More Than Skin Deep

I am of the generation that had Athena posters on their walls. I had a number of them over the years but the one I most fondly remember is an Art Decoey black and white backlit studio shot of Marlene Dietrich, silver hair, cheekbones sculpted, seemingly, by the interplay of light and shade. This I proudly displayed on my wall for three undergraduate years, enjoying the admiring glances it attracted, and the knowing looks aimed at me. Marlene had become for me an icon. She remains one and that is why I had her tattooed on my right arm a couple of months ago. Wherever I go from now in, she will come with me.

Whilst doing German A Level at school  we were encouraged to read around and outside the syllabus, to equip ourselves with a fuller and more rounded knowledge of German literature  so that we could set the prescribed books in a wider context and, hopefully, bring a greater understanding to bear on them.  One of these was Professor Unrat by Klaus Mann, the story of a pedantic schoolmaster who attends a club where e hazard his pupils are wasting (his view) their evenings. He becomes besotted by the cabaret’s star singer and this leads him to perdition. He dies alone in the school where he once taught, a broken man, publicly humiliated in the town where he had once been a respectable and highly regarded member of the community.

Reading the book led inevitably to seeing the film “The Blue Angel” in which Dietrich plays the singer Lola Lola with Emil Jannings co-starring as the doomed schoolmaster. This was her most celebrated role in German speaking cinema before she left for Hollywood in 1931. She combines sensuality, eroticism and a cold streak of malevolence which is seen in her palpable enjoyment of the indignities and humiliations she inflicts on the man who has become her husband. In this role she is intoxicating and totally believable.

I fell in love with Dietrich all those years ago but only came to appreciate her fully some years later. She is an icon for me because she was openly bisexual, because she experimented with gender fluidity, because she enjoyed sex and didn’t care who knew it. But she was an inspiration for other reasons. She was a German who rejected the regime that had taken over her country and was to lead it to disaster. She turned down financially attractive offers from Goebbels to  return home to appear in propaganda films (her erstwhile co-star Jannings took the Nazi shilling) and returned to Germany only in 1945, a US citizen in American uniform.

Some Germans never forgave her this “betrayal”. When she toured Germany in 1960, her shows were the target of boycotts and demonstrations. She left Germany vowing never to return. She did return, but only after her death in Paris in 1992. She is buried in a modest grave in Schoneberg Cemetery, in the sandy soil of her native Berlin. Marlene has many visitors, who leave stones, lipsticks, powder compacts, cigarettes, and even occasional flowers. I visit every time I am in Berlin, just to spend quiet time with her, feeling that she would understand the paths my life has taken. She would just “get” me.

My tattoo is, therefore, not just about Marlene and my feelings towards her. It is a statement of who I am. And when I think of Marlene it is above all of her as a lover of women, as I am a lover of women. She will always be there when I make love, she will fire my erotic imagination. She has already made me love my body. And that is the best thing of all.

Down to a T

I recently read a piece (I can’t remember where so can’t provide a reference) in which it was argued that the T in LGBT I was out of place since gender is a distinct phenomenon from sexual orientation. On one level this is true although we might point out that if a change of gender does not entail a change in sexual orientation this would mean that the act of transitioning the T actually entails the L or G since a straight man transitioning becomes a lesbian.

But there is a deeper problem with this way of thinking. It simply has an excessively narrow view  both of gender and sexuality and  ignores the ways in which they have been intertwined in gay and lesbian subcultures.

I began to think about this whilst at Tate Britain last week,  visiting the exhibition Queer British Art 1861 to 1967, held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

For, from the Victorian era, experiments with gender fluidity were part of the artistic expression of gay and lesbian identity. Everywhere where there is androgyny and this was something that was clear to contemporary observers.   Clothes, make up, hair,  the use of beautiful young men as models for female figures from  classical mythology, this even before we get onto pantomime dames and  drag queens. In short, those who identified with alternative and stigmatised sexualities, sought to perform their sexuality in ways that also challenged gender stereotypes. Look, for example, at the photograph of Quentin Crisp in the exhibition or the iconic portrait of Radclyffe Hall.

And maybe the words gay and lesbian are out of place here too. At the start of the period represented by the exhibition medical science had still to invent and define hetero- and homosexuality as concepts. As categories they can be restricting too. Science seeks to define and classify. Art doesn’t.  Art like this serves to undermine the neat order of science’s categories. It points the way to which allow us can live art through our sexuality and through our performance of gender. Queer art is saying that sexuality is elusive, a range of possibilities, a range of pleasures, and gender a stage for our self-representation. Seen through the prism of art, rigid definitions of gender are as constraining as heteronormative binary views of sexuality and, in a sense, underpin them.

There were parts of this exhibition I found deeply erotic. Some of the exhibition was wickedly funny. Take a look at the library book covers doctored by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, an act for which the state exacted vicious revenge with six month prison sentences.  All of it was empowering, much of it beautiful. I left, thinking that sexuality and gender form a space where can express ourselves, a space where we can be free.