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Behind Closed Doors

Should gay couples be considered the equal of their straight counterparts when it comes to setting up home and starting a family? It’s a question that’s been in the news again, with MPs voting to allow same—sex partners to get married. It’s only a decade or so since gay couples in the UK won the right to adopt, and it’s barely five since MPs scrapped laws requiring ‘a father and a mother’ for couples seeking IVF treatment. Clearly, attitudes are shifting in relation to gay home—makers, and seeking to provide some historical context to these changes is Dr Matt Cook, whose new study is entitled Queer Domesticities: homosexualities and home lives in twentieth century London.

Matt Cook is Senior Lecturer in History and Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, as well as Director of the Raphael Samuel History Centre, which encourages community-based research on the history of London. His previous books, London and the Culture of Homosexuality and A Gay History of Britain, dealt very much with the public face of homosexuality: gay history in relation to protest, courts and policing, parks, pubs and clubs. But with his new study, which has been supported by an AHRC fellowship, Dr Cook is taking queer history indoors, to explore the shifting relationship between homosexuality, home and family from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. ‘It dawned on me,’ he says, ‘that there was a huge gap in the story of home and family, a story which is so central to ideas of Englishness.’ Gay men weren’t represented as being a part of that story, and yet as Dr Cook’s book shows, they have been making homes, and starting families, for a very long time.

Telling the story of such an intimate subject isn’t easy, though, and so the book assembles evidence from a variety of sources, including scrapbooks, letters, diaries, and photographs for the earlier households, and oral testimonies, home movies and homes themselves for the later ones. Not that this is without its difficulties: ‘what I found,’ says Matt Cook, ‘is that certain subjects – such as the way that household tasks are divided up between partners — are very difficult to find out about from written sources. When people are still alive you can ask them about it, but going back further in time, it’s almost impossible.’

At the same time, Dr Cook is wary of presenting any single version of his subject as definitive. So instead he has put together a series of case studies, showing a variety of ways in which queer homes have been conceived and represented over time, and allowing individuals to speak for themselves as far as possible.

There’s the story of artists Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, whose extraordinary home, full of the fruits of their art collecting, gave other people a means of talking about them as a couple — they were ‘the Bohemian pair,’ or ‘the famous collectors’ — at a time when the true nature of their relationship could not be discussed.

There are chapters on playwright and author Joe Orton and the way that he writes about home, and on the film director and artist Derek Jarman, and the way that his politics are reflected in his homes in London and Dungeness.

And, lest this seem to be a story only of cultural elites — of well-heeled collectors, artists and writers — Dr Cook includes chapters on ordinary working-class gay men, many of whom came to London penniless, and for whom creating a domestic space was a precarious business — men who tried to create a sense of home in bedsits, or who ended up by rejecting traditional ideas of home and family altogether, and living instead – especially in the 70s and 80s — communally or in squats. For these men, it seems, coming to London meant that they could think about making homes differently — homes that enabled them to be the people they wanted to be.

Among the subjects that Dr Cook discusses is the stereotypical image of the gay man as having inherent style when it comes to interior design. It’s the staple of a thousand home makeover shows, but where does it come from? Matt Cook argues that it was the importance that was attached to home-making in late Victorian middle class culture that made many gay men want to excel at it: ‘they took the idea of home and really did it,’ he says. ‘Displaying their taste in the things they had around them gave them a way of legitimising themselves, at a time when the law denied gay men legitimacy.’ And as Matt Cook points out, the association between homosexuality and certain supposedly innate aesthetic propensities is a long-standing one. At the trial of Oscar Wilde, for example, the prosecution went into enormous detail about the home furnishings of Wilde’s co-defendant Alfred Taylor, whose liking for tasteful décor was taken as a sign of effeminacy and deviancy: there was something suspicious, it was suggested, in the exotic furnishings and heavy curtaining.

The timeliness of Matt Cook’s study is clear, with marked changes having taken place in recent years in attitudes to homes and families, and to gay homes and families in particular: his work serves to provide a historical context for an important shift in perception and legislation, which we are still living through. ‘It’s not so long ago,’ says Dr Cook, ‘that the vast majority of the British public would have said that a gay household was not an appropriate place for raising children. In recent years, though, we’ve seen such important changes as the introduction of civil partnerships, the repeal of Section 28, the provision of IVF for lesbians, and changes in the law to allow gay and lesbian couples to adopt and foster.’

The Queer Domesticities project has also resulted in a public debate, entitled Queer Homes, Queer Families, which was held at the British Library in November 2012. In front of an audience of over 200 people, a distinguished panel of activists, sociologists and historians discussed these changing attitudes to lesbians and gay men as home- and family-makers, and what this says about the times we live in.

And as Dr Cook argues, by looking back over the last century or so, we can see that the idea of family has long been a fluid concept. ‘The traditional ideal of the nuclear family, with mother, father and children all living together, has always been something of a fantasy, with the reality rarely measuring up to it.’

Queer Domesticities is due to be published by Palgrave in January 2014.

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