Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope … HIV vaccine failed … The word ‘Queer’ … Ian McKellen

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Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope

Naked Hope depicts the legendary Quentin Crisp at two distinct phases of his extraordinary life.

Firstly in the late 1960s in his filthy Chelsea flat (“Don’t lose your nerve: after the first four years the dirt won’t get any worse”). Here Quentin surveys a lifetime of degradation and rejection. Repeatedly beaten for being flamboyantly gay as early as the 1930s, but also ostracised simply for daring to live life on his own terms.

The second part of the play transitions the audience to New York in the 1990s. Here a much older Quentin, finally embraced by society, regales the audience with his sharply-observed, hard-earned philosophy on how to have a lifestyle: “Life will be more difficult if you try to become yourself. But avoiding this difficulty renders life meaningless. So discover who you are. And be it. Like mad!”

Naked Hope is a glorious, truthful and uplifting celebration of a genuinely unique human being, and of the urgent necessity to be yourself.

A full house gathered in the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester for Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope, written and performed by Mark Farrelly.

Mark Farrelly is an accomplished actor, he brings Quentin Crisp to life and tells the story with confidence and panache. Mark’s script is sharp, beautifully observed and weaves in Quentin’s own jokes, anecdotes and barbs.

At one point, I was invited on stage to read out questions from cards, to which Quentin responded. It was great fun.

In short, I thought this was an outstanding piece of theatre.

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The only HIV vaccine in advanced trials has failed

The only vaccine still being tested against HIV in late-stage clinical trials has failed, researchers announced on 18 January 2023.

Known as Mosaico, the trial got underway in 2019 and was run out of eight nations in Europe and the Americas.

Almost 3,900 men who have sex with men and transgender people, all of which were considered to be at high risk of contracting HIV, took part in the study.

Scientists at the Johnson & Johnson-owned company Janssen Pharmaceuticals stated that the vaccine posed no health risks, though was simply ineffective at strengthening the immune system against HIV when compared with a placebo.

Dr Penny Heaton, a spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson, said: “We are disappointed with this outcome and stand in solidarity with the people and communities vulnerable to and affected by HIV. We remain steadfast in our commitment to advancing innovation in HIV, and we hope the data from Mosaico will provide insights for future efforts to develop a safe and effective vaccine.”

It is believed that this defeat will set progress toward developing a vaccine back by three to five years, though other early-stage trials could still prove effective.

PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99% when taken properly, while other medications make it possible for someone who is HIV-positive to be undetectable and therefore unable to pass the virus on.

The fight against HIV has come a long way since the epidemic began roughly 40 years ago, though the virus still infects around 1.5 million people per year and kills about 650,000.

Reviled, reclaimed and respected: the history of the word ‘queer’

Recently, a number of people have questioned or critiqued the use of the word “queer” to describe LGBT+ folk. One writer to the Guardian’s letters page claimed that the “q-word” was as derogatory and offensive as the “n-word”, and should not be used.

While there is a clear history of the word being used in aggressive and insulting ways, the meaning(s) and uses of queer have never been singular, simple or stable.

The origin of the word ‘queer’

Queer is a word of uncertain origin that had entered the English language by the early 16th century, when it was primarily used to mean strange, odd, peculiar or eccentric. By the late 19th century it was being used colloquially to refer to same-sex attracted men. While this usage was frequently derogatory, queer was simultaneously used in neutral and affirming ways.

The examples provided in the Oxford English Dictionary show this semantic range, including instances of homosexual men using queer as a positive self-description at the same time as it was being used in the most insulting terms.

Compare the neutral: “Fourteen young men were invited … with the premise that they would have the opportunity of meeting some of the prominent ‘queers’” (1914); the insulting: “fairies, pansies, and queers conducted … lewd practices” (1936); and self-affirmed uses: “young men who call themselves ‘queers’” (1952).

John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry (20 July 1844 – 31 January 1900), was a British nobleman, remembered for his role in the downfall of the Irish author and playwright Oscar Wilde, and is often cited as an early user of queer as a slur against same-sex attracted men.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as sexual and gender minorities fought for civil rights and promoted new ways of being in society, we also sought new names for ourselves. Gay liberationists began to reclaim queer from its earlier hurtful usages, chanting “out of the closets, onto the streets” and singing “we’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going shopping”.

The newsletters from the time reveal sustained questioning of the words, labels and politics of naming that lesbian and gay people could and should use about themselves. Some gay libbers even wanted to cancel the word homosexual because they felt it limited their potential and “prescribes a whole system of behaviour … which has nothing to do with my day-to-day living”.

In Australia, camp was briefly the most common label that lesbian women and gay men used to describe themselves, before gay became more prominent, used at that time by both homosexual men and women.

The evolving use of the word queer

In the early 1990s, gay had come to be used more typically to refer to gay men. Respectful and inclusive standards of language evolved to “lesbian and gay”, and then “LGBT”, as bisexuals and transgender people sought greater recognition.

Queer began to be used in a different way again: not as a synonym for gay, but as a critical and political identity that challenged normative ideas about sexuality and gender.

I am a faggot

Queer theory drew on social constructionism – the theory that people develop knowledge of the world in a social context – to critique the idea any sexuality or gender identity was normal or natural. This showed how particular norms of sexuality and gender were historically contingent.

Thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Michael Warner, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick and Lauren Berlant were enormously influential in the development of this new idea of queer. Some people began to identify as queer in the critical sense, not as a synonym for a stable gender or sexual identity, but to indicate a non-conforming gender or sexual identity.

Activists in groups such as Queer Nation also used queer in this critical sense as part of their more assertive, anti-assimilationist political actions.

Posters from Queer Nation’s Houston chapter

Queer as an umbrella term

From the early 2000s, it became more common to use queer as an umbrella term that was inclusive of the spectrum of sexual and gender identities represented in the LGBT+ acronym.

Today, queer is included among the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender diverse, intersex, asexual, recognised in style guides, as the most respectful and inclusive way to refer to people with diverse sexualities and genders.

Of course, the different usages and meaning of words such as queer have often overlapped and have been hotly contested. Historical usages and associations persist and can sit uncomfortably next to contemporary reclamations.

Queer as a slur?

Contemporary concerns with queer’s historical use as a slur seem odd to some. The heritage report A History of LGBTIQ+ Victoria in 100 Places and Objects, surveys the complexity of language use in historical and contemporary society.

It is notable that almost all of the words that LGBT+ people use to describe ourselves today have been reclaimed from homophobic or transphobic origins.

In fact, it could be said that liberating words from non-affirming religious, clinical or colloquial contexts and giving them our own meanings is one of the defining characteristics of LGBT+ history.

While queer does have a history of being used as an insult, that has never been its sole meaning. Same-sex attracted and gender diverse folks have taken the word and have been ascribing it with better meanings for at least the past 50 years.

Queer’s predominant use today is as an affirming term that is inclusive of all people in the rainbow acronym. At a time when trans and gender diverse folk are facing particularly harsh attacks, I’m all for efforts to promote inclusion and solidarity.

Respectful language use doesn’t require us to cancel queer, but rather to be mindful of its history and how that history is experienced by others.

Ian McKellen talking about “love” just might bring you to tears

It’s hard to imagine anyone with a beating heart who doesn’t love Sir Ian McKellen.

The 83-year-old actor has been not only a beloved screen presence for decades but also an outspoken advocate for LGBT+ rights around the world since coming out in 1988.

And it turns out, the word “love” has special significance to him. On a recent episode of the Apple Music podcast Three Little Words, McKellen told hosts John Bishop and Tony Pitts why.

“If you ever arrive in Manchester,” the Lord of the Rings star explained, “And if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a taxi, you get in the back of one and the taxi driver – usually a man, but not always – says ‘Where you going love?’”

McKellen paused, seemingly choking back sobs. “Oh, and I feel I’m home,” he continued. “Where grown men call strangers ‘love’. I think if we all did that, it would be a rather better place, wouldn’t it?”

Even more surprisingly, McKellen went on to connect that simple, everyday act of kindness and fellowship to issues around gender and pronouns.

“When people have got problems with gender, and pronouns, and so on,” he continued, “Love covers everything really. Just call everyone love.”

In a video that Bishop posted of the conversation on Twitter, he and Pitts are visibly moved by McKellen’s words, discussing the terms men use to refer to each other, and the shift they’ve seen in straight men’s ability to express affection with one another and with members of the LGBT+ community.

“I mean ‘comrade’ would do, or ‘brother,’ or ‘son,’ or whatever,” McKellen continues. “‘Man,’ yeah, ‘mate.’ Yeah, these are all good words. But … But ‘love’ … if that’s the start of our relationship, I don’t think we can go far wrong, can we?”

3 thoughts on “Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope … HIV vaccine failed … The word ‘Queer’ … Ian McKellen

  1. Words tend to have specific meanings in different geographical areas, eg ‘queer’ in Lancashire and Yorkshire just means different or unusual… there’s nought so queer as folk.

    Many, many years ago, I went to an audience with Quentin Crisp at the Southbank. He filled the theatre with his personality before he even spoke!

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  2. I think a vaccine will be found as knowledge and technology improve with time. I probably carry many viruses and don’t even know what they are. There must be an answer to the HIV vaccine puzzle and other viruses too and a brilliant mind will find solutions.

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  3. I’ve seen that interview and yes, it did make me cry!
    Interesting exploration of ‘queer’. I suppose if people respect what each other is comfortable with, that should be the start and end of it. If it is forced on people it won’t work. These things evolve.

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