactly the same. That's no coincidence.

EDGE: It seems from your argument that how we think about homosexuality today is a social construct resulting in large part from those historical forces. But at the very most elemental level, some people are sexually and romantically attracted to others of the same gender, and some people feel that their innate genders is different from what others assume it to be by looking at them — or they don't feel they fit into a binary model of gender at all.

Ben Miller: So here's where I'm going to step in and do some conceptual clarification. When we talk about our operating definitions of homosexuality and gender, and when we make an argument and show how they evolved, and what we think the problems with them are, and then [ask] what would happen if we abandoned it and did something else instead, we're also clear to say that we're standing on top of this identity. We are writing from within this identity. We are, you and I, both in this and implicated by it.

When we're saying that things are new, what we are not saying is that the impulses that those social institutions codify are new. They are not. When we talk about someone like Hadrian, we're talking about someone who clearly has both sexual and romantic attraction to other men. Same with Frederick the Great, same with a bunch of the other people that we talk about. But if you go into, "What does that actually mean to Hadrian, in Hadrian's time? What does the practice of sex between men look like?," it is not this idea we have now, where there is a stable minority of same-sex attracted men who are gender normative, and who, over the course of their life, may play both the penetrative and penetrated role. Instead, what you have is a situation where patriarchs of families are married to women, and also topping twinks. And now we don't call that being gay; we call that being in the Republican party. [Laughter]

Huw Lemmey: Today, how we organize those desires is like a social identity. In the last 50 or 60 years, you've seen a huge change from what "gay" would have meant, say, at the time of Stonewall, when there were people included within the umbrella of "gay" who today would be defined, and perhaps define themselves, into different identities. The reason why those people perhaps didn't feel included within [that umbrella identity] is partly down to the way it was formed in the first place.

Eric Rohm
Eric Rohm  

EDGE: Your chapter on "The Bad Gays of the Weimar Republic" strikes disconcertingly familiar chords that resonate alarmingly with current affairs. Is there hope we might avoid repeating the way Weimar Germany collapsed into fascism?

Ben Miller: Yes, there is hope. And I think that's precisely because these forms are always changing, and because we are always faced with the task of making something from what we have been given; trying to make lives and make politics that are ethical, and that are up to the task of changing the world.

EDGE: Do you foresee follow-up books? "Bad Lesbians," or maybe "Bad Gays, Part II?"

Ben Miller: I think we foresee a lot more of the show, and if people are interested in bad lesbians and [other] kinds of things, I really do recommend they [listen to] the show, because it's not just us talking. We invite a lot of people on to talk about folks they've researched, and that's a really great kind of bonus for people, that they don't only have to listen to our voices.

In terms of other books, we'd have to see. I think what made doing this book meaningful and important was that we thought that this was a story that we were both burning to tell, and we thought we could tell it well through this framework. Our thesis is about colonialism and capital and white male homosexual identity — the white gay man, how he happened, and why it was a mistake is our is our framing there. We would need to find another organizing principle that made sense for a second book for us. I do hope that more people start making popular media about queer history that is reflective of the smart and interesting conversations that people are having.

"Bad Gays" is available now from Verso Books. Listen to the podcast at https://badgayspod.com.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.