The ABC of Queer: H is for Homosocial: The love letter of Sir Alex and Eric…


You are always welcome here and if you just pop in unexpectedly for a cup of tea, no fanfare, just for a chat as friends, that would mean more to me than anything. Eric you know I am here if you need me and now that you are no longer one of my players, I hope you know you have a friend. 

It is a singular irony, though not a contradiction, if you understand these things. That the greatest British football manager of his generation – who could barely mention homosexuality, homophobia and football in the same breath – should have written one of the most beautiful and tender modern love letters from one man to another to one of the footballers he managed:

When we re-started training, I kept waiting for you to turn up as normal but I think that was in hope not realism and I knew in your eyes when we met at Mottram your time at Manchester United was over.

I’m including quite a few quotations here because I don’t want people to think that I’m indulging in my own queer post-modern irony and deliberately misinterpreting the letter in this fashion.

It’s impossible not to read the text as a love letter; a point Ian Herbert, the chief sports writer at the Independent, made when he said it “reveals the debt of passion he felt for Manchester United star Eric Cantona” and “There is a vivid sense of him casting wistful glances, hoping to see the Cantona car.”

It’s also clear that Ian Herbert, from his language, is trying to suggest that Alex Ferguson had perhaps ‘feelings’ for Eric Cantona?

To be fair, the letter is written in such a way that it’s difficult not to imagine Alex and Eric sitting in a tea room in Mottram village waiting for a bus or train, just like Celia Imrie and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter, chatting about football training rather than declaring their true feelings.

One thing, I would like you to remember is to remain active and fit. I always remember when I finished at 32 and I started management, I was more concerned about organising training and he coaching of players that I forgot about my own fitness and then when I realised about six years later what was happening, I started to train again to recapture my fitness and it was murder, so you do need to keep your fitness.

As I noted in a previous quotation, Alex even mentions the ubiquitous cup of tea!

I keep hoping that I will discover a young Cantona! It is a dream!

That’s part of the problem. The models or paradigms by which Queer invariably judges the homosocial (male same-sex bonds) have become polarized between two extremes. The homosocial is either repressed, latent homosexuality or it’s a homoerotic trade in women between men (coercive and/or physically violent).

That’s not to deny that these examples exist, all too often, but whether they are actually representative or illustrative of the homosocial in Western sexual and gendered culture is moot.  Whether they are actually examples at all is a basic flaw in how Queer defines the homosocial…

It’s a basic flaw with Eve Kosofsky Sedqwick’s seminal queer text Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (see KOSOFSKY SEDGWICK). Sedgwick’s project, which was foundational to Gay & Lesbian, Queer and Queer-Feminist Studies on the homosocial, was to analyse the pre-eminence of male same-sex bonds in 19th-century literature, and, how those bonds were structured prohibitively to male-female bonds. But always and everywhere Sedgwick finds what she sets out to find: a trade in women and fear of homosexuality.

To do this, Sedgwick defines “male homosocial desire (the constant connotative linkage of ‘homosocial’ and ‘desire’ itself is problematic)” as all male bonds. She then defines all male bonds as having the potential to be erotic. She then deconstructs all eroticised male bonds as involving a trade in a women and the fear of homosexuality. In others words, while there is no such thing as a cold reading, for a woman talking about male-male desire she particularly loads the deck.

Sedgwick’s readings of often commonplace literary texts are both dazzling and challenging; of all the seminal figures writing in English in Queer Studies she is easily the most beautiful to read. In particular, her reading of the hierarchical asymmetries between the heteroerotic and homoerotic dyadic relationships in Shakespeare’s sonnets is the best interpretation of the poems and one of the masterworks of Queer Theory itself.

However, while the homosocial can be about obscured homoeroticism (see HOMOEROTICISM) or latent homosexuality (see HOMOSEXUAL ORIENTATION), it’s usually not. It’s far more likely to be about the homoromantic, the homoaesthetic or the homoplatonic (see HOMOROMANTIC, HOMOAESTHETIC, HOMOPLATONIC).

Queer also has issues with the gynosocial (see GYNOSOCIAL) particularly around gender, trans*gender and non-gender (see GENDER, TRANS*GENDER, NON-GENDER), but it is as nothing to the contradictions Queer (and Queer-Feminist) experiences with the homosocial.

When you read Alex Ferguson’s letter to Eric Cantona, it’s actually a really wonderful homosocial example of homoromantic and homoplatonic male bonding.

It’s clear that Alex Ferguson loves Eric Cantona; it’s clear that his love of the beautiful game extended to loving the beautiful players that graced it. It’s clear that that love is part of what made him one of the most successful football managers the world has ever seen.

I don’t think that love is homoerotic or homosexual in its make-up. I actually believe those kind of readings (which have become all too ‘normative’ for Queer and Queer-Feminism) not only inaccurately describe much that is homosocial; they actually do a disservice to homosexual desire itself.

What was nascent in Sedwick’s early text has migrated into mainstream culture from Queer Studies; as you can see from Ian Herbert’s ‘ironical’ comments.

Herbert’s comments are meant to be light-hearted, but there is a more serious aspect to them.

Queer’s boxing in of the homosocial actually perpetuates the fear of homosexuality, and bisexuality, rather than ameliorating them for most men. From Male Homosocial Desire… on, the argument has been that all male same-sex bonds, unless the blokes are queer (and even then they are pretty much suspect if the blokes are white [see WHITE PRIVILEGE]) are mostly about guys wanting to fuck each other, hiding their feelings, and attacking women instead as vicarious substitutes.

It’s a subtle policing model which is misandric, homophobic and biphobic. Queer privileges its own circle (see GAYLE RUBIN, CHARMED CIRCLE); ‘straight’ men, which may include homosexual/bisexual men as well, are actually left with very little wriggle room.  I would imagine that increasingly includes the cis/trans*male boundary as well.

And I can certainly think of queer spaces where it has been argued from the homosocial that masculinity has only three states: queer, repressed or sexually violent.

I choose to reject that. I choose to believe that the homosocial can be truly queer.  I certainly believe it is in Alex Ferguson’s letter to Eric Cantona. Or at least there is the potential there for it to be read in such a way, joyfully. That we can label repression and sexual violence what they are. At the same time, take the fear out of the homo*; acknowledge male same-sex bonds across the spectrum for what they can and could also be…