The Gay Liberation pamphlet
With Downcast Gays (1974)

by Andrew Hodges and David Hutter

Part 4 of 8 Parts


Much that we have discussed in the previous essay can be seen illustrated in the life of the writer E. M. Forster. We choose Forster as an example of a public figure who did not come out, rather than equally dishonest homosexual novelists such as Somerset Maugham, Henry James and Hugh Walpole, because Forster never considered himself merely as a commercial writer, but claimed a larger reputation as a moralist and social commentator. In his novels, as in his many essays and broadcasts, he gently chipped away at conservative institutions and religious beliefs, propounding instead the value of freedom, individual commitment and above all personal honesty. But his own honesty never extended to a public acknowledgement of his homosexuality, which he kept secret throughout his life.

Perhaps Forster's most famous remark was that if he were forced to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friends, he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country. Since the choice was unlikely ever to be presented, this was an easy, if startling, claim to make. The real choice for Forster lay between damaging his reputation and betraying his fellow homosexuals. Alas, it was his reputation that he guarded and gay people whom he betrayed.

Now you see me, now you don't

Forster's early novel The Longest Journey contains a poignant description of a young man's entrapment in a marriage whose emotional poverty is contrasted both with the male friendships he enjoyed as an undergraduate and with the vitality of Stephen, a country boy who confronts him with the news that they are half-brothers. He abandons the marriage with Stephen's help and dies saving Stephen's life. Forster must have felt that the story had been too revealing, for in his later work only a few tiny incidents (such as the men bathing together in A Room With a View) remain to expose his emotional heart. Within his published work, the existence of gay people is carefully concealed.* In his novel A Passage to India, Fielding, an unmarried schoolmaster in his early forties, could easily be taken to represent a repressed or 'discreet' homosexual were it not that the author cautiously provided him with a youthful heterosexual romance and (at some cost to the credibility of the plot) married him off towards the end of the book. Perhaps Forster wished to stress the character's heterosexuality because, in so far as he reflects Forster's own attitude to India, Fielding can be regarded as a self-portrait.

*It seems that Forster was determined to conceal not only his own homosexuality, but also that of his friends. In his biography of Lowes Dickinson, drawn mostly from Dickinson's own unpublished writing, he carefully omitted Dickinson's clear description of his frustrated homosexual love affairs.

After 1926 Forster's output of novels came to an end, and in 1946 he relaxed into the undemanding security of a life fellowship at King's College, Cambridge, where he lived until his death in 1970. Soon after he died, appreciations of his work spoke openly of an unpublished novel, written in 1914, which had not only a homosexual theme, but a happy ending. This book, Maurice, was published in 1971.


Possibly in 1914 such a novel could only have had a private publication, but from the 'twenties onwards --- after The Well of Loneliness and the later volumes of Remembrance of Things Past had appeared --- this would no longer have been so. In any case many books with homosexual themes appeared during the 'thirties and 'forties. Forster was once asked why he never published Maurice, but was content to show the manuscript to a few select, discreet friends. He replied that its publication would destroy the public image that his other writing had created. So true — and yet his immense reputation could have ensured that the novel received serious attention and a wide readership. But, far from exploiting this prestige, Forster concealed the existence of the novel throughout his life, directing that it should only be published posthumously. Much later he wrote on the manuscript "Publishable, but is it worth it?" Certainly it was worth it, but less so in 1971 than between the wars, when only the chromium-plated rich and the intellectual elite of Cambridge and Bloomsbury remained uncorroded by the self-hatred that came of internalising the utter disgust that most people felt for homosexuality. These years still lay within the aftermath of the Wilde trials: the homosexual dark ages when gay people were no longer ignored, but actively persecuted.

In writing this, we are not opening up a literary controversy. The publication of Maurice could have been of real practical help to countless gay people. Reading it recently, a friend in his sixties commented: "What a difference it would have made to my life if I had been able to read it when I was twenty." He could have done.

So readily does the gay community accept that homosexuality is a secret and individual matter that Forster took it for granted that his privileged status as the Grand Old (heterosexual) Man of English Letters would never be threatened by the public revelation of his homosexuality by any of those gay people who confidentially knew of it. Even through the ten years that successive governments failed to implement the meagre recommendations of the Wolfenden Report, when public opinion was waiting to be led, he remained silent, preferring to watch the drama dispassionately from the stalls rather than take his proper place on the stage. Had he been prepared to come out, it is possible that so prestigious a figure would have had influence in bringing forward homosexual law reform. Certainly the open homosexuality of such a respected figure would have given us heart when we cringed before the gloating reports of the homosexual witch-hunts that were a feature of life into the early 'sixties.

Some time ago the writers of this booklet had the idea that there should be a Closet Queen of the Year award. This could take the form of a small plaster statuette of the Boy David. It would have to be gold-sprayed for Forster, who surely deserves the title of Closet Queen of the Century. The next twenty-five years are unlikely to produce a better candidate.

Critical reaction

The critical reception that Maurice eventually received is a perfect example of the failure of homosexuals to see themselves as part of a community capable of betrayal. Many of the most patronising and dismissive reviews that it received were written by homosexual critics, who, although eager to point out that they personally had been privileged to read the manuscript decades ago, never felt the need to complain that Forster had kept Maurice hidden for almost sixty years, while he grew increasingly esteemed as an apostle of honesty, clarity and humanity. Because these gay critics exploited the homosexual content of the book merely as a means of displaying a blasé sophistication and the affectation of a cool detachment from their own homosexuality, they all failed to point out the simple fact that by keeping it and his own homosexuality secret, Forster helped to maintain the vicious oppression of homosexuality that is the novel's true subject. The social and political importance of the book were ignored, and we were treated instead to unending discussion of its 'dated' style.

E. M. Forster is a classic example of the person who is widely known within the sophisticated gay community as a homosexual, and whose name is added with pride to the list of famous names that gay people so eagerly make. Since all such lists are apologetic they are all self-oppressive, but in this case there is particular irony. Throughout his life Forster betrayed other gay people by posing as a heterosexual and thus identifying with our oppressors. The novel which could have helped us find courage and self-esteem he only allowed to be published after his death, thus confirming belief in the secret and disgraceful nature of homosexuality. What other minority is so sunk in shame and self-oppression as to be proud of a traitor?

Introduction | Preface and Links | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

Reciprocal Links:

Aspects of E. M. Forster

Art and culture: E. M. Forster

A Room with a View home page.

Sandra Corbman: Freudian Psychoanalytical Criticism and the representation of the Mother in the novels of E. M. Forster with bibliography. This author criticises us for attacking Forster from the safe vantage point of the 1970s. In fact David Hutter (b. 1930) knew very well what it was like to live in the 1950s and 1960s, and the views expressed in this section reflect a standpoint he arrived at well before 1974. However I would not now myself make so moralistic an attack, especially on a single individual; the topics raised here would be better addressed by considering English literary culture in greater generality. Parts of my biography of Alan Turing tried to do just this: see the on-line extract.

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