Quentin Crisp: 1908-1999

 

Quentin Crisp & Matthew Shepard:
Together At Last

Bob Guter

Together where? Enjoying eternal Wizard of Oz screenings among the Heavenly Host?

Depends upon your belief system, I guess, but there's no doubt in my mind that Quentin and Matt will always stand together in our growing pantheon of gay heroes.

As my appearance progressed from the effeminate to the bizarre, the reaction of strangers passed from startled contempt to outraged hatred. They began to take action. If I was compelled to stand still in the street in order to wait for a bus or on the platform of an Underground railway station, people would turn without a word and slap my face.

Can you think of a pair at once more similar and dissimilar? The New World Innocent and the Old World Queen. I see them reaching across a vast space to hold hands—two allegorical figures, Youth and Old Age—a boy who had barely begun his life and a graybeard who long outlived his critics and tormentors. What unites them is their courage. Matthew's needs no explanation; his heroism became the martyr's, no less true because it was thrust upon him. By all reports his short life was one of affirmation; there's no doubt that its end influenced many.

When BENT reprinted Dennis Shepard's eloquent statement to his son's jury, we got this response from a reader named Tony in Pennsylvania: "Tears come to my eyes as I read his remarks to the jury. I ask myself why such a terrible thing should happen to such a worthwhile person that only wanted to live his life happily. I have been closeted for 42 years, my whole life. The courage that Matthew had was an example to us all. I wish I could say I had it, but I don't. However from this day on I will no longer hide the fact that I am gay. I am not going to broadcast it, but I won't deny it anymore."

As soon as I was in the street once more, the whole gang started to hit me from all sides. Almost immediately I fell on my hands and knees in the gutter. For a second, I wondered whether I could stay there forever, but, fearing that I might be kicked, I staggered to my feet and was at once knocked across the pavement by a single, more carefully aimed blow. As I leaned against the front of Finsbury Town Hall covering my own equally ornate fašade with my hands to prevent rivers of mascara from running down my cheeks, I said, "I seem to have annoyed you gentlemen in some way.

Quentin Crisp's affect was far too cool for his death to elicit many tears. His gift for simultaneously engaging his public and distancing himself from them was a great part of his appeal. His studied combination of reserve and "in-your-face" makes it difficult to imagine at this long remove the kind of courage it took in 1930s London for a man who affected silk scarves and lots of makeup to refuse the role of second-class citizen that seemed the only role available to him.

Quentin Crisp said "no" to beatings, to the closet, and to shame. By doing so he said "yes" to a life that inspired others to free themselves from their own shame.

This time they hit me with a weapon of some kind or
hammered my face against the wall or else I fell very heavily
as I lost consciousness. Certainly the damage was worse
than usual.

Why do these two men merit special mention in a forum devoted to the experience of disabled gay men? A friend who read the first draft of this piece accused me of belaboring the obvious when I tried to underline the connections. At the risk of seeming heavy-handed, let me at least remind readers that Matthew Shepard stood 5'2' tall and weighed about 100 pounds. His birth had been premature and in their statement to the press his parents spoke of how he had battled health problems all his life.

In present-day American culture, any man so small and so delicate will have his masculinity—his very human autonomy—questioned as a matter of course. Quentin Crisp can explain the rest, in words that every "obviously" disabled gay man can understand twice-over:

For anyone whose appearance is highly eccentric it is usually the first meetings that are a special ordeal. In the days when I had looked for regular employment I had only the initial interview for each job to negotiate. Now that I was free-lancing, I had to face several such challenges every week. Since I depended for my livelihood on the goodwill of whomever I had come to see, these situations needed to be handled with much greater care than confrontations with strangers in the street.

We—the small, the effeminate, the screaming queen, the wheelchair geek—remain outsiders. Because we are the men who reject or who cannot assume traditional masculine roles we are also the men who stand at the edges of gay culture.

Because our worth is continually called into question, we, in turn, question all assumptions. As official Enemies of the State ("commie pinko fags") or certified Objects of Pity ("He's so courageous") we fight to be ourselves. In the process we learn to call the world to account. It's not easy to keep at it, but keep at it we must. For the dissolution of our own shame. For Mathew and Quentin, who set the pace.

I do not walk about the streets lost in thought ... so no one interrupts my train of thought by speaking to me. I welcome them. When we say of anyone that he is boring, it is ourselves we are criticizing. We have not made ourselves into that wide, shallow vessel into which a stranger feels he can pour
anything. I have said no one is boring who will tell the truth about themselves.

 

©Bob Guter 1999

 

BOB GUTER
is Editor of BENT.