We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right
Antony Charles Robert Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon, died 13th January.
Back in 2014, when I went to the National Portrait Gallery’s Snowdon: A Life in View Exhibition, I was struck by how many famous bisexuals were depicted: almost as many pictures as there were of the Royal Family. Whether this was a reflection of curatorial decisions or of the NPG’s Snowdon collection as a whole is a puzzle that may now be lost in the mists of recent history.
Rather like certain aspects of Snowdon’s life, I expect; I was rather surprised at how keen certain of the broadsheets (or at least their online presences) were to reiterate how utterly heterosexual the man was – in some cases while also discussing his wide circle of gay and bisexual friends as well as his outrageously camp behaviour.
Snowdon himself was rather enigmatic on the subject; when questioned by his official biographer, Anne de Courcy, he replied, “I didn’t fall in love with boys… but a few men have been in love with me.” Snowdon: the Biography came out not long before Nicky Haslam’s Redeeming Features, in which he claimed to have had an affair with Snowdon in the 1950s. Snowdon’s response to being asked about that (admittedly quoted by a less reliable source than de Courcy) was “It’s not true as far as I’m concerned – and I should know.” One could speculate at this point about the reliability of anyone’s memory at over fifty year’s remove, and indeed about how people can vary in their definitions of ‘relationship’, ‘sex’ and indeed ‘love’; however, it’s far better to acknowledge Snowdon as an ally. While he devoted most of his activist activities to other causes – notably accessibility and employment opportunities for people with disabilities – he did give us some sterling examples of non-standard masculinity at a time when appearing to be anything other than straight wasn’t ‘the done thing’ – or entirely safe.
Snowdon’s death came almost exactly a year after that of David Bowie – often the subject for big name photographers, including Snowdon – another star whose sexuality created vast swathes of newsprint. Early in his career, Bowie (often with his eventual first wife, Angie) was a regular at various gay clubs – referencing some of the friends he made there in All the Young Dudes – and talked openly about his relationships with both men and women. Later, however, he retracted almost everything he had said on the subject – disappointing various sections of his fanbase.
Meanwhile, Angie Bowie went on to create controversy by recounting in one of her books the occasion when she found her husband in bed with Mick Jagger. Various spins have been put on the story over the years, although I’m not certain it really matters what happened prior to Angie bringing the boys a cup of tea. Marc Bolan is said to have regularly drunk tea in bed with his manager Simon Napier-Bell as their version of the business breakfast (Bolan having caught the first bus of the morning from his home to Napier-Bell’s flat). What really matters is that at various points in their careers, both Bolan and Bowie provided us with more examples of unconventional masculinity and/or gender fluidity: influences for a wide range of people who don’t fit in one particular box for their gender and/or sexuality.
Going further back in history, Una Troubridge ought to be better known for more than just putting up with Radclyffe Hall for as long as she did (Hall being no better at either monogamy or properly negotiated polyamory than any of the aforementioned individuals). A noted sculptor and translator, Troubridge at various times in her life adopted both masculine suits (including wearing those previously owned by Hall after the latter’s death) and more traditionally feminine attire. Prior to meeting Hall, she had been married, though at this distance it’s not possible to determine to what extent that was an inconvenient necessity, due to financial difficulties, or an option she might have chosen anyway: Troubridge was another who rewrote personal histories to suit her ideal version of events.
It’s not only the individuals themselves who rewrite history of course. After Daphne Du Maurier’s death, her family reputedly put a lot of effort into denying her relationships with women, as did that of one of her probable lovers. Everyone wants to remember the version of history that portrays them and their loved ones in the best possible light – according to the values they hold most dear. Meanwhile, the rest of us might be better off not shoehorning people we don’t necessarily know into too tight a box.
By not over-categorising our icons, we open them up as role models for more people, whether that’s bisexuals, the gender non-conforming, or potential straight allies who might need reassurance that it’s okay to be friends with those who are different to them and might even (!) fancy them.
And finally, an honourable mention has to go to the National Trust, whose LGBT History Month examples include the wonderful (although new to me) Henry Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, who was famously flamboyant, but whose sexuality remains a mystery. Because it’s not about how people identify themselves to interviewers, the image they present in public, and the committed relationships they have: any one of those alone – even if an individual only does it for part of their life or career – can serve to promote acceptance and positive affirmation that what we’re doing is just fine: both to ourselves and to the world at large.
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.
(from Suzanne, “Songs Of Leonard Cohen”: Leonard Cohen (1967). Title taken from Sisters Of Mercy, as previous)