... refrains from stopping at the obvious answers to the complications it raises. When writing about people like Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover, who have been subject to extensive research already, or Philip Johnson, the architect whose Glass House is an obvious metaphor for contemporaneous queer existence, Bad Gays manages to bring something new to the table by insisting on focusing not on how a certain identity can coexist with its evil antithesis of oppressive actions, but rather on how queer sensibilities interweave with power relations and the choices people make regarding their power. That is the thesis at the core of the book. To understand the 'bad gays' of history is to understand how to choose a contemporary queer movement that stands as all-inclusive and in solidarity with its counterparts ... an account of historical privileges and marginalizations, as well as a theory of queerness for the future.
The authors express an acute understanding that people have always lived in a stew of history, and they situate each of their subjects not just within the ideas and attitudes of their day, but within the legal and religious constraints that defined them as outcasts and abominations. Still, they never forget that they’re talking about conquerors and colonialists, racists and antisemites, criminals and conspirators, from Hadrian to Ronnie Kray to Roy Cohn ... Saul or 20th-century star anthropologist Margaret Mead, might raise an eyebrow at first, but the authors make their case against every one of them, with the precision of a surgeon and the zeal of a prosecutor. Absolutely no one in this book gets a flattering portrait, which is as it should be. Context is provided for choices and actions, but the authors take every one of their subjects to task for their racism, misogyny, genocidal actions, predatory natures and all-around bad behavior if not bad taste ... The authors don’t forget that it can be fun to be faced with the stories of so many awful queers, one after another, partially because of a long-standing gay tradition of shade and gossip: a tradition in which they occasionally indulge, to the book’s benefit. It also feels like a bracing slap in the face to the 'Love is love' corporate logo form of gay identity and an acknowledgment of its limitations at a time when the rights of trans people to simply live their lives unimpeded is threatened and even the most conservative of hard-fought victories, same-sex marriage rights, could be in jeopardy ... The book is meticulously and exhaustively researched ... The language is crisp and at times appropriately sharp and openly critical. The points about nationalism, white supremacy, toxic masculinity and colonialism collectively influencing almost all bad gays throughout history are well made, but there are times when the chapters seem like a series of podcast episodes rather than a cohesive history. This can be seen as a feature not a bug, however, giving the book an ease of use that allows readers to put it down or pick it up as it suits them ... The book is anathema to respectability politics, drawing power from the stories of people who thought, said and did terrible things in their time. It manages this because the authors acknowledge the difficulties their subjects’ sexual and romantic orientation tended to bring upon them as well as the shortcomings of the form of gay identity that coalesced around them ... succeeds in its goals in every way, offering an infuriating, thoughtful, deliciously judgmental history of the very worst we had to offer.
The purpose is not to excuse them but to understand them and their cultures, out of which the present day evolved. We see how same-sex relationships started as acceptable (within strict social-status rules), to being a sin, to being a crime, and how that shaped the lives and personalities of each era’s 'bad' gays. The historical perspective is fascinating, and the bits of salty gay humor sprinkled throughout liven the proceedings considerably.