Interview: Huw Lemmey

by Iarlaith Ni Fheorais | 12th April 2020

This week, Iarlaith speaks to writer Huw Lemmey, the author of Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell and the upcoming Unknown Language. Huw writes mainly about sex, cities and history. He is also the co-host of the podcast Bad Gays. Iarlaith felt Lemmey was relevant to Liquid as his work explores the ways in which intimacy is mediated, especially in regards to queer history. We were warmed by the generosity of his responses.

Every night at 8pm you share videos of the beautiful mass applause for healthcare workers from your place in Barcelona. Firstly, how has it been to be away from home during this and with that in mind how do you feel about these collective actions that would have been almost unimaginable before? 

Well I've lived in Barcelona since the end of 2017, so it doesn't feel like I'm away from home. I live here with my partner and we are pretty settled, so I feel like I am at home. That said, it does give you an interesting perspective on how the UK is handling the emergency, and allows you to see the contrasts between cultures. There's certainly some anger here about the government response, and also the crisis has exacerbated, or maybe just been split along, existing political fractures regarding the Catalan independence movement. The Catalan government has accused the Spanish government of dragging its feet regarding implementing stricter lockdown measures, while others say the Catalan politicians are exacerbating the crisis by making such accusations, which they say aren't true. But when I watch the British government's response, it seems even more chaotic and I worry for friends and family in the UK.

Barcelona is a very different city to London – it's one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, and it has a very different history and social makeup. I think those material concerns change the opportunities for the organisation and display of social solidarity. Every night at 8pm people come out onto their balconies and applaud the medical workers who are really struggling under the weight of the pandemic at the moment. It's a small gesture but I think indicative of the response of the city. But it's also not new; there is a tradition of the cacerolada here, where people bang pots and pans from their balconies and patios as a form of social protest. There was one against the King last week, and a few last year following the sentencing of Catalan political prisoners. The clapping is not just in Catalonia but across Spain too, and I think was organised on WhatsApp, which is used as much as a social network here as a messaging app. There are also a few pre-existing neighbourhood unions at work as mutual aid networks. Both these material and morale-raising projects and rituals make the struggle of this crisis seem a lot easier to view as hard times, rather than end times.

I don't know what it feels like on the ground but it's been really heartening to see the response in the UK in terms of mutual aid and people being far more sensible and pro-active than the government, who seem to have been driven by their own deluded wargaming ethos. It's not just that the economic system laid in place over the last four or five decades has been shown to be a near-catastrophic system with little to no tolerance for the unexpected, but that the social environment it has brought with it isn't nearly as deeply set as the conservatives might have hoped. Just under the surface, a deep seam of solidarity can be found. That's a source of great hope.

A lot of your work has to do with the politics of intimacy and sex, specifically Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell. Do you think this time of rarified intimacy will have a lasting impact similar to the AIDS crisis?

I do write a lot about intimacy, it's true, but I also write a lot about how intimacy is mediated. I'm unsurprised to see how easily so many relationships transfer relatively easily into online space – and also, which don't. That said, there are so many unknown or underreported tendencies happening right now, the consequences of which will only reach wider attention when the immediate danger of the pandemic has passed. This already deep crisis of loneliness, both amongst the elderly but more generally in the UK, must be being exacerbated so much, especially for those who lack the means to just ‘jump online’. It's not just a pandemic but will be a huge accelerant in a mental health crisis that was already out of control.

We can hope that forms of social solidarity that have popped up during the pandemic will outlast it, but my suspicion from a distance is that these networks of solidarity, either informal or formal, already existed, helping people deal with the pre-existing crisis in social care, austerity and so on. Hopefully, capacity has been added to those networks by them becoming visible and having more people joining them, but what work is neglected in firefighting this crisis? The massive disinvestment in public services is being covered by voluntarism during this crisis, which speaks well of the volunteers but doesn't change the fact that this is a political issue. Post-pandemic, the holes will still be there, worse than ever; whether the networks of social solidarity can help contribute to the systemic political change needed to tackle that wider crisis has yet to be seen, I guess. I hope so, but we've just seen the entire British establishment, from media to civil service to government, undergo a four-year process of unprecedented collaboration to ensure that even a vaguely left candidate looking to make those changes is barred from power.

It seems we’re both already looking towards the future in some ways. In the last few years, there’s been a growing interest in speculative fiction, with your work recently included in Seized by The Left Hand, based on the work on Ursula Le Guin at Dundee Contemporary Arts. What’s your relationship with this type of speculative fiction and how do you see the role of it as a framework to critically think through the present, dissect the past and reimagine the possible futures?

I'd probably resist the categorisation, if I'm honest, if it were applied to me. I don't think of my work as a speculation of possible future so much as a possible other presents, a deranged breaking down of the logics of now. However speculative fiction, science fiction – they're always more about our current society rather than the future. Frequently they're representations of our own world with one variable – environmental, scientific, social – shifted, asking “how would you order society if *this* were different?” for example. In my own work, I think there's something like that going on, pumping certain aspects of ideology full of steroids, seeing what happens...

As such I think what we're looking at in speculative fiction is really a new way to approach looking at our own society with fresh eyes, extrapolating backwards rather than speculating forwards. I always think it's interesting when people use old science fiction or dystopian fiction to describe the current moment – “it's like 1984” or “it's like something out of Blade Runner” for example. Usually, I find them impossibly clumsy metaphors, very basic readings of either the present or the fiction. But they’re also usually talking about how good the author was at prediction, when in reality, I think the best political science/speculative/future fiction writers are astute at an analysis of the present. In doing so they figure out defining features of ideologies and systems and then isolate them as the world they’re building. The reason they seem so prescient is that they understood something of those behaviours and extrapolated. Does that make sense?

Yes. Speaking of history… Bad Gays, your podcast with Ben Miller exploring the bad and complicated gay men in history has become a cult classic. What attracted you to the subject and do you think there’s something – about queers, particularly gay men – who search out the worst or most complicated things about ourselves? On that topic, what exactly is Evil Twink Energy?

I'm not sure there's a specifically queer drive towards a morbid self-examination as such. In fact, we started the show to counter a tendency in recent history to search for purely positive role models of queerness, and specifically of gay men, throughout history. That served a historical and political function, of course – to reclaim suppressed histories, to search for inspiring stories, to counter so much of the indoctrination and negative programming about homosexual men that we experienced – to excavate our secret history.

We thought it might be just as useful and illuminating to examine the queers whose stories might not be ripe for reclaiming, because the bad decisions they made, the bad things they did, help illuminate the societies they were living in and the pressures they faced just as much as those whose actions we see as heroic. As well as those individual stories, which help explain differing attitudes and understandings of men who fuck men in the past, we also try to weave into the seasons some deeper historical lessons about homosexuality. That is that our understanding of sexuality is historically constituted, not something immutable that has a constant presence in history. Some people find that controversial but Ben often says in the show that homosexuality didn't exist before the 19th Century, and he's right; we didn't think of sexuality as a part of someone's identity in the same way in the past. And we needn't think of it in the same way in the future. In many ways, our understanding of ourselves, the challenges of understanding we face in society, and the political and legal problems we face are legacies of these historical understanding of history. I think it's good to open up those questions.

For example, I'm really interested in how the idea that gays are “born this way” has become increasingly dominant in the past few decades amongst gay men themselves. Part of that has been a totally understandable political reaction to attempts by the conservative and Christian right in the US to frame homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” or a condition that can be “remedied” with conversion therapy. But that framework of understanding sexuality as innate, from birth, has been taken up by the US culture industry which pushes a very non-critical, purely celebratory form of identification which posits purely feeling something as pure and good and worthy. And the worldwide dominance of anglophone US culture spreads that idea.

There are a few things to think about here. Firstly, are we allowed access to our rights as LGBT people purely because we're framing it as an immutable condition? What if I wasn't born this way, but just want to fuck men from choice? Is that not ok? Could we not also frame our political struggle around the idea that people can shape or choose their sexual orientation? Even having that conversation seems taboo because it plays into the hands of conservatives, but maybe it is worth thinking about. I also wonder whether that logic of the autonomy of sexual desire helps fuel things like sexual racism, transphobia and femmephobia for example, where “just a preference” becomes a get-out clause for people not to interrogate how their own desires have been produced.

“Just a preference” sums it up, as if those “preferences” aren't materially constructed, don't emanate from a racist and misogynist society, for example. I’m really interested in how that production of desire happens, what influences it, and what its historical roots are. So perhaps in some way we go into that interrogation, examining how, for example, the very idea of homosexuality is deeply tied up with the history of colonialism, of taxonomies of human behaviour within racist 19th-century anthropologies, and with the legacy of masculinism and marital values.

And what is “evil twink energy”? Well, it’s an offhand joke we had for a recurring figure within gay history, which is a younger guy whose physical beauty or prowess seems to intoxicate a historical figure and lead him off the straight and narrow. Again, it's a little tongue in cheek – I hope we go some way into complicating the idea that these boys are somehow sirens who ruin otherwise unblemished and heroic gay men, a theory people seem to use to avoid questioning the troublesome behaviours of their icons.

Please subscribe to Huw’s newsletter, Utopian Drivel. It’s full of really interesting texts on sex, gays, history and cities and is one of my fav things.

Huw has also generously released Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell as a free podcast to get us through these trying times.

Published as part of Warm Yourself By My Trash Fire (March – May 2020)

Liquid explores expressions of intimacy in the private and public realms, in our digital and offline lives.