Excavating Queer Histories with Sam Ashby
The Criterion Collection
The growing presence of unabashed queerness in contemporary culture makes the past seem comparatively drained of it. But it was always there. There’s often a queer history that lies beneath our accepted mainstream hetero narratives. When excavated, these histories can be mistakenly tagged as “alternative,” yet it’s more apt to say that they’ve been sidelined or eradicated. Even a pop phenomenon as all-encompassing as the Beatles was fueled by the expertise and aesthetic savvy of a gay man who remains considerably less known than John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Sometimes referred to as “the Fifth Beatle,” Brian Epstein was the band’s manager and the one who discovered them, gave them their look and style, and introduced them to the world; gay and Jewish—thus doubly othered in swinging sixties London—and content to be a behind-the-curtain figure, Epstein is an unassuming sort to be called, by Warren Ellis, “one of the great unsung architects of twentieth-century culture.” Furthering the mystique around Epstein for intrigued queer historians is the fact that Epstein’s gayness was well known by the Fab Four and was allegedly treated by them in a matter-of-fact manner, despite the rampantly homophobic culture of a time in UK history when consensual sexual acts between men were still outlawed.
The closest bond is said to
have existed between Epstein and John Lennon, whose generally open attitudes
toward sexuality have been well recorded and published. The central event
between the two men that has persisted even to this day as a source of fascination, and which has fueled
decades of speculation, occurred in late April and early May in 1963, when the two men
vacationed alone together for twelve days in Barcelona, at the same time that Paul,
George, and Ringo took a trip to Santa Cruz; Lennon’s first child, Julian, with
his first wife, Cynthia, had been born just two weeks prior. Wondering what, if
anything, went on between Epstein and Lennon is more than the pastime of slash
fan-fiction writers. By way of semi-denial, Lennon said to Jan Wenner in Rolling Stone in 1971, “I just went on
holiday. I watched Brian picking up the boys. I like playing a bit faggy, all
that. It was enjoyable, but there were big rumors in Liverpool, it was terrible.”
Thanks to interviews and oral
histories over the years—and one unsubstantiated, quite detailed report from
Lennon’s childhood friend Pete Shotton in his book In My Life relating that Lennon told him sexual activity did indeed
take place—thirst for the truth around the Barcelona trip has never been
quenched. Both men have long been dead, so whatever happened there is
lost forever, yet this little sojourn
remains one of the great gay maybes, a void on which to project desire and
possibility, a sliver of time that nevertheless stands in for an entire suppressed history.
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