Ben Miller is a talented historian, writer, and podcaster. Alongside fellow writer, artist, and friend Huw Lemmey, he is also the father of Bad Gays, an astoundingly well-researched and beloved podcast that profiles the evil and complicated gays in history. Having just wrapped on their fifth season, the horizon of Bad Gays appears to be boundless. This Summer the pair will release a Bad Gays book and embark on an extensive U.S, U.K, and European tour. We sat down with Ben to talk about the creative process behind their hit podcast, its listenership, and his favorite good gays.
Introduce yourself and your podcast to our readers!
My name is Ben Miller. I am a U.S.-born writer and historian living in Berlin. Alongside Huw Lemmey, I am the co-host of Bad Gays, a podcast about the evil and complicated queers in history.
Do you remember the moment you discovered podcasting?
I guess this answer is a pretty average one for my age group, class, and background, but my first exposure to podcasts was through NPR.
However, the first huge public moment in podcasting I remember was when Serial was released. I remember sitting in a subway car the morning the final episode was put out and thinking, ‘Everyone else here is listening to this too.’ Looking at the podcasting industry now, it’s crazy to think that moment was only six or seven years ago.
Your podcast Bad Gays profiles the evil and complicated gay men in history. Why did you decide to populate the landscape with complicated gays instead of good ones?
All credit where credit is due, the show was Huw’s idea. He asked me to do it because he wanted to do it with a historian, but the concept had been kicking around in his head long before it entered mine.
We decided to detail bad gays because we wanted to have a more adult conversation about queer history. We had both experienced media gatekeepers who insisted that any kind of queer content had to be elementary and as individuals who work in and enjoy analyzing queer history, this approach felt tired to us. We wanted to create a podcast that didn’t explain the basics but rather intervened in an ongoing conversation, one where the audience was ready and eager for nuance.
Now, this isn’t to say that we use undefined, nuanced terms in the podcast or assume all listeners have read hundreds of books on queer history, but it does mean that we aim to make a podcast that’s more reflective of actual conversations in queer academic, artistic and activist communities. We wanted to give a platform to discussions that were not showcased in broader-based media. There, we were simply seeing a little bit of queer-history content around pride or a profile of Harvey Milk and that’s it.
Had you ever considered doing something like this before meeting Huw?
No, never. I tend to be slightly overly negative at the beginning of projects. I’m the person who will tell you 7,000 reasons why your idea won’t work and Huw isn’t like that. That’s why we work well together.
In fact, the best piece of advice I could give to anyone starting a podcast is first, to do it on something that you actually like, and secondly, do it with someone that you actually trust. Think of the one person you would trust to make a public statement about the world’s most complicated, thorniest issue in your name without seeing it – that’s the person you should create with. You should do it with someone with whom your intellectual trust is so great that it’s not a job, it’s just a joy.
Once you released your show, you found a pretty big audience that was also eager to have the same conversations as you, right?
Yes, in a way the extent to which we found an audience even surprised me and Huw. We thought we might create something that was heard by about four people but now, our podcast has been downloaded almost a million times. It’s totally nuts. I’ve been really taken and honored by the audience that we have and the way that they trust us to have complicated and difficult conversations.
I assume that straight people listen to our show, but I’m not particularly thinking about them when making it. We certainly don’t want to exclude anyone, tell anyone that they shouldn’t listen, or make it in such a way that people need to constantly pause and run to their dictionaries to define the terms that we’re using, but fundamentally this is a show by us, for us.
But I mean, even saying that is too easy in itself right, right? I mean, who is the ‘us’ that we’re talking about – two white cis gay men? Our position as those figures is something that influences the topics we choose, the people we have on as guests – everything, and we’re incredibly conscious of that.
In your episode about Jeffrey Dahmer, you distinguish yourselves from the true crime podcasts that tend to glorify content that is often triggering. How do you strike this balance between profiling behavior that is bad and fetishizing it?
For us, I think the balance comes in terms of how we put a season together and how we approach each person. For example, a season cannot be entirely made up of serial killers, nor can it be entirely made up of colonialists or fascists. It also can’t be comprised solely of bad-but-silly figures such as Joe Carstairs who had this crazy-ass private island in The Bahamas. It needs to be a mix of all these things.
Then, once we’ve put a balanced season together, we consider how we are going to approach each profile. For example, if we are going to talk about Jeffrey Dahmer or someone else who is a fundamental player in the true-crime discourse machine, we think about how we are going to make our conversation about him different from the dozens of others that you would find on your podcast app. For him specifically, we made sure not to fetishize his crimes. Instead, we focused on how his story became such a big part of the true-crime mythos. That way, the profile aligned with our core values and the audience’s expectations of us, but also covered a bad gay that is frequently profiled in a more nuanced way.
One more thing that I’ll add here, just because I feel like we’re both giving bad guys too much credit right now. Our show could not exist without the body of reporting, analysis, theory, history, and primary source work that’s been done already. Our episodes and conversations stand on a whole body of sources that make what we do possible. We cite quite generously on the show and I’d encourage listeners to go and check out those sources if they’re interested. Don’t just stop with us.
On that, you do cite incredibly generously on your show and its length is indicative of what must be a very rigorous research process. Do you enjoy that part of the job?
Oh absolutely. It’s so much fun. It’s like detective work. It solves itself on a much smaller and shorter timescale than other kinds of historical research which I might do for my job normally. For example, I’ve been working on one research project at the moment for over ten years. In contrast, with the right reading completed, you can do a Bad Gays episode in a few days. It’s nice to have something come together on that scale.
For many if not most of your profiles, their sexuality is more so associated with them as some sort of scandal or question mark, it’s not something about them that is celebrated or even accepted. In some cases, do you think that their ‘badness’ could be stem from this ostracisation?
For sure. There are definitely profiles for whom their ambiguous, public sexuality was the reason they were considered bad in their time and the reason that they died in scandal.
In terms of queer academia, we would refer to ourselves as radical constructionists. This means that our show utilizes the term gay in the present tense. We look don’t look at how these figures were understood in their time, we take an informed look at their lives and analyze them through our own lenses today and we’re upfront about that.
There are a lot of really thorny issues in queer history, particularly relating to a historical lack of distinction between sexual object choice and identity. We always announce that we are simply ingesting all of those debates and sharing our own informed conclusions on them instead of claiming to have all the answers. This leaves our audience free to agree or disagree. So we’re openly partial in the ways that everyone is partial, but we’re telling you the exact ways in which we are partial as opposed to trying to convince you that we’re some hallowed voice from nowhere. Anyone who says they are utterly impartial is lying.
Now that we’ve discussed a lot of bad gays, who is your favorite good gay?
Hmm… There are so many good gays that it is hard to choose. I do have a favorite gay institution called the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. They organized the kitchen staff on ocean liners in the Pacific in the 1930s and their stories were recovered in the historical research by Allan Bérubé. They were an explicitly anti-racist, pro-gay, communist union and in my opinion, they’re some of the best guys who ever lived.
I see Bad Gays is becoming a book! Tell me about that.
Does the book mirror the format of the podcast?
Yes and no. The book profiles 15 of our very worst gays, half of which we’ve profiled before and the other half are new. It’s a little different from the show in that we really focus on the figure of the white gay man. We examine how it went from being a kind of impossibility to this dormant identity category in the subculture, what that means, and how we can do better.
We’re also going on a U.S, U.K, and European tour this Summer, so if people would like to see and touch us in person, they can get tickets at https://badgayspod.com.
Actually, hold on, I shouldn’t say they can touch us, but they can definitely see and hear us. We can even sign your copy of Bad Gays which you got from https://badgayspod.com/book!!
To finish, what is your favorite sound?
My favorite sound is https://badgayspod.com/book.
interview by Alice O’Brien, for Bear Radio.