2017: On the Infinitude of Life Stories: Still Puzzling Queer Tales After All These Years

FROM:Tony Adams and Derek Bolen
‘Queer Auto/ethnographies” Forum for
QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking.

On the Infinitude of Life Stories:

Still Puzzling Queer Tales After All These Years


Edited version published in QED: A Journal in GLBTQWorldmaking 4.1 (2017) p189-197.  Ken Plummer

FROM:Tony Adams and Derek Bolen
‘Queer Auto/ethnographies” Forum for
QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking.

Is that all there is?

When I was fifteen, I discovered homosexuality.
They said it was a crime.
And a sickness, a sin, a shame and a sadness.
And I said to myself: is that all there is?

When I was twenty-five, I discovered liberation.
It was GLF; we were out and proud; we made demands.
We were modern homosexuals out to change the world.
And I said to myself: is that all there is?


When I was thirty, I discovered research.
Transvestites and paedophiles and sado-masochists and more:
The conflicting meanings of the whole damn thing!
And I said to myself: is that all there is?


When I was thirty-five, I discovered AIDS and feminism.
I knew the tragedy of AIDS: twenty five millions dead and still counting.
And the tragedy of feminism: its interminable divides.
And I said to myself: is that all there is?


When I was forty-five, I discovered the global and postmodern.
Queer had come around again;
And human rights was a world agenda.
And I said to myself: is that all there is?


When I was sixty, I nearly died: but I didn’t.
Starry starry nights and the incorrigible plurality of snow.
The multiplicities of life, of death, of suffering.
And I said to myself: is that all there is?


So life goes on as I look to seventy.
The inevitability of disappointment,
and the importance of hope.
And I say to myself: is that all there is?

So let’s keep dancing.


I have used these lines to open several lectures over the past few years. I preceded the ditty with a little YouTube clip of Peggy Lee singing the original 1969 ‘dark’ song by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. (originally inspired by a short Thomas Mann story: Disillusionment). A little later, I used it as an appendix to a book, Cosmopolitan Sexualities  (2015). It helped me situate my work in a life story of contingent sexualities. My challenge was to contextualize myself very quickly. The lyric is short and in interest of brevity I dramatically oversimplify my life story: it is too general, even wrong in places. All the detail has gone:  simplicity and clarity trump detailed accuracy. Does this matter?  I think it does capture a sense of a life.  But after I had done it, it brought home to me the issue of just how much detail is needed in a story and, more, does it even need to be true? Can it in fact ever be true? Once again I found myself pondering the same old questions that have been active through much of my life: Can a life be told? How can it be told? Why tell it? Should it be told? What happens to it once it is told? Does it link to truth? What are the limits of narrative? And is so called ‘queer story telling’ really that different from any other life story telling?


Such questions have perpetually haunted me over the past sixty years or so, even as they have also simultaneously become more and more prominent in the public world. Indeed, the telling of stories has been swept up in the long history of the confessional culture from Augustine to Foucault, now, sitting very easily with the ravages of modern capitalist individualism, the ‘selfie’ and the preoccupations with narcissism and self-absorption.  And so by now I can almost gather (or even ‘curate’ in the currently fashionable term) my own story of my stories. In this Forum, I have taken the opportunity to reflect a little more on these ‘auto/ethnographical’ matters.


A Story of My Stories


Over the years I have told many sexual stories. It started with having to grapple with these issues at a young age as I dealt with my own (now very traditional) coming out story, back in the late 50s and 60s: a time when being queer was shrouded in stigma, secrecy, shame and sickness. Not to mention illegality. A little later, as I went to graduate college, I turned to asking the more research-oriented questions of how to get others to tell their sexual stories. I interviewed other gay people initially – on their relationships, their communities and their coming out as the law was changing in England.  As I became more politically aware through the early GLF movement, I was challenged to think about the conditions under which people get a voice and how are they silenced. What can be said and what cannot be said? By the late 1970s I had taken an academic life route into a much wider funded program of research into sexual diversities, which eventually broadened into an even wider concern: what are the social conditions under which different kinds of stories can be negotiated and get told?  And all the time I had a nagging doubt: about the complexities, multiplicities, contingencies of what people say about their lives, as I moved into the even grander questions of epistemology and ontology. What indeed is a life, can it indeed ever be told, what is the status of what someone says about their life? In all this, I was never alone: I joined a vast conversation on all such matters and the chorus grew almost deafening.  And now, as I enter the later stages of an ageing – and ultimately dying – life, the autobiographical puzzles of generation and time, illness and death are becoming ever more prominent and pervasive.  The questions for life story tellings keep rolling on.


As I became more involved with these stories, so I was also becoming increasingly aware of their problems: of the fragility of storytelling.  I have known, almost from the start, way back in the 1970s, that there can never ever be any simple or straight telling. Call this queer if you like. This has also raised a serious doubt about the entire nature of a social science enterprise that seems to rely, overwhelmingly, on people giving information about their lives to interviewers: material which is always and inextricably, indelibly, inevitably problematic. There simply are no ‘pure’ stories to be told. I balk at the current trend for Big Data that bypasses even the most elementary problems of humanistic story telling data.


I learnt all this in my earliest work as I followed the well-known research rules for interviewing people and gathering data. I wrote a few early papers based on the stories told to me.  But I was not really satisfied with this, even from the start. And so my thesis became more theoretical, cutting a lot of the basic data out.  Then, following the usual career path, I needed to get a grant and do ‘real post doc research’. And this I also duly did; gathering a great deal of data on a wide range of the sexually different. I did this side by side with settling into my new university, which was to be my home for the next thirty years.  But the research was messy, chaotic, and served as an apprenticeship in doubting. It led me to find the data I had gathered as deeply worrying. What kind of truth was I getting at here?  Audiences were certainly more interested in the stories I had than any abstractions, but all the time I was wondering about just what was the status of these stories, including my own. I started to talk more and more about the methods of research, leading me to the writing of Documents of Life 1 in the late 1970s. Ethics and reflexivity became key issues.


Moving on and looking back I can see I have always been writing on the edge of the autobiographical. Involvement in social research always impinges on your life. I can, for example, now see the stages of my own personal coming out in the mid 60s were an inspiration for the ‘stage model of coming out’  (sensitization, signification, subculturalization and stabilization) that I developed for my book Sexual Stigma (1975). It made sense to me personally. I also came out in my lecturing way back in the 1960s; and have been out in that environment ever since then. Even so, it took ten or so more years before I let the personal directly and visibly become part of my own writing. By the late 1980s I was much more willing to let my own story intrude into my own writing. Moved on by feminist trends towards self-reflection, I did this first at the large Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality conference in Amsterdam in 1987 (in a paper never published) (Van Kerkoff, 1989); and then I did it again in the opening vignettes of my book Telling Sexual Stories in 1995. By the late 1990s I was regularly letting the personal and the reflexive intrude into what I was saying. When I was invited by Janice Irvine to write a more personal account, it developed into “Queers, Bodies and Postmodern Sexualities”; and when I wrote for The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, I made an organizing theme my tensions around humanism and queer. Writing an introduction for a study on Narrative Perspectives on the Gay and Lesbian Life Course (2009), I introduced it with a statement of my early sexual life and coming out. And most recently, a major life threatening illness led me to think long and hard about ‘My Multiple Sickness Bodies’ (2012), the important role of illness stories, the use of auto/ethnography and the rise of narrative medicine.


So I have been busy writing little fragments of a queer research life for a quarter century. They are all written at angles and none tell the whole story.  But I have increasingly found myself taking two strands:  a more personal one, and a more overtly political one. They were connected. By the time I was writing Cosmopolitan Sexualities (2015), an appendix was necessary to contain my self-reflections. Although my private self has always been hanging around on the edges of my writing, increasingly it has come out and become its own voice. And here is where I ventured the short poem that opens this article – to briefly capture it all.


The Stories Never End


So here I am now in my 70s and the story telling is not abating: the stories, it seems, never end. In the past few months, since I was invited to write this little piece, there have been many moments of mini reflection, both private and public, when I have found myself continuing with the life long puzzling of the story of a life. I am supposed to be retired, but it does not stop the story moving on.  Here are a few examples of this continuing flow.


On the public level, I have been asked to reflect on my past research a number of times, being interviewed on my past life, both for major research and more provisional student research. I have published a book that contains a poem and a personal reflection on my earlier research life as an appendix. I have been invited to lecture a few times on my past research and its relevance to today. I have written obituaries for old colleagues and friends, sometimes delivering speeches about their lives at memorials. And I have been writing several short pieces, like this, for books. It has also led me a new sense of understanding about the importance of generations in research and life (Plummer, 2010).  On the personal level, as I approached my 70th birthday, I found myself worrying about just what the meaning of my life had been, and more: what would life hold for me in these latter few years remaining to me? I also keep reprimanding myself for such a crisis of endless indulgent reflection and pull myself up short: life is to be lived, and not to be constantly reflected upon.  Enough! There is a wonderful line in the musical Wicked about ‘living the unexamined life’ that sometimes stirs me. How nice that would be!


An Infinitude of Stories?


Here is just one very good recent example of this continuing storytelling. A senior colleague (and friend), Paul Thompson, who has spent a lifetime in research pioneering and developing oral histories and life stories, interviews me for his major research project on Pioneers in Qualitative Research.  After a day’s interviewing, he produces a 100-page typescript from the interview; and it most surely tells a lot. I have been interviewed a few times before, but this probably is the ‘best’, most ideal, interview that could ever have been conducted: a long relaxed friendly time was given to it; interviewer and interviewee were fully at ease; it was conducted by a life long skilled interviewer; and was later transcribed by very experienced transcribers. When I was shown it for comment, I was very pleased with it. But, and here is the rub, I know it only tells the tiniest amount of the story. Even at its best, which this probably was, life story telling is always but a fragment.


Most apparently this interview was designed, I think, to capture something of the linkage between a research life and a personal life. It does this well.  But, as always, there is so much more that could be said.  Much more could be said, for example, about each of the research projects and books I have been involved with. For example, I have written some fifteen books, one hundred and fifty or so articles, and hundreds of lectures: we touch on only the surface of all this. But more importantly, there is a whole underbelly of gay life that is raised but then dropped to leave a massive story untold. This was not its topic after all.  The interview is really good in showing that there is so much more to a life than simply being gay or queer: it is not gay focused. But asking me about my ‘ queer life story’ would look very different indeed.


By contrast, a novice Chinese student visited to conduct his first ever interview with me about my ‘coming out’ and asked me at what age I became gay? It was a very short interview, and a little clumsy, as befits a beginner. But he raised an issue of time and chronology that opened in my mind a set of issues about being gay from my earliest childhood that had hardly ever figured in all my previous adult tellings; and which then led me on a journey back to my earlier childhood days where reflections are indeed very murky and the problems of false memories looms large.
One step removed from these interviews  I found a whole world of other stories not told. As I pondered I started to find a few headers rapidly emerging in a stream of consciousness, flowing from a flow of many possibilities. I focused only on my earliest years: long before I ‘came out’; and long before I had the slightest contact with academia. These are simple elements. Proust, Tolstoy and many others came to my mind, where the many events and moments not told can, once told, burst into significance and come to have a life of their own. But even as I was detecting this, I also felt the heavy hand of self censoring as I started to write this set of opening titles. Here I was unearthing some themes from my early life; and something that could indeed be turned into its own detailed story. Here are the opening lines of stories that could now be elaborated about the earliest days of my gay life, and would flesh my life story out much more fully:


I can recall lying in my cot in my mother’s bedroom.. I am hanging around with the girls at primary school and they become my best friends.. My nickname in my second year of secondary school is Romeo because of my flirting with girls and my many girl friends.. I fall in love with the bigger boys at school.. I tell my father about these boys I fancied and learn quickly you must not say such things…. I learn to keep secrets, but I don’t like it.. I dislike all sport.. I watch television as the source of my earliest sexual fantasies.. Falling in love with Johnny Ray, Tommy Steele, Billy Fury, Ricky Nelson and Cliff Richards as proto sexual objects.. Creating my earliest ‘library’ or ‘archive’ of masturbatory materials from age 11.. Kissing and its problems.. Struggling with physical sex..  Older men approach me for sex, I think, but I resisted.. Long tortured discussions with my self about being gay.. I learn to keep quiet about my desires.. Reading about homosexuality.. Donald J West’s book Homosexuality was for a while the text for my life.. Trying to make sense of the Wolfenden Report as a newspaper boy reading the newspapers..  Seeing the films Victim and The Children’s Hour.. My first trip to buy male model/nude magazines in Soho… etc, etc


There were many more of these little opening sentences that start to take me down the road of infinitude, seeking the further exploration of ‘moments’ examined by Proust (with his Madelines), Chekov (with his Kiss) and more recently in the best selling memoirs of Karl Ove Knausgaard (2013). Here the deep complexities of a life are to be found in the endless little moments of a life that can hardly ever be grasped. But once fleetingly located bring great potential for exploration and memory work. Well known and explored in great literature and philosophy for over a hundred years or more, each generation seems to have to rediscover for itself. There never has been, and never will be a full life story: however detailed we make our stories. Despite this, we have to pragmatically carry on with our partial tales.  They have to suffice. All we can do is aim to provide ‘the nearest thing to life’ (Woods, 2015)


Closing Stories


Let me close with another set of stories preoccupying me now. I have recently become more and more interested in what might be called ‘generational stories’ (Plummer, 2010). And this has grown partly through a recognition at this time of life that many friends die; I have found myself writing the obituaries of several friends and scholars – at least four have been major writers and researchers of sexualities (William Simon, Mary McIntosh, Michael Schofield, and John Gagnon). These stories told at the end of a life are very different from those told at the beginning. Writing obituaries is tinged with much grief; but it also leads to many worries:  just what kind of life can be told in the very few words allowed for in an obituary? The issues of selectivity and tone become stark. But more: the issue of whose life is ‘worthy enough’ to merit an obituary is raised? What are the contingencies that lead some lives to have public stories told and others not? Does inequality and the right to have a story told in an obituary follow us even into the grave? There is surely a politics and inequality of obituary writing. (I have found Bridget Fowler’s wonderful opening study of The Obituary as Collective Memory, 2007 very helpful on all this).  It reminds me of a key line from George Elliot’s Middlemarch: ‘the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs’. (1871: 1999 p758).  Never mind the infinitude of stories: most are never even partially told.


Story telling issues then have appeared and re-appeared in my life, and I suspect this will not cease. I have long claimed that our stories are social: socially shaped and socially produced; that they are subject to contingencies, connectedness, complexity, conflict and contradictions; that they everywhere constitute narrative life.  As generations move, more stories and troubles flow into view. I seem not to have been able to stop telling stories throughout my life. Who can?





Chekov, A (1982) The Kiss and other stories, Middlesex: Penguin Classics


Eliot, G (1871/1999) Middlemarch


Fowler, B (2007) The Obituary as Collective Memory, London: Routledge


Knausgaard. K Ove (2013-16) My Struggle 5 Volumes  Harvill  Secker


Plummer, K (1975) Sexual Stigma: An Interactionist Account, London: Routledge


—- Ed (1981) The Making of the Modern Homosexual (1981) London: Hutchinson


—- (1995) Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds, London: Routledge


…. 2003 “Queers, Bodies and Postmodern Sexualities” Qualitative Sociology, 26, No 4 (Winter) p515-30. Reworked in in Michael Kimmel, 2007 The Sexual Self: The Construction of Sexual Scripts, Nashville : Vanderbilt University Press  p16-30


….  2009 “On Narrative Pluralism”, Preface to Phillip L. Hammack & Bertram J.Cohler eds The Story of Sexual Identity: Narrative Perspectives on the Gay and Lesbian Life Course  (Bew York: Oxford University Press, 2009)


—- (2010) ‘Generational Sexualities, Subterranean Traditions, and the Hauntings of the Sexual World: Some Preliminary Remarks. Symbolic Interaction. Vol 33. N0 2 p163-191


….  (2011) ‘Critical Humanism & Queer Theory’ with new afterword and comment ‘Moving On’: 4th edition of Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. London: Sage

…..  (2012) ‘My Multiple Sick Bodies: Symbolic Interaction, Auto/ethnography and  the Sick Body’ – in Bryan S. Turner ed  Routledge Handbook of the Body; London: Routledge
…. 2015 Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Hope and the Humanist Imagination, Cambridge: Polity Press
Proust, M   (1913/2006 Remembrance of things past 2 Volumes  London, Wordsworth edition


Thompson, P  (2016 4th ed) The Voice of the Past: Oral History, Oxford University Press


Van Kerkoff, M et al (1989) Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality


Wood, J (2015) The Nearest Thing to Life, New York: Penguin



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