Hitchens & Gays


Hitchens a Homophobe?

Mark Lilly and Christopher Hitchens on Hitchens and Homophobia--from the Letters colum of the London Review of Books:

Letters: Volume 21 Number 4 (18 February 1999):

Moderation or Death

Francis Wheen challenges Roger Scruton to 'cite a single political crime' with which Christopher Hitchens has sided (Letters, 21 January). Well, 'crime' is rather strong, but Hitchens is a self-confessed homophobe. When I was on the national executive of Liberty, then called NCCL, in the Eighties, I wrote to Hitchens about his homophobic sneerings in the New Statesman. His reply makes it clear that gay oppression is not to be seriously compared to other (then more fashionable) types of injustice. Specifically alluding to my complaint that he used terms of abuse in order to underline his contempt for gay people, he wrote: 'I think that people's sexual preferences are a legitimate subject for humour, dirty humour if at all possible. Obviously, one of the comic things about the Cambridge spy ring is that all or most of its members were/are queer . . . Faggotry, in my judgment, is as good a metaphor for that little world as any other.' When he appeared on Channel 4's Face the Press in October 1984, Hitchens's homophobic outbursts led Julian Barnes to say that 'you'd certainly need a lot of karma not to reach for your baseball bat' after hearing Hitchens's remarks.

What interests me is left homophobia. It is one manifestation of 'gay exceptionalism', whereby people who are progressive in relation to other social issues, draw a line at homosexuality. Many of the canonical texts of feminism are blemished in this way. Homosexuality 'is spreading like a murky smog over the American scene', according to Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. The hostility of Channel 4 producers to the gay community is well documented. Quite recently, a review in the Guardian of a collection of academic literary essays I edited appeared under the heading 'Fairy Stories'. Throughout Peter Preston's editorship of that paper, there was no coverage at all of lesbian issues, a ban on equal access for personal ads and a continuation of the paper's traditional support for supernaturalism. Alexander Chancellor is 'not sure', on 19 July 1997, whether equality for gay people is a good idea. As late as 1996, in his review of Kids, Derek Malcolm is dividing Aids sufferers into the 'innocent' (infection by non-sexual means) and 'guilty'. Throughout the Eighties, the Times Educational Supplement refused to cover the subject of homophobic bullying in schools, on the grounds that it was 'not on the agenda', though it is probably the main type of playground humiliation. The Observer carries a column by Richard Ingrams, who came third in a poll some years ago in Gay Times (after Norman Tebbit and Rabbi Jacobovits) as Homophobe of the Year. Had the same level of prejudice been directed against a racial minority, or the disabled, it would have been denounced with vigour and might well have led to criminal proceedings or civil litigation.

Mark Lilly
University of Tunis

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Letters: Volume 21 Number 5

Moderation or Death

It's not possible to please everyone, and it can be unwise even to try, but I found on reading Mark Lilly's letter (18 February) that I felt a sort of commitment to cheering him up. Anyone who has so resentfully treasured one of my frivolous notes from the dear dead days of twenty years ago, and who keeps it by him in a gazelle-infested exile at the University of Tunis, is entitled to such consolation as I can afford.

His case against me is one of latent and blatant homophobia, of the sort that if directed at another target might be 'denounced with vigour and might well have led to criminal proceedings or civil litigation'. By happy chance, I can refer him to a recent 'outing', conducted by Alexander Cockburn in the tabloid New York Press of the first week of February: 'Many's the time male friends have had to push Hitchens's mouth, fragrant with martinis, away, as, amid the welcomes and goodbyes, he seeks their cheek or lips.' Some good critics regard this as one of Cockburn's more polished pieces, especially dealing as it does with the absolute and inflexible requirement never to rat on an old pal. I offer it, though, as an example of a badge of supposed shame that one may wear with pride.

I was at first puzzled by Lilly's other faded but faithfully-preserved clipping, wherein he quotes Julian Barnes, then in his TV critic period, from October 1984. Apparently 'Hitchens's homophobic outbursts led Julian Barnes to say that "you'd certainly need a lot of karma not to reach for your baseball bat"' after my appearance on the tiny screen. A quick call to Julian and the fount of memory was unsealed. I had done a chat-show with Norman Mailer, after the incautious publication of his book Tough Guys Don't Dance. And I had ragged him a bit about his literary obsession with the occasions of sodomy, to say nothing of his then-interest in the karmic. 'I was,' recalled Barnes, 'sort of handing the baseball bat to Mailer.' This same notion had in fact occurred to Mailer himself. After the show, he berated me, and inscribed his copy of Tough Guys with an admonition to 'see what I say about you'. Nor had I long to wait. In a lengthy interview with the Face he attributed his bad notices to the fact that the London literary racket was run by a daisy-chain of queens, led by Martin Amis, Ian Hamilton and myself. (Amis and I composed, but did not eventually send, a letter to the Face protesting that this was very unfair to Ian Hamilton.)

Mailer and I have since made it up. So could one leave it like this? I would never persecute or deride Lilly, and he in return should drop his lugubrious demand that gay-teasers should be prosecuted. Also, he might bear in mind our relative advantages. He lives in Tunis. I live in sodding Washington DC. Was it so kind of him to rub this in? Need he have reminded me of the time when I could dash off a mocking letter to the likes of himself, and had not reached the state of decrepitude when only women would even consider going to bed with me?

Christopher Hitchens
Washington D.C.



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