- Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918–1957
Queer London’s achievement is two-fold. First, it significantly updates current discourses of male homosexuality in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century by disrupting the familiar progressive narrative in which “‘our’ struggle against a repressive society” resulted in “‘our’ own emancipation” (242). If prior historians—most notably Jeffrey Weeks—celebrate the Wolfenden Report in 1957 and the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 (which decriminalized consensual adult homosexual acts in private in Britain) as a “collective ‘coming out’” (ibid.), Houlbrook argues that the notion of “we” embodied in these cultural and legal changes is confined to “the discreet and respectable [male] ‘homosexual’ within the boundaries of social acceptability” (243): other sexual dissidents including the “disreputable queer” are silenced, along with their right to be “‘gloriously,’ ‘blatantly,’ and unequivocally different” (250). The second and more impressive achievement of Queer London lies in Houlbrook’s dedication to recuperating the lost world of vibrant queer urban culture where, before men can become privately and discreetly homosexual in their homes via a political “liberation,” men— particularly young working-class men—can be openly queer in the exuberant West End and be engaged in homosex in the East End without endangering their masculine “normality.” Through meticulous research and exhaustive evidence from the “Met” (the Metropolitan Police)’s archive, a map of London’s public urinals, advertising flyers for clubs, photographs of camp parties and commercial venues of queer sociability, and the record of graphic sexual encounters from interviews and statements of contemporary queers—“Dilly (the Piccadilly) Boys,” “West End poofs,” “screamers,” “Urnings,” “queans,” “renters,” and “rouged rogues”—Houlbrook succeeds in reviving an eye-opening world of pre-Wolfenden London in vividness. In this world, despite the policing by the Met and purity organizations, queers were a source of “color, entertainment, and fun” (159) as much as they were a target of “anger and revulsion” (158).
Queer London is composed of four parts. In “Policing,” Houlbrook traces shifts in policing by the Met and other surveillance institutions in order to argue that policing was “idiosyncratic and contingent, rendering specific practices and places invisible while bringing others into sharp relief” (21). In short, as opposed to previous theorization, there was no “witch hunt” of “homosexuality per se” (37) in the first half of the twentieth century.
Part 2, “Places,” illuminates four types of urban venues that, fractured along lines of class and wealth, shaped male sexual practices. First, streets, parks, and “cottages” (urinals), and cinemas, theatres, and music halls—“the Biogrope” (the Biograph cinema) and “the Meat Rack” (the terrace below the National Gallery), for example—were places for free or affordable quick public sex; second, bars and nightclubs aimed at a new lucrative market called “the pink shilling” and accommodated “queer commercial sociability” (69); third, the [End Page 220] unique commercial space of London’s bath houses provided a “sanctuary” and an “orgy place” to those who could afford it, such as Rock Hudson and Christopher Isherwood; fourth, among various residential spaces, luxurious bachelor housing (for those like Noel Coward) created a peaceful domestic realm for private intimacy between men, whereas in cheap lodging houses and hostels for young single men, erotic friendship, casual sex, and assault and blackmailing were commonplace.
In Part 3, “People,” Houlbrook delineates two highly gendered types of men that were equally labeled queer: effeminate, stylish “queans” of the West End and masculine working-class boys engaged in “trade” (homosex) for fun and money. In noting that sexual “normality” was not equivalent to heterosexuality in the interwar years, Houlbrook argues that “all young working-class men could participate in homosex” and still maintain—or, rather enhance—their manliness: insofar as they assume the active position in sex and treat their “bitches” roughly, the promiscuity, roughness, and “conquest” implied in public sex confirm conventional manliness, rather than disparage it. In postwar Britain, the need to reconstruct the nation founded upon the stable domestic and familial...