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Bad Gays: Ben Miller on queer history’s greatest antagonists

We spoke with Ben Miller, co-author of Bad Gays, a new book on the dark side of queer history, from serial killers to sociopaths.

I spent my first days after moving to Berlin eating Magic John’s slices and walking endlessly through parks, listening in my ear buds to queer men deconstruct Gary Indiana’s Three Month Fever, his trippy hybrid reimagination of gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan’s murder spree which culminated in his shooting of Gianni Versace. I hate true crime, but I hate heroes more. In those lonely, restless weeks of belated self-transformation, I didn’t want to hear about the triumphs of saints. I craved monstrosity, alienation, mischievousness. Like Willa Ford, I wanted to be bad. 

An epigraph from Three Month Fever opens Ben Miller and Huw Lemmey’s new book, Bad Gays (May, Verso Books)—an extension of the podcast they’ve co-hosted since 2019 about “evil and complicated queers in history.” Their project abandons the typical reverence for martyrs in the gay liberation imagination, focusing instead on figures of dark queerness, from serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrew Cunanan to Prince Eulenberg, homosexual scandal-maker at the German Imperial Court, and Friedrich Radszuweit, the gay Weimar publisher who collaborated with the Nazis.

On an almost-warm evening in mid-May, I met Berlin-based Ben Miller at Romeo und Romeo in Schöneberg (his co-writer Huw Lemmey lives in Barcelona). Next to the rainbow awning and framed portraits of Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston, we chatted about the failure of homosexuality as an institution, the sinister side to Berlin’s so-called greatest queer hero, and the scariest gay living today: Pete Buttigieg.

You use Bad Gays to describe the antagonists of queer history left out from narratives which focus on heroes. Your “bad gays” are criminals, sociopaths, failures, menaces to society. In your mind, who is the worst kind of gay? 

[laughs] The ones who don’t call me back. No, the worst gays call me back like it’s 1972.

The worst ones call you back and gaslight you and then…

My god. I’m not using the word ‘gaslight’ in this interview. 

The worst gays are the ones whose alliance with positions of structural power goes so far that it leads them to be literal Nazis. My three worst people in the book are Ernst Röhm, who Laurie Marhoefer provocatively claims is the world’s first openly gay politician. He’s the head of the Nazi SA and is murdered by Hitler on the Night of the Long Knives. My second worst gay is Roy Cohn, a lawyer who plays an active part in all the worst things happening in US politics from 1950 to 1980. And then my third worst gay is Pim Fortuyn, the father of the European New Right who dies in the Netherlands in 2002. These are the people I would say are the very worst in terms of actually ending up in these positions of huge power within far-right politics.

The worst gays are the ones whose alliance with positions of structural power goes so far that it leads them to be literal Nazis.

But we do not see those people as existing in a vacuum. We think that they are part of a spectrum that extends all the way into kinds of behavior viewpoints that are much more common and comfortable among gay men. Looking at those continuities is very important to us.

Who is the worst kind of good gay? 

[immediately and without hesitation] Pete Buttigieg. 

Oh my god.

For us, ‘bad gay’ is an expansive term that includes people who are really sort of hated in their own time or who die in infamy and we end up thinking of them in a more complicated or positive way, like Roger Casement. He was an Irish, anti-colonialist revolutionary. He had a complicated relationship with empire. He worked with British colonialists to uncover the evils of Belgian and Spanish colonialists, helping to expose some really horrifying colonial crimes, and on the other hand, operating on behalf of the British Empire and helping it whitewash itself in comparison to other empires.

The Brits end up capturing him, putting him in jail and hanging him. Someone like that is not a good citizen, but their legacy is at the very least complex. Whereas the worst kind of good gay is a Mayor Pete type, a boring, racist, McKensie nightmare in ugly khaki pants, in a little house with the picket fence, the Golden retriever, the husband and the absolute trail of bodies in his wake.

My favourite description of him is the human embodiment of the Bank of America pride float.

We did a special episode about him in the primaries and my friend who was a guest, the beloved, departed Berlin institution, Mac Folkes, said that Mayor Pete reminded him of the clubs in Chelsea in the 90s when the New Clone was born and all of a sudden all these men were dancing in a circle with their backs to everyone else.

There’s something boring and sanctimonious about only wanting to read histories of gay heroes – but there’s also a darkness about consuming stories of mass murder and sociopathy. Is our lust for heroic narratives more depraved than our addiction to true crime?

That’s a really good question. I wouldn’t describe the book as true crime. I think that the darkest and most depraved form of consumption of heroic narrative comes from the elision of human complexity. Even people who are, politically, and in terms of their activist work, genuine heroes, like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, when we leave out the ways in which they are complex human beings and not the kinds of people that society would understand as revolutionary, we miss part of what is so important about what they did and who they were fighting for.

I think that the darkest and most depraved form of consumption of heroic narrative comes from the elision of human complexity.

That’s not to say that I think anyone should come and try to cancel Sylvia and Marsha. Good luck trying. But to honour the importance of their political work is to talk about the ways that their personal lives and lived lives were messy. That’s an important part of queer history. By messy, I don’t even mean they did bad things. 

They’re just human?

Yes, it’s just that they’re…actual people. When it gets even worse than that is when we construct certain people as queer heroes—for example, Magnus Hirschfeld, the great hero of queer Berlin, who is, for very understandable reasons, constructed as a great national hero by a post-Second World War generation of German activists for gay liberation because he’s driven out of the country by the Nazis and he’s Jewish and a Social Democrat and he’s fighting on behalf of gay rights and justice through science.

This is great, but these stories leave out the fact that Hirschfeld is a eugenicist, that Hirschfeld has a very complicated series of relationships with empire, including benefiting from access to materials, people and subjects from the colonies. He’s in these colonial networks and has some very questionable ideas about race. So there’s this whole other part of Hirschfeld that we leave out, and that’s worse. The point of this book is not to say “your faves are problematic” to queer history. What we want to do is to have a full and complex understanding of these lives and that’s why the remit of the book is “evil and complicated”.

You and Huw write in Bad Gays: “Both of us are deeply shaped by homosexuality but also deeply unsatisfied by it”. What do you find unsatisfying about homosexuality?

One of the founding myths of the institution of homosexuality as we understand it is that it’s an institution: we’re born this way, and this is how it’s been all through time. There was repression and then we broke free. That story itself, we think, is politically damaging. It’s our argument that something about the institution of homosexuality made gay liberation fail, and instead of that we got gay rights.

Bad Gays, out now on Verso

Gay liberation is an idea about a transformative, actually revolutionary sexual politics, an alliance with other people, places, and movements—while gay rights are these specific legal rights that we have now received in many countries. Those are two different projects. One succeeded, one failed. We are not particularly satisfied with the successes of gay rights. We are not satisfied with the centrism and quietism of the official version of the gay movement, which too often refuses to be in a real, meaningful alliance and solidarity with other marginalised people. And there are all kinds of cultural and interpersonal dysfunctions that come out of this as well as the political ones.

It’s our argument that something about the institution of homosexuality made gay liberation fail, and instead of that we got gay rights.

All those things together form our dissatisfaction with homosexuality, but when we say that, we don’t mean being a faggot. Because I’m a faggot. I mean homosexuality as it is currently institutionalised. As a social-historical institution.

You also write: “Maybe it is time that homosexuality itself dies, that we find new and more functional and more appropriate configurations for our politics and desires”. What might these new configurations look like?

I don’t think we know what the horizon of political transformation looks like yet.. I’m a historian, so I start answering that question where a politics of queer solidarity actually took place. We can use those places and times to guide us towards the future we want. I think of the Marine Cooks and Stewards union, which Allan Bérubé famously uncovered. This was a labour union on ocean liners in the Pacific in the 1930s: a communist and explicitly pro-gay and anti-racist union. The slogan they had was No Red-Baiting, No Race-Baiting, No Queen-Baiting! because that’s how they get you.

I also think about, to move closer to here in Berlin, this moment in the 1980s when Audre Lorde, as a guest professor at the Free University, works with a generation of afro-German activists, many of whom are queer, and starts to articulate a politics of solidarity in this moment of profound change in Germany. That’s where we can start to think about what functional queer politics might be.

Bad Gays: A Homosexual History is out now on Verso. You can listen to the Bad Gays podcast here.