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How I Came out (Slowly)

Writing, the British monarchy and my sexuality

I arrived at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1975. I was eighteen years old. Things began to look up almost right away. Football players and cheerleaders had dominated my Americo-typical high school. Chicago, on the other hand, was a school for bright nerds who didn’t quite fit in anywhere. Everyone was smarter than me. The work was hard. I loved it. There was a coffee shop on campus that had a gay night. I didn’t go anywhere near it, but its merely being there was a huge step forward from high school.

One of the high points for my future took place in a professor’s office in a dusty, not much trafficked building. High ceilings, broad floorboards, the feeling of a nineteenth-century museum of natural history. This was a course in historical anthropology, where we read about ritual in Victorian India. The professor, who wore a deerstalker cap and a green wool cape, suggested that royal ritual in Britain was not much studied. The British had devised ceremonies to indicate what they thought of India, but what of their own ceremonies at home? He was an example of drop-dead style and unselfconscious intelligence. He didn’t give a damn what people thought of him. With his encouragement, I wrote a senior thesis about royal ceremonial under Queen Victoria. He taught by example. I slowly began to embrace the odd, the unusual and the flamboyant sides of the inner me.

He also taught me to take my fascination with the monarchy, of which I was somewhat ashamed, because it didn’t fit with the typical interests of late teenaged boys, and to make it more meaningful. Why did a medieval monarchy survive into the middle of a modern, democratic, and industrial state? What use was it? Why did ceremonies that celebrated the past survive in the one nineteenth-century nation that was ahead of the rest of the world in agricultural, financial, and economic innovation?

I was a walking ladies-magazine cliché and pored over photos of the queen’s clothes. I knew it was superficial. I was afraid it wasn’t adequately male. At least at Chicago I learned to be cliché with questions. Those questions earned me academic honors undreamed of by the boys who’d called me a fag when I was fourteen.

They also led to a PhD in history at Johns Hopkins. I wrote a dissertation that expanded backward and forward from those Victorian jubilees. It argued that a ceremonial monarchy was not just a holiday break from the business of democratic government, but a necessary counterweight and stabilizing force in it.

Constitutional and representative government, we are being reminded of in the era of Trump, Brexit, resurgent fascism in Germany and among the gilets jaunes, is fragile. It needs to be strengthened by recollections of consensus and a narrative of historical continuity. This is one of the things royal ceremony in Britain aims at, even if it doesn’t always accomplish it.

I personally hate Mitch McConnell and all he stands for, but I would gladly go with him to a commemoration of the people who died on both sides in the Battle of Gettysburg. If there could be music, a prayer as meaningful to the faithful as to those who are atheists, an address, a procession, a moment of silence, that is a healing through ceremony and ritual that would be even better. If the living descendants of Lincoln, Lee and Harriet Tubman could all be there, it would give the whole ceremony a hereditary shudder that would be useful.

I had to fight hard for my notion of royal ceremony as a support to democratic government. There was a counter-narrative published by an older and much more powerful historian than me. He argued that royal ceremonies were lies, forms of social control, of keeping the working classes in their places, of reinforcing social hierarchy, of the bourgeoisie waging war against the proletariat. In short, as this story went, royal ceremonies were sinister and dark arts. This story appealed to intellectuals in both Britain and America because on the whole academics like to believe they’re helping the poor and disenfranchised to attack the powers-that-be.

One way of doing this was to suggest that a liking for ceremony was a form of effeminized, antiquarian, Roman Catholic dwelling on aesthetics, whereas, in their view, we should all be dwelling on the more manly arts of politics and economics to raise the status of those who have traditionally suffered in capitalist society. This “invention of tradition” attack on the monarchy always felt homophobic to me and it still does.

I, on the other hand, was helped by a rising group of feminist historians who were willing to swing the historical focus toward such things as prostitution, rape and women’s education that had usually been ignored by a male-dominated field. They helped me consider what role queenship had played in Britain’s modern history.

In fighting for the legitimacy of royal ceremonial as a serious topic of historical enquiry, I was also fighting for my own survival. I was fighting for my survival as a historian, yes, but I was also fighting for my own identity as a gay man who now knew that he liked men. I wasn’t willing to make that public, yet. But every time my work was challenged, I also felt I was defending an interest in subjects that had been derided, since I was a kid, as insufficiently male. A bachelor’s thesis at one university and a Ph.D. from another gave me help and support in doing that.

Research, bookishness, reading, dwelling on what you love no matter what: these were the habits I learned from twenty years of school that stretched from seventh grade to a doctorate. As I reflect now on the long fight to be taken seriously I think I must have had some courage of my own. One of the first things I was attracted to in Lord Byron’s biography was his legend for bravery, for standing up to the prejudice of a narrow English circle, for daring to make a life no one had ever seen before. Encountering his bravery made me learn to recognize, just a little, my own. Whether my ambition and drive for recognition was somehow, also, like his, related to a childhood trauma, I can’t yet say.

Author of READING JACKIE and MRS QUEEN TAKES THE TRAIN. Working on parallels between sexy Lord Byron and own rackety experience. williamkuhn.com

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