From Alexander the Great to Ronnie Kray, the hosts of the Bad Gays podcast reveal the most villainous LGBTQ+ figures ever – and explain why it’s important to discuss the problematic alongside the good.
n February, season two of HBO’s teen drama Euphoria reached a climax. “Well, if that makes me a villain,” proclaimed an unrepentant Cassie Howard, “then so fucking be it.” This much-memed line encapsulates popular culture’s preoccupation with baddies, from Netflix’s endless scammer series to Disney’s villain origin stories. Social media is pretty much a conveyor belt of villainy, too, with different echo chambers picking their own adversaries. Meanwhile, famous young women such as Britney Spears, who were once demonised, are now being reappraised as victims. And with hindsight’s perfect vision, it’s clear that plenty of characters in TV and film were not the “actual villain” either.
We seem to be more accepting of some baddies than others. History is littered with famous probably-gay villains, from Alexander the Great to Roy Cohn, Senator McCarthy’s chief counsel and Trump’s favourite lawyer. But unlike LGBTQ+ heroes such as Alan Turing or Audre Lorde, they are seldom remembered or claimed as gay. The question of why that should be the case is the starting point of Bad Gays: A Homosexual History by Huw Lemmey and Ben Miller. The book’s central argument is that, if we are to fully understand how today’s gay identities evolved, the lives of villains – the most deceitful, criminal, manipulative and power-hungry gay people – are just as important as those of gay heroes such as Oscar Wilde.
Bad Gays is a continuation of the duo’s podcast of the same name, which profiles the “evil and complicated queers in history” – such as Ernst Röhm, the world’s first out gay politician – a Nazi – and J Edgar Hoover, the FBI director who helped harass political dissidents and gay government employees and was posthumously outed by his friend, Broadway star Ethel Merman.
“We want to address our history and how gay identity came to be,” Lemmey says. “But if we’re ever going to understand our sexual identity in a way that is based around solidarity and friendship, we need to discuss gay people who were devious and ruthless, too.”