What do you do with a troublesome queer figure? If you’re Ben Miller and Huw Lemmey, you spend over an hour talking it out. As hosts of the podcast Bad Gays, the two men have spent over 30 episodes dissecting the evildoers and complicated queers in history.
Their podcast comes at a time when the queer community is tasked with better recognizing our BIPOC and trans members. As the conversation shifts around which queer figures should be elevated as beacons of the community, Miller and Lemmey have started to turn their focus to the present, holding special episodes on modern-day complicated queers like former presidential candidate and mayor Pete Buttigieg.
In light of former Republican congressman Aaron Schock coming out as gay after a career voting against LGBTQ protections, and accusations surfacing about Lindsey Graham (a.k.a Lady G) hiring male escorts, Miller and Lemmey hopped on a Zoom with me to chat about what to make of controversial gay figures, queer generational divides and the evolving definition of “coming out.”
So you started the podcast a little over a year ago. What’s been the reception so far?
Ben Miller: There really does seem to be an organic desire among queer folks for content about queer people that is not on a 101 level. It doesn’t mean that we want to be necessarily approaching things from a hyper-academic or very complicated place, although I am an academic and complication isn’t bad. What it means is that a lot of the stories that we see being told about queer people still tend to be telling the simplest, easiest or most positive story. Oftentimes, these bad boys — and recently bad women and bad neither-boys-nor-girls — could tell us as much about our history as the stories of heroism.
I feel like people are typically fearful to talk about how problematic certain gay people can be. Have you noticed this perception has changed since starting the podcast?
Miller: I’m not sure I agree with the question because we are living in this moment of incredible willingness to [critique] people and a kind of comfort in [it]. In most of our episodes, we have sympathy for the person being described. Which does not mean that we want to say that they were a great person uncomplicatedly, but it does mean that the question of whether they were mostly bad or good is almost beyond the point. It’s then a question of what do you learn by thinking about what they did and kind of the options that were available to them in their moment.
[For example, in one episode, the hosts dissect Barney Frank. The former American political heavyweight modernized what it meant to be an openly gay politican but spent the second half of his career excluding trans people from non-discrimination legislation.]
Huw Lemmey: What’s interesting about these people is not necessarily their positive sides, and that gives you much more freedom to talk about those problematic things a lot of them have of some universal aspects of gay culture today.
There’s a series of American politicians, like Lindsey Graham and Aaron Schock, who’ve prompted the question of whether outing someone as gay is okay if they’re “problematic.”
Miller: I think outing is a blunt instrument. Like all blunt instruments, it should be used carefully, but it can be very effective when used against the right people. People have the right to their private life but not to public hypocrisy.
Lemmey: I feel similarly. If somebody is sort of implementing policies that they themselves can opt out of — for example, if they’re implementing homophobic laws or persecuting people, then the hypocrisy is a really relevant issue. If it’s going to protect people who [they’re] punishing, I don’t see the problem with intervening in that way.
What does coming out of the closet mean in 2020? Does it need to be done in, say, a statement?
Lemmey: I think coming out is less important, less shocking [today]. It can get to that position of being implicit but never confirmed, because there isn’t so much riding on it. There’s more space for understanding that people may not come out in that [traditional] way.
Miller: You have all of these surveys about Zoomers (Gen Z folks) where some astonishing percentage of them say they’re not straight. Whether that means coming out as gay or queer the way people in their thirties and forties and older are thinking about [the terms]…
I agree with you about Gen Z.
Miller: For many people — maybe not an elected Republican official — coming out is now a net positive or net neutral. People then want to use it to distract. After years of artfully evading the question, Kevin Spacey gets credibly accused of sexually harassing (and it believes in one case sexually assaulting a minor) and then uses that as an opportunity to come out of the closet. It’s like, “No, girl, no, we don’t want you.”
It’s to the community’s credit when Aaron Schock kind of did the same thing recently again in the wake of this corruption scandal, I think the reaction of most of the gays has been to say, “No thank you.” Although given the way that gay men conduct their sex lives, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of his fiercest critics are still woofing him on Scruff.
Aaron Schock interests me because there was at least the perspective that he was kind of living a very active gay life in the last couple of years before coming out.
Miller: What’s fascinating about Aaron Schock is how, in a way, what’s most interesting about the story is how banal it is. Here’s somebody who rises to political prominence as part of this very sort of right-wing area and maybe does so five to 10 years too early. I do honestly think that in five years you’re going to have rabidly right-wing white gay men in elected office.
Lemmey: In 10 years, I don’t think they’ll be right-wing gay male politicians who have that same aspect of their personal life. I think they’ll still have to try and sort of manifest this more conventional life.
Miller: Oh, for sure, but as soon as he didn’t have to be a right-wing politician anymore, what was there for him was Coachella and Instagays on the beach. That world was already entirely there for him to take up because the look is the only thing that governs that, right?
Then there’s Pete Buttigieg. I did notice a hesitance to critique his policies because he was the first major gay presidential candidate.
Miller: We did an episode on him with two black queer guests, Edna Bonhomme and Mac Folkes (who sadly passed away very shortly after the episode was recorded). Pete Buttigieg presided over a racist police department that murdered unarmed black citizens in cold blood and did nothing about it. What matters is that he was mayor when a campaign contributor of his had sort of a long term plan to fire the city’s first black police chief where messages between police officers got released that after Pete wins the election white people are going to be in charge.
For so long representation for representation’s sake was considered enough. I feel like that has started to change.
Lemmey: It’s never been enough; that’s been the problem. You have representation but nothing changes in that system because it’s still the same sort of party systems that take control of these candidates.
I wager that people are only now starting to wake up to the idea that representation is not enough.
Miller: You see the millennial or Zoomer generation who really have no time for the gay rights movement and who really don’t understand there to be any connection between them, those people, those goals or that movement. A lot of people are not content with the version of what “gay” meant that they were offered or that version about what “queer” meant that they were offered. They have endeavored to make something else for themselves, whether that’s fighting back against a version of gay rights that is for whiter, wealthier and more urban people.
I’m Gen Z, and I’ve noticed a notable generational divide too. Ubiquitous beliefs about what it means to be gay are kind of up for question.
Lemmey: There’s this thing called the LGB Alliance, which is like a sort of trans-exclusionary gay rights organization that sort of started up. Anecdotally, the older generation is where a lot of activism about excluding trans people from the LGBTQ movement comes from, which I don’t think you’ll find anywhere near as much in the younger generation, who have an implicitly different attitude towards trans rights.
There seems, when it comes to queer history, a major course correction for my generation to learn of queer and trans activists previously not given much attention in the history of gay rights.
Miller: This is an old Adorno idea. Whatever you’re reacting against, you always sort of end up taking some of that with it. Some of the people we talk about are uncomplicated evildoers in ways that are easy to talk about now. And some of the people that we’re talking about did things that now we would be very critical of but were completely convinced that they were doing the right thing. It’s important to think and talk about that too as a way of interrogating our own understanding of what we think is good and bad or right and wrong.