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Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.4 (2005) 363-382

The Queer Life and Afterlife of Roger Casement Books of Critical Interest
Brian Lewis
McGill University

The year is 1910, the scene, Iquitos in northeastern Peru, a river port as far up the Amazon as steamboats traveled. Roger Casement, sauntering along the waterfront at night, is on the prowl, hoping to make eye contact. He exchanges glances with a handsome youth. The youth heads along a wooden pier and under the boardwalk. Casement follows. They are entirely alone.

Wordlessly they stare at one another—now it is evident that the lad wants it as much, as hard and as anonymously as Roger. They grasp at one another, falling into the mud, rolling and tumbling, working out the frustrations of their mutually unknown lives as, above their heads, the footsteps of the unsuspecting townsfolk can be seen through the gaps in the wooden boards.

Hard, dirty, satisfying sex. 1

This is an imaginative reconstruction by scriptwriter Michael Eaton based on Casement's notorious Black Diaries. The script captures the essence of Casement the practiced, habitual cruiser, lusting after transient pleasures with young male bodies, and is just one example of an ongoing fascination with his sex life. 2 Casement, some allege, deserves to be remembered for other things: his campaigns against the brutalization of indigenous peoples in the Congo and in the Amazon, his turning to revolutionary Irish nationalism, his treachery against the British, and his willingness to die for a [End Page 363] cause he believed in. Maybe so. His is a stirring life story. But there were other humanitarian heroes and Irish revolutionaries of the same period who are scarcely known outside a scholarly audience. Casement would probably have shared a similar fate, slipping under the radar of popular consciousness, a figure to be resurrected only periodically by students of humanitarian movements against colonial oppression or by Irish politicians feeling the patriotic urge to appeal to a parade of historical martyrs. 3 The irony is that Casement remains a hot topic much less on account of his public acts than because he left behind him a set of diaries describing his promiscuous gay sex life in explicit detail.

The debate over the authenticity of the diaries has raged for decades and will probably never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. In 2002, however, Dr. Audrey Best, supervised by a team of academics under Professor William J. McCormack of Goldsmiths College, London, conducted the most thorough set of forensic tests and handwriting analysis yet attempted and dealt a substantial blow to the dwindling ranks of forgery theorists. Her conclusions only confirmed the belief most Casement scholars have held for quite some time: beyond reasonable doubt Roger Casement did indeed write the diaries. It became ever more difficult to deny him his queerness. 4

This article is not another intervention in the authenticity/forgery debate. It has, rather, three main aims. The first is to discuss Casement's life and sexual exploits, set in context, evaluating the evidence for his own sense of sexual identity and assessing what the diaries tell us about homosexual practices in the early twentieth century. The second is to illustrate the dramatic changes in accounts of his sexuality as attitudes toward male homosexuality have evolved over the last nine decades. It ends with some reflections on the enduring use and abuse of him for disparate agendas, most notably in recent years as a gay icon.

* * *

Roger David ("Roddie") Casement was born in 1864 near Dublin. His father was a captain, invalided out of the army on half pay, and during Roddie's early years his family lived a peripatetic existence searching for cheap accommodation in healthy climates in France, Italy, and England. His father was a member of the Church of Ireland, and Roddie was brought up [End Page 364] a Protestant, but his mother was Catholic, and she secretly had him and his two brothers baptized in her faith when he was three. Both parents were...


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