by Lester Strong

Quentin Crisp needs little introduction. Celebrated author and performer, his reputation for outrageous wit and humor extends far beyond the gay and lesbian community. Born in 1908 in a suburb of London, he first came to American attention in 1976 with the airing of The Naked Civil Servant, a TV movie starring John Hurt based on Crisp's 1968 memoir of the same name recounting his early years growing up and living as an effeminate young man in his native England. Since then he has written a number of other books with intriguing titles like How to Have a Life-Style (1979), Doing It with Style and How to Become a Virgin (both 1981), Manners from Heaven (1984), and How to Go to the Movies (1989). He has appeared on American TV talk shows, on stage in plays and in productions of monologues based on his own writings, and in several movies, most notably The Bride (1985) and Philadelphia and Orlando (both 1993).

In 1982, Crisp transplanted himself to American shores, and specifically to New York City, where he has lived in one room of a residence hotel on Manhattan's Lower East Side for many years now. His latest book, Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (Alyson Books, 1997), chronicles his love affair with New York, and more generally his love affair with his adopted country, the United States. It covers the years 1990 to 1994, and is based on diaries he published in The New York Native during that period. The following comments by Crisp—excerpted from a much longer and wide-ranging interview about Resident Alien—take their start from that book, but hardly stop there. In Resident Alien Crisp writes, " . . . I have gone into the fame business." But he is also in the notoriety business. He has outraged many people over the years, but gay people have mostly just found him outrageously funny. Quentin Crisp unzipped is definitely outrageous, but he is also as witty as ever. Whatever one's response to his comments, the comments themselves are all vintage Crisp.

Lester Strong: In Resident Alien you write that long ago you renounced serious relationships. And clearly you don't live with anyone. Why?

Quentin Crisp: It's a question of habit, really. If you leave home and go and live with somebody, it all fits together. You lived with your brothers, and they told you what to do and ran all over you; you go live with someone and they tell you what to do and run all over you. Then in the end you can't live alone. I never developed the habit. Of course after a while [when living alone] you become most terribly old maidish. You fly into a rage if all the ashtrays aren't pointing due east, and before you go to bed you put everything back the way it always is. If anything's altered in your home, it makes you restless.

LS: In Resident Alien, in your comments about your role as Elizabeth I in Orlando, you write that "Virginia Woolf was too much of an aesthete to believe in sex." Do you yourself believe in sex?

QC: No. I don't believe in sex. I was asked by Dr. Westheimer to go onto her program. She introduced me saying, "And now we have with us Mr. Crisp, who has opinions about everything. What do you think about sex?" I said, "It's a mistake." And she said, "Why do you say that?" I said, "You must remember I come from a time when we didn't know that sex was here to stay. We thought if no one mentioned it it would go away." And she said, "You were wrong!" with great force but with no proof. If everyone stopped talking about sex, it might go away. And wouldn't that be wonderful? You would be free. It would be marvelous. You could go into a bar and say to someone, "Will you pass me the ashtray?" without thinking, "Oh, God! He's trying to get off with me! What will people think?"

LS: Would you describe your being gay as something sexual, as something cultural, or even as something spiritual in its significance?

QC: I think my being gay is not sexual. My problem was one of gender. I didn't want to be feminine so that I could meet more men. I wanted to be feminine to fulfill my idea of myself. People regarded me as having done the things I've done in order to be different from other people. I didn't want to be different; I wanted to be more like myself than nature had made me.

LS: There have been many changes in gay life since the 1960s and 1970s. A lot of people think this has to do with the gay movement. You certainly make it clear in Resident Alien that you're disenchanted with politics and don't believe it affects people's ordinary lives. Do you think there really have been changes in gay life in the last few decades or in the acceptance of gay people by the general public? If so, why have the changes occurred?

QC: I think that sex is now a thing you can talk about. When I was young, nobody spoke about sex. Nobody spoke about a lot of things. Nobody spoke about money. No one spoke about any bodily function. Because of that, no one spoke of homosexuality.

But because you can talk about sex now, when you've talked enough about straight sex, you have to talk about kinky sex. So people did start to talk about it. Not necessarily about homosexuality, but about sadomasochism, about anything—it proved they were modern and free thinking and all that. That let people be openly homosexual, I think. I think it's a social change.

LS: Why the social change?

QC: Why? I don't know why. Periods of repression and freedom come and go. I know that everyone in the gay world thinks that now they've got this far they're never going back. But acceptance and denial have been part of the world from the very beginning. When Queen Victoria was on the throne, it moved back—men were [considered] beasts, and you couldn't be in a room [with a man] with the door shut. But now people are hoping men will be beasts.

LS: One very recent change in gay life is the reemergence of the use of the word "queer" by gay people themselves. It's employed partly defiantly, and partly as a term that's more inclusive than "gay." But its use upsets some people. Does it bother you?

QC: No. I never mind. They're only words, and they don't worry me in the least. People are so frightened of being disparaged that when you say a thing is abnormal they get ready to contradict you, whereas of course homosexuality is abnormal. Most people are not homosexual, and what does abnormal mean? Unusual, exceptional.

LS: The AIDS crisis has been a huge part of gay life during the last fifteen years or so. You mention AIDS in Resident Alien. But you don't really talk about AIDS very much or in any depth in the book. Is there any reason for that?

QC: No. AIDS doesn't affect my life at all. I remember I was in Chicago, where a man asked me what I thought about AIDS. I said, "It's a fad." This meant that I lost the love of all the gay people in Chicago in a single night. But when I first arrived in America, I was told that everyone had amoebic dysentery—it was killing people by the hundreds, [I should] be careful. Then that went out of fashion, and hepatitis became all the rage—it was killing people, and so on. So when AIDS came along, I thought, "This is absurd. This is just another craze." And Americans do like crazes, even dreadful crazes.

Now I see that AIDS is here. But I think it's a mistake for people to imagine that the more money you pour into it, the more solutions you'll have. I think that research is largely a question of luck and genius, and not a question of money. Americans think that money is the solution for everything. A man said—when the politicians proposed to put up their wages—that if you want dedicated people to govern you, you must pay them properly. If you want dedicated people, pay them nothing. Then we'll know they're dedicated. All you get when you pay them more is greedy politicians. People don't understand that.

LS: Do you think the money that's been poured into AIDS research through non-profit organizations like AmFAR or the federal government has been counterproductive? Irrelevant?

QC: I think it's irrelevant. It's very wonderful that people can be roused to give their money to a cause which doesn't affect them. There is something very wonderful about human nature, especially American human nature, to give money to cure something you thoroughly disapprove of. Because originally I got the impression Americans thought that the sex acts performed by homosexuals caused AIDS, which of course is not true. It merely is that AIDS spreads faster among homosexuals because they're so promiscuous. And I wonder about that promiscuity. When hepatitis was all the rage, a young man was questioned by a woman, who wrote down his name and his address. She said, "How many sexual encounters do you have?" And he said, "About six." She wrote, "Six a week." He said, "No. Six a night." Well, why do you have six encounters a night? It can't be for pleasure. It must be a chore. It's true I'm undersexed, and when I read about somebody who has raped a person twice and chopped off their hands—well, had I raped somebody twice, I'd be handing them the ax and saying, "You'll have to cut off your own hands. I've got to go lie down." But I suppose homosexual sex is unsatisfactory, and that's why people indulge in it so much.

LS: Do you think the AIDS crisis has changed the general public's attitudes about gay people or about homosexuality in general?

QC: I think it did originally make them [the public] feel that God was watching them [gay people] and they [gay people] would all die out, which is what they deserved. Now that it's established that anyone can have AIDS and that it's existed, I understand, in Africa for years, I think people feel differently and have more pity for homosexuals.

I don't believe in safe sex. I think no sex is safe. If your semen contains deadly amounts of some virus, don't tell me that your sweat and your saliva and even your breath don't contain any. Nonsense. It must be there.

AIDS has changed the world. Of course it hasn't changed mine because I haven't had a sexual act for about forty years. Someone said to me in an interview, "Have you a lover?" I said, "Think of the expense!" The interview came to an end immediately.

LS: Many people would consider your views on AIDS and safer sex a downer. Do you have any advice or thoughts about how people can protect themselves?

QC: I think that if you want to be sure you won't have AIDS, don't have sex with anyone.

LS: That's your comment?

QC: That's my comment.

LS: So many gay men these days have seen friends and lovers die at young ages of AIDS. Do you have any advice to them on how to cope with those losses?

QC: No particular advice. I think death is one of the best things that can happen to people. It puts an end to all the problems one has while alive.

LS: You've been quoted in the press as agreeing with Dr. James Watson [one of the discoverers of the double-helix pattern in DNA] that, if genes linked to homosexuality could be detected in a fetus before birth, the pregnant woman would be justified in having an abortion. Any comments?

QC: Dr. Watson said, "If there were—hypothetically—a gay gene, and if—more hypothetically—it were detectable in the womb, would a woman be justified in aborting the child?" I said, "Yes." It seems to me obvious that, if you can have a world without homosexuals, it would be wonderful. There would be no quarrels, no demonstrations, no anger, no displays of any kind. You could have designer children, all just like people wanted, all blond-haired, blue-eyed, pretty, well behaved.

LS: You've spent your whole life fighting for the right to be yourself—you said earlier that you wanted to be more yourself than nature had made you. Why shouldn't people have the right to be themselves without being designed? To fight to be themselves if necessary?

QC: Why should they bother? Why should they fight to be all that? You see, you could have children who are naturally suited to society. They would be happy. They would be welcome. And parents would be happy.

LS: But wouldn't that negate your own fight through your whole life to be yourself?

QC: Yes, it would make it unnecessary. Which is what one wants. Why should anyone put up a fight if you can rearrange them [people] so that they're all nice and well behaved?

LS: Do you think this would have been your opinion years ago? Or do you think your attitude is something that has come with age—that you've spent eighty-eight years fighting to be yourself and you're just tired of fighting?

QC: I don't think my opinion would have ever changed. I think the struggle is not worth it if it can be eliminated so easily. It's wonderful. You have designer babies. They all suit everybody. Why should we fight to establish ourselves if we can be processed to be established already in the womb?

LS: What about your celebrity, not just in the gay community but among all kinds of people? It has something to do with the struggle you've waged all these years.

QC: Well, I hope I would have made it anyhow, with less effort. That would be wonderful.

Lester Strong writes on literary subjects for various publications, including the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review. His monthly column "Gay Arts Beat" can be seen in a number of lesbian and gay newspapers around the country.

Photograph copyright © by Jacob Fuglsang Mikkelsen. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Text copyright © by Lester Strong for A&U Magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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