The Naked Civil Servant

Quentin Crisp in his autobiography The Naked Civil Servant shows us how the way in which society demands men behave dehumanizes gender-ambiguous gay men. In his first line he says, “From the dawn of my history I was so disfigured by the characteristics of a certain kind of homosexual person that, when I grew up, I realized that I could not ignore my predicament.” The certain kind of homosexual person that was Quentin Crisp is effeminate, eccentric and unable to pass as heterosexual, but instead of trying to hide his homosexuality during a time when it was against the law, he advertised it. He says, “I became not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one. That is to say I put my case not only before the people who knew me but also before strangers. This was not difficult to do. I wore makeup at a time when even on women eye shadow was sinful.” What better way for a man to look like a homosexual than to look like a woman. By dressing and acting effeminately, Crisp defied the gender roles put forth by society and flaunted his homosexuality.

Because Crisp blurred the lines between masculine and feminine,  he endured violence at the hands of straight men (and sometimes women). He says, “I concluded that a large part of their motive for attacking me was to release their sexual curiosity in a manner consistent with their heavily guarded idea of manliness.” Crisp suggests straight men who attacked him did so, perhaps, because of their own latent homosexuality and his clear violation of the rules of how a real man should behave. Crisp says, “Any attention that they paid to us had to be put forth in the form of infliction. Such gestures as running their fingers through our hair were accompanied by insults about what a bloody awful mop it was. If they wished to make any more definitely sexual advances, these must be ruthlessly stripped of any quality of indulgence. …I have known at least one heterosexual man who told me that, to be really satisfactory, all sexual intercourse must preserve the illusion of rape.” This violent behavior towards Crisp and other gay men at the time ensued so that a “straight” man wouldn’t be seen as less of a man. Real men shouldn’t desire or enjoy sex with other men because only women are supposed to desire sex with men. Therefore, a real man could indulge in such behavior only violently so that it’s clear it’s not for his own personal pleasure but rather to admonish the homosexual for not being a real man.

These rules regarding how a real man should behave are insidious, because not only are they used by straight society to condemn gay society, we then use these same rule ourselves within our own community to police one another. Take for example the story Crisp tells about the male prostitute and the soldier. Crisp says, “Quite recently a male prostitute of my acquaintance, on one of his amateur nights, picked up a young soldier only to find at the crucial moment that he lumbered himself with a passive sodomite. ‘And all of a sudden, he turned over. After all I’d done—flitting about the room in my wrap, making him coffee. You know, camping myself silly. My dear, I was disgusted. I made him get up and put on his clothes again.’ …The speaker wished all those who heard this tale to appreciate how clear a moral distinction there was between him and certain other people to whom sex is a mere pleasure mechanism.” The prostitute could infer this moral judgment about the soldier simply because the soldier’s gender identity didn’t match that of being a bottom. I would call this bottom-shaming and perhaps why we still have gay men today who have bottom-shame, because a real man isn’t a bottom.

Crisp speaks about how gay men who camped in private but were careful not to do so in public were also angered by him even though he did neither—as he found camp self-abasing and even hypocritical—because Crisp was overly flamboyant. He says, “Even those who did not feel that I was secretly judging them were angry with me for presenting to the world, by whose good opinion they set great store, a brand image of homosexuality that was outrageously effeminate. This was resented chiefly by those who were effeminate but did not think of themselves as outrageous.” Here we see the start of gender nonconforming homosexuals being rejected by their seemingly straighter acting homosexual counterparts. Something that has sadly been going on for nearly 100 years since Crisp first witnessed it as a means for achieving acceptance from straight society. This is how the gender norms put forth by straight society insidiously manifest themselves in gay society.

In the recent article Powerful gay rights groups excluded trans people for decades — leaving them vulnerable to Trump’s attack published by the Washington Post, transgender activist Evan Greer, says, “The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, two of the first formally organized gay and lesbian rights organizations in the United States, actively discouraged members from engaging in ‘deviant’ expressions of gender and sexuality. Rather than challenge the rigid and repressive gender roles of postwar America, they embraced them in the interest of political gain. For example, their ‘Annual Reminder’ pickets for gay rights in the late 1960s had a strict dress code: Men had to wear white shirts and slacks, and women had to wear dresses. They fought against discrimination on the grounds that they were ‘normal homosexuals,’ and trans people did not fit under that rubric. These groups thought that conforming to societal standards would advance their singular cause: acceptance.” Again, this is an example of how mainstream society’s constructed view of gender manifested itself within the gay community, and the queer community at large is still suffering for it.

While attitudes toward homosexuality have clearly progressed since Crisp came of age during the 20s and 30s in England, I find it unnerving how Crisp’s exclusion for being a markedly flamboyant homosexual still represents some gender-ambiguous gay persons’ experience today. It’s especially hurtful and counter-constructive when it comes at the hands of members of our own community. He says, “Finding that homosexuals didn’t like me was harder to bear than the hostility of normal people…The coldness with which I was received by my fellow guests at small gatherings of the faithless was wounding in the extreme. I felt it amounted to ingratitude, as I thought of my life as a burnt offering laid on the alter of their freedom.” Crisp like all nonconforming gender persons who courageously live out in the open was a pioneer, especially in a society hysterical over gender ambiguity. I hope we can look upon these pioneers today better than Crisp’s contemporaries did upon him.








Leave a Comment