Robert Aldrich - Gay Life Stories (4 stars)

Fascinating insight into the lives of gay men and women throughout history

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Robert Aldrich - Gay Life Stories

(Thames & Hudson)

Gay rights have made huge strides in the West in the past couple of decades and with that has come an increase in the numbers of openly gay celebrities from across the spectrum of public life. But what of the many unsung heroes of gay liberation who made their impact in epochs and parts of the world that were far less liberal?

Robert Aldrich’s thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated book provides an entertaining, accessible survey of remarkable LGBT lives, from earliest history to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Refreshingly, Aldrich’s canvass is not limited to the West or to the usual male poster boys of popular gay culture. Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde and TE Lawrence are dealt with, as might be expected, but there’s also an entire section on ‘Women Who Loved Women’, which includes the French photographer Claude Cahun and the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who lived together for 50 years in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as entire chapters devoted to ‘Japonisme’ and ‘Love in the Levant’.

The book’s earliest recorded lives are Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, the Egyptian royal manicurists who were entombed together circa 2400BC. For these early entries, including the Biblical adventures of David and Jonathan, Aldrich has inevitably applied some textual interpretation rather than the documentary evidence of later examples, but this only serves to make their inclusion all the more provocative. The large selection of portraits and illustrations, notably a chapter dealing with ‘visions of male beauty’, adds to the thick volume’s aesthetic appeal.

Some of these defiantly gay life stories are inspirational, some tragic (it’s depressing to note how many of these figures met a violent end at the hands of some disgruntled lover or gay-basher). Others (such as the machinations of the gangster Ronnie Kray) are, frankly, scary. What’s most intriguing, though, is the lack of actors and sportspeople in a book stuffed with writers, visual artists and composers as well as political, religious and military figures. Their omission draws attention to the homophobia and secrecy that has surrounded these areas of popular culture – and continues to plague them today.

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