Today, as the biggest UK LGBT+ parade, Pride in London, promotes love, diversity and tolerance, the story of one man’s determination to proudly live his life in defiance of a society that rejected him.
Quentin Crisp’s constant flow of witticisms (‘I should have guessed that she was a born murderee. She used to wear a leopardette coat’) make his account of growing up and living as a homosexual in a time far less tolerant than our own a joy to read. However, do not be fooled into thinking his autobiography is merely a rouged jaunt through ’40s Soho complete with accommodating American GIs and the occasional ruckus in an Italian cafe. Crisp uses his humour to cushion the evident sadness that underpins his tale, born from living in a society which deemed him at the least an oddity (his mother’s friend would not have believed he was homosexual as ‘in those far-off days a homosexual person was never anyone that you actually knew and seldom anyone that you had met’) and, at the extreme, deserving of criminalization and a good thrashing (‘the perpetual danger in which we lived bound us together’). Feeling like an outsider from a young age – he recalls thinking as a child, observing a wave of commuters disembarking a train, that he’ll ‘never be able to get into step with them’ – he simply doesn’t expect to be happy, so ‘had better decide on some small thing that I really wanted and aim to achieve some measure of that’.
As a result, The Naked Civil Servant – named in tribute to Crisp’s career as a life model employed by the Department for Education, rather than any hitherto-unheard of government department which I could be threatened with if I fail my next performance review – exposes the reader to the battles experienced by individuals like Crisp without becoming the angry whinge-fest he would have been perfectly entitled to write.
But what makes Crisp’s story so powerful is the account of his resolve to confront society through exhibiting his glorious differences, rather than hiding himself in its shadows: ‘by this process I managed to shift homosexuality from being a burden to being a cause. The weight lifted and some of the guilt evaporated’. His distinctive style is the most obvious way of doing this (‘as soon as I put my uniform on, the rest of my life solidified round me like a plaster cast’) but he also directly challenges authority: when his (quite sympathetic) boss asks him why he ‘goes about looking as you do?’ he responds ‘because this is the way I am. I wouldn’t like you or anyone else to think I was ashamed’, and when he is arrested for allegedly soliciting, his ‘one desire was to state in a court of law that I was homosexual and as stainless as Sheffield steel’.
The only thing that slightly grated were the constant professions of poverty when his mother’s thoroughly middle-class contacts repeatedly secured him quite cushty-sounding jobs. Otherwise, even if Crisp’s status as an icon for the gay liberation movement has become subsequently complicated, The Naked Civil Servant remains an engaging, touching and inspirational insight into a time when people could not openly be themselves, just because of who they loved. Before we wave our rainbow flags in the air and assume ‘it’s all ok now!!’ let’s not forget how relatively recently attitudes began to change in Britain – private homosexual ‘acts’ between men over 21 were only decriminalized fifty years ago in England and Wales, with the rest of the UK following in the decades thereafter – and that same-sex sexual contact remains illegal in over 70 countries, punishable by death in 13 of these. It is tragic to think of all the lives lived in the shadows, then and now. Love is king/queen – let it reign! Happy Pride 2017!