On Not Having Sex: Sumner Locke Elliott and Queer History


This essay argues that we need ways to read unexpressed queer desire and the absence of sex in writing by gay authors that don’t fall back on the trope of the closet. It makes this argument through pairing Sumner Locke Elliott’s 1948 play Rusty Bugles with his 1990 ‘coming out’ novel Fairyland, two texts that draw upon Elliott’s time at an ordinance depot during the Second World War. Elliott’s work has often been read as out of step with the politics of gay liberation. However I will argue that both these texts reflect upon the queer potential of not having sex. In Elliott’s writings about the Second World War the structured sexual abstinence of the ordinance depot provides his protagonists with an escape from the burden of homosexual identity in the twentieth century and allows for new modes of queer intimacy and exchange.

Since the publication of Fairyland (1990) at the end of Sumner Locke Elliott’s life, there have been several calls from critics for work that would consider the queer aspects of his oeuvre (Altman; Bell) Fairyland is an autobiographical novel about Elliott’s youth in Sydney and move to the United States and it was framed by his publisher as well as by Elliott himself as a ‘coming out’ novel. While Elliott’s prolific fictional oeuvre always drew on aspects of his life, it steered clear of gay characters or storylines. Fairyland is satisfying to read because it places a queer lens over Elliott’s body of work, bringing into focus the autobiographical basis of many of the key scenes in his writings and bringing their homoerotic energies to the surface. As Sean Bell has illustrated, Elliott’s work, with its repeated autobiographical scenes responds well to a cross-historical reading practice where Elliott’s last novel, …

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Published 19 December 2019 in Volume 34 No. 2. Subjects: LGBTIQ+ literature & writers, Queer literature, Sumner Locke Elliott.

Cite as: Smith, Ellen. ‘On Not Having Sex: Sumner Locke Elliott and Queer History.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 34, no. 2, 2019, doi: 10.20314/als.e772f55c21.