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How Today’s Queer Artists Are Revising History


This doesn’t mean there is no joy to be had in more traditional queer art; indeed, joy is the best thing left in it. And joy is what I feel reading Sarah Waters’s novels, starting with “Tipping the Velvet” in 1998. Most of them take place in the lesbian past; “tipping the velvet” was slang for cunnilingus in Victorian England. They involve clever women learning to create themselves without obvious models in hostile environments, yet they never feel maudlin; rather, in their urbanity, as well as in their momentum and subversion of genre, they read as if written by Dickens after a year spent majoring in gender studies at Vassar. They recreate real worlds erased by time (“Tipping the Velvet” begins in a theatrical demimonde featuring celebrated male impersonators) but also revel in the deliciousness of imagining them as fantasy. What would a pub for lesbians, like the one that features in that novel, have felt like if it existed back then? Somehow Waters makes the Boy in the Boat, as her pub is called, seem more real — with its treacherous staircase, sand on the floorboards, “trousered toms” at the billiard table and “square-chinned” Mrs. Swindles behind the bar — than it ever could if not invented.

Creating lives that ought to have existed is basically the novelist’s brief, whatever the specific subject or genre. But the pressure exerted by contemporary politics to make queer lives visible sometimes interferes with art-making, which at its best observes no external agendas. Waters has avoided that problem, not by retreating from the present but by locating the thing in the past she loves and making it live again. “I’m fascinated by how quickly social and cultural landscapes change,” she says, “by how behaviors that at one point seem appropriate and acceptable — or wildly inappropriate and unacceptable — can, within a few years, have been turned on their heads.” She looks to history precisely to see that it is not our story: “because then we realize that if the past can change, so can the present.”

Perhaps that’s why “Tipping the Velvet” insists on the happy ending denied to the heroine of “The Well of Loneliness.” So in its way does “The Sparsholt Affair,” a strange and beautiful novel by Alan Hollinghurst, published in 2017. Like most of Hollinghurst’s three decades of fiction, “The Sparsholt Affair” is obsessed with history. (“Contemporary life doesn’t have the things I find most interesting,” he told a reporter in 2018. “Secrecy, concealment, danger.”) What begins in 1940 as a story of a closeted hunk at Oxford, and erupts 26 years later as a gay version of the 1960s British sex-and-politics Profumo scandal, eventually skitters through five more decades. During that time, the disgraced man’s son, Johnny, learns to live the life his father couldn’t, marrying a man and becoming a father himself. When we leave him in the 2010s, he is learning to adapt to yet another new age, this one featuring gayness triumphant in the form of dancing, designer drugs and Grindr.

If ecstatic at times, Hollinghurst’s characters are not especially heroic, but it’s still instructive to see how easily they change or are overridden by time. It’s no accident that Johnny starts out professionally as an art restorer and ends up a successful painter: His minute study and improvement of old canvases lays the groundwork for a future his father dared not dream. By chronicling both men’s lives in patient prose, Hollinghurst stitches Forster’s wound — and not just Forster’s. Repairing a narrow corner of the past, he and the other artists I’ve been thinking about are repairing us. They are taking gay history out of the drawer where it has lain untouched, awaiting usefulness. They are answering the question of “Maurice” affirmatively: It is publishable. It is worth it.

Models in the first photo: Krow Kian at Heroes Model Management, Jeffrey Prada at Nöni, Otto Zinsou at the Claw Models and Carmen Amare at Muse Management. Models on the cover: Prada and Kian. Hair by Tomi Kono at Julian Watson Agency using R&Co. Grooming by Frankie Boyd at Streeters. Set design by Randall Peacock. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Casting by Noah Shelley at Streeters. Production by Hen’s Tooth. Manicure: Yuko Tsuchihashi using Chanel Le Vernis. Floral arrangements and greens: Lauren Messelian. Lighting design: David Diesing. Digital tech: Travis Drennen. Photo assistants: Will Englehardt, Kevin Vast, Jason Acton and Alex Cohen. Hair assistants: Chika Nishiyama and Mayumi Maeda. Grooming assistant: Jeff Santiago. Set assistants: Todd Knopke, Peter Davis and Genevieve Ward. Food stylist’s assistant: Mariko Makino. Tailor: Curie Choi. Stylist’s assistant: Sho Tatsuishi.

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