A Queer Choice of Ending: Peter Ackroyd’s Reductive Take on Privilege

Peter Ackroyd’s Queer History is a patchwork sort of book. It has well over 100 references and it shows in the often factually dense text, as well as the difficulty with which this is drawn together into a clear narrative of queer London. The book is still very strong as a reference book, at least until it races through the C20th and collides headfirst with modern issues.

The cracks started to show a few pages from the end when Ackroyd started bemoans the decline of London gay bars. While this is a cultural loss worth lamenting, Ackroyd completely fails to acknowledge the digital scene which has replaced it. Queer youths now often learn about their identities online. People can now network with other LGBT+ individuals through Facebook groups. Meanwhile hookup apps like Grindr still ground the digital scene in the physical London. Without acknowledging the services which have moved into this vacuum, Ackroyd paints a false picture of decline when what is really happening is change and adaption.

He could have also discussed other developments in the modern gay scene, for other eras Ackroyd mined records for the evolution of queer terminology, and it would have been interesting to see how bears, jocks and twinks emerged. After all there is a wealth of sources for modern times. But I think Ackroyd’s lack of attention to, and perhaps knowledge of the digital world is more noteworthy. It shows that he doesn’t really understand it, and this will cause major problems in his writing at the very end of this chapter.

The language Ackroyd uses on this same page is pretty telling too, in the coded descriptive style he’s deployed throughout the book he describes what the gay scene has become without hardening legal scandals. ‘Its contours have been soft, its colours tending to the sepia.’ This creates a vague impression of frailty as though legal persecution somehow improved the now ‘muted affair’ of the gay scene. He also links the decline of gay bars to them ‘becoming ‘safer’’. Ackroyd’s point is very unclear here because he gives no examples, but it sure sounds like generic moaning about safe spaces. Newsflash, gay bars were the original safe spaces.  All of this should have been warning for these sentences tacked editorlessly into the last paragraph before the concluding one:

‘The increasing preference for a notion of gender ‘fluidity’ itself accounts not only for the almost bewildering array of terms now approved within debates about gender identity, but also for the remarkably ad hominin or ad feminam sparring that takes place in social media. The initially puzzling exhortation to ‘Check your privilege!’ is, at its best, merely an appeal for a recognition that our opinions can be rooted in personal circumstances that not everyone is heir to. Thus a white middle-class woman is not best placed to lecture a working-class black woman, or vice versa. When the question turns to gender identity, however, something farcical can ensue. A ‘cis woman’ (one born a woman in gender as well as in sexual characteristics) will tell a trans woman to check her privilege for having been able to avoid the difficulties of growing up a woman; a trans woman will retort that a cis woman should check her own privilege for not having undergone all the agonies entailed by growing up in the wrong biological sex, or for never having confronted transphobia. So it goes on.’ – p. 232

First of all, it seems strange to talk about the idea of privilege as something developing out of gender fluidity, privilege as a concept seems to rely on strict divisions between people’s experiences. Ackroyd may have good reason for claiming this link, but he once again does not explain it to us. Secondly, note that Ackroyd’s reaction to the development of new sexual and gender labels is bewilderment. I would have thought that as a historian his job would be to explain these terms to us, and what that tells us about London right now. But Ackroyd does not understand these terms, nor has he sought to understand them as one would a historical text.

Ackroyd is clearly just as bewildered by the notion of privilege as new terminology. Perhaps this is because as I outlined earlier he seems dismissive of the digital gay scene, and privilege to him is limited to social media arguments. He seems to think it is only ever evoked when people are asked to check it, with an exclamation mark at the end for outrage.

I do think Ackroyd has something of a point here, asking someone to check their privilege without the context of an argument can be a way of closing off discussion. But, accompanied with an argument it has the potential to demonstrate how your experiences may have blinded you to a problem, thus opening you up to new ideas. The notion of privilege itself strikes me as fairly solid, people often have the privilege of ignoring issues that don’t affect them, something Queer City itself seems to demonstrate by bringing to light an often-ignored history.

Ackroyd however doesn’t allow for such nuance, he quickly devolves the conversation to an impasse that he freely admits is farcical. I’m sure this conversation has happened at some point on social media, and it does seem to reflect elements of the debate between Trans activists and TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). However, it’s not representative of the whole conversation. It’s the kind of flippant hot take I’d expect to see in The Oldie, not by a professional historian with 2 research assistants.

This matters. It matters because this is the only book I know of that covers the entire queer history of London, and when it is read in the future people will likely see it as an accurate portrayal our historical period. A period Ackroyd has characterised with decline and social media hysteria. Ackroyd has done an astounding thing here. He has written a book entirely about people’s different experiences over time. Then at the last moment he has implicitly dismissed an important way of understanding the simple fact that experiences vary.

In his second to last sentence Ackroyd summarises his book as ‘a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction.’ But I hope I can be forgiven for being left with a bitter taste in my mouth. He may have celebrated the queer past, but he seems to have little interest in offering the same courtesy to the queer present and future.


All quotes taken from  –  P. Ackroyd, Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the present day (London: Chatto & Windus, 2017) pp. 229 & 232


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