Comment: Quentin Crisp was no gay rights hero

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Ahead of ITV’s broadcast of ‘An Englishman in New York’, a drama based on the life of gay writer Quentin Crisp, Peter Tatchell argues that he was a homophobe and reactionary.

Quentin Crisp was a contradictory, infuriating figure. Although astonishingly brave and defiant as an out gay man in the 1930s and 40s, he was later defiantly self-obsessed, homophobic and reactionary. Quentin denounced the gay rights movement and slammed homosexuality as ‘a terrible disease’; adding that ‘the world would be better without homosexuals.

This is a good film, with another stunning performance by John Hurt, but it sanitises Crisp’s ignorant, pompous homophobia. Quentin disparaged homosexuality as an illness, affliction, burden, curse and abnormality. He regarded himself as ‘disfigured’ by his gayness. He never spoke out for gay rights or supported any gay equality cause.

‘An Englishman in New York’ invites us to admire Crisp as a hero and pioneer. By the time he moved to the United States he had ceased to be either heroic or pioneering. He turned into an ever-more bitter, self-obsessed person who resented that they way millions of gay people had come out and stolen his limelight.  
Crisp hated the fact that he was no longer unique – no longer the only visible queer on the block. For this reason, he loathed the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It had encouraged and empowered the mass coming out of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. He disliked being over-taken and over-shadowed by others; dismissing the new generations of out and proud gay people as johnny-come-latelys.
He never backed any campaign against homophobic discrimination or violence, and he declined to condemn anti-gay politicians and preachers.

Crisp is no gay icon. The true icons and pioneers of the modern British gay community are heroes like Allan Horsfall and Antony Grey. They were the driving forces of the first gay rights organisations in Britain – the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee set up in 1964 and the Homosexual Law Reform Society, established earlier in 1958. These two men, who are still alive and have never received the public recognition they deserve, have done far more for gay dignity and advancement than Quentin Crisp.
Crisp is a pale shadow of US gay rights trailblazers like Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.
The film acknowledges that Crisp disgracefully dismissed AIDS as a ‘fad’, at a time when thousands of gay men were dying and the US government was largely ignoring the epidemic. Sadly, it ignores his ridiculing of the gay liberation movement and his dismissal of the struggle for lesbian and gay equal rights.
Echoing the worst homophobes, Crisp said that gay men were incapable of love and incapable of caring about other people. The supposed lack of altruism among gay men was, according to Quentin, because they had ‘feminine minds.’ He was a misogynist, as well as a homophobe.
In 1997, he told The Times that he would advise parents to abort a foetus if could be shown to be genetically predetermined to be gay: “If it (homosexuality) can be avoided, I think it should be.”
Compared to ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ [where John Hurt also played the role of Crisp], this is a much less satisfying film, partly because it portrays Crisp true to life, as a much less sympathetic warts-and-all character, which is what he became in the latter part of his life.

Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner. You can support his work by visiting