Monthly Archives: March 2004

Homosexuality For Dummies

In the beginning, all was darkness: subterfuge, suicide, burnings at the stake.

Really? What about Adam and Steve ?

Then came 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots, and the world erupted in a blaze of rainbow-spangled light: Gay pride parades! The Village People! Domestic-partnership benefits! ”Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”! Such, at least, is the popular mythology among many gays and lesbians — and many heterosexuals (both sympathetic and otherwise) as well.

Well that’s what Adam Goodheart claims to be “Popular Mythology” in that bastion of popular myth The Sunday New York Times Book Review. And is as typical of a publication that for years declined to so mention as mention the existence of Gore Vidal for the unspeakable thought crime of writing that naughty best-seller The City of the Pillow-Biters. But then Goodhart’s quickie checkliest fails to mention Henry Gerber

Or AIDS.

As for Michelangelo, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson — the old familiar list of famous dead people presumed homosexual — they must, it is also presumed, have led lives of self-deception and repression, or at best of furtive, transient pleasures.

Nice to see that Emily made the cut. But what about Henry James? Oh well.
Maybe next time someone might elexct to “presume” a bit more thoroughly.

Or maybe not.

Among academics, the prevailing myth is rather different. With Michel Foucault as their guiding light, they maintain that before the late 19th century, when German scholars invented the word ”homosexuality,” the condition itself did not exist.

Sorry dear. It wasn’t a German Scholar. It was a Hungarian Journalist who went by the names of Karoly Benkert and Karl Maria von Kertbeny.

Jonathan “Ned” Katz explains it all to you in his invaluable The Invention of Heterosexuality, a book no home (gay or straight) should be without.

Everybody pranced about in a world of boundless, polymorphous possibility, in which only sexual acts, not individuals, were graced with an identity.

Pranced ? Did you ever see Foucault prancing? Well I did. (Now if that’s not a song cue I don’t know what is!)

Both views — as should be plain to anyone who considers them for longer than a minute or two — defy logic. The political and social gains of gays and lesbians over the last generation rest on a long and slow process of foundation-building. And the Foucauldian model increasingly appears to fly in the face not just of common sense but of scientific knowledge about homosexuality.

And as we all know, “common sense” is the first refuge of cant.

Graham Robb is neither gay nor an academic. It is perhaps these fortunate circumstances that have allowed him to view the history of homosexuality with a fresh eye.

“Fresh Eye for the Queer Guy”? Haven’t we had quite enough of Heterosexuals telling us what to do? Shouldn’t the cross-sub-cultural graciousness of Gavin Newsom be the new keynote?

In ”Strangers,” he has produced a brilliant work of social archaeology, all the more remarkable because the truths he unearths were never buried very deep; for decades if not centuries they have been hidden in plain sight. Robb, who comes to gay history by way of his work as a biographer of Balzac, Rimbaud and Victor Hugo, is also one of those rare historians who actually feel at home in the past, who see our great-grandparents not as an alien species of primitive organisms but as creatures much like ourselves: complicated, neurotic and capable of the full human range of generosity and stupidity.

Really? A stupidity on par with that of George W. Bush or William Bennett The Creature From the Blog Lagoon ?

There is an often repeated (and undocumented) story that Queen Victoria thought anti-lesbian laws unnecessary since such a thing as lesbianism could not exist. But the queen’s naivete can scarcely be credited. ”In fact, the subject of homosexuality was far more prevalent than it seems,” Robb writes. The problem is that the vocabulary has changed: ” ‘Lavender’ aunts, ‘musical’ young men, crooked fingers and green carnations are no longer widely understood as references to homosexuality. But the evidence is there.”
A prodigious reader of 19th-century literature, Robb finds such references plain and unmistakable. Indeed, although traditionalists often roll their eyes at modern gay scholars’ supposed obsession with teasing the homoeroticism out of classic literary texts, 19th-century critics were fully awake to such possibilities. Coleridge fretted in 1803 over the possibility that Shakespeare’s sonnets to a young man may not have been entirely ”chaste,” while Shelley, in 1818, wrote an entire ”Discourse on the Manners of the Antient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love.”

“Fretted”? That’s the interesting part. Remember the philosophy class scene in Maurice ?

The top-hatted and whiskered worthies of Victoria’s reign had, it turns out, as rich a vocabulary for describing gays and lesbians as we do, ranging from street slang to medical jargon: margeries, mollies, ganymedes, chestnut-gatherers, ”little Jesuses,” inverts, unisexuals, androphiles, normosexuals, parisexuals, ghaseligs, Uranians. That last term, with its hint of extraterrestrial glamour, enjoyed a decades-long vogue from 1860’s, when members of a ragtag band of activists and intellectuals, led by the German writer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, began openly to declare their homosexuality and to lobby for legal and social reform. In 1867, Robb notes, before more than 500 members of the Congress of German Jurists, Ulrichs became the first person in history to ”come out” in public. (He had already told his family some years before.) His description of the climactic moment resonates with the experiences of millions who would follow him: ”My heart was pounding in my breast. . . . I mounted the podium with God!” Ulrichs’s speech has also usually been cited as the first call to arms of the gay rights movement. But Robb finds a strong current of advocacy for tolerance reaching back well into the previous century — even among figures whose heterosexual credentials are unimpeachable.

And again collapsing 20th century terms like “homosexual” and “gay rights” into past usages serves nought but the cause of historical obfuscation. The power of Foucault’s discovery rests on the fact that armed with the term “homosexual” medical, scientific and police authorities were able to criminalize and pathologize same-sex love in a way their predecessors had not. A grab-bag of grave an minor objections to persons and situations spanning a vast spread of time and range of cultures is far different than the social “problem” invoked by stigmatizing and segregating persons of all classes, ages, sexes and experiences into a brutally silenced whole. And this is something those whose knowledge of a figure as complex as Michel Foucault extends no further than a few Camille Paglia insults will never comprehend.

”Sodomy violates the right of no man,” Condorcet declared to France’s National Assembly in the late 18th century. Goethe edited a collection of homosexual love letters in 1805, and wrote sympathetically of their author, the classicist Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Edmund Burke, in the 1780’s, opposed the pillorying of sodomites.

Well Mother pin a rose on them!

Starting in 1774, the utilitarian busybody Jeremy Bentham wrote hundreds of pages on the phenomenon of ”the improlific appetite,” proclaiming it beneficial in that it helped control overpopulation.

He also created the Panopticon — a far from benign device, for all his “progressive” palaver.

Still, most European countries’ legal codes retained severe penalties for homosexual practices. The tolerant Netherlands carried out executions for sodomy until 1803; England until 1835. But relatively few cases were ever prosecuted, Robb finds, and those that were often ended in acquittal: ”Nineteenth-century homosexuals lived under a cloud, but it seldom rained. Most of them suffered, not from the cruel machinery of justice, but from the creeping sense of shame, the fear of losing friends, family and reputation, the painful incompatibility of religious belief and sexual desire, the social and mental isolation, and the strain of concealment.” In short, their torments were similar to those borne by many closeted men and women today.

Oh how jolly. Only an “unlucky few” were imprisoned or executed. And at random too. Kind of like life under National Socialism

And like heterosexuals today, many in 19th-century Europe, while fully aware of the Uranians in their midst, preferred to turn a blind eye. These included many judges and politicians: ”Public behavior towards gay men and women has changed enormously, but private ideas about homosexuality are much what they were 200 years ago.”

Just love that “preferred to turn a blind eye.” What of those who “preferred” otherwise?

Silence.

For most educated people today, a single episode stands for the history of pre-20th-century homosexuality: the sodomy trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde in 1895. But Wilde’s real crime was not his orientation — obvious enough for years and the subject of frequent gibes in the British press — so much as his insistence on parading it before the judge and jury.

Aha — he flaunted it! or as the phobes say nowadays he was “Trying to shove it down out throats!”

As Auntie Mame would say “How vivid.”

”It was not until the 1930’s,” Robb writes, ”that, as Quentin Crisp put it, the police began to think of homosexuals ‘as North American Indians thought of bison [and] cast around for a way to exterminate them in herds.’ ” The Wilde trials, he notes, ”belong more to the 20th century than to the 19th”; indeed, more remarkable than the conviction, perhaps, is the fact that at times it seemed that most of London was rooting for Wilde to get off scot-free. When he finished his famous peroration involving ”the Love that dare not speak its name,” the applause from the public gallery drowned out the hissing.

Or they just enjoyed a good show and didn’t care what happened to the performers after it was over.

I’m sure Martha Stewart, had she taken the stand, would have gotten a Standing O —

followed by the same conviction on all counts.

Indeed, for all its ostentatious prudery, Victorian society seemed almost to idealize homosexuals, viewing them as possessors of special knowledge, and of the peculiar power of the outsider. As with ”the ‘primitive’ cultures discovered by its missionaries and explorers,” Robb writes, it ”assigned a shamanic role to sexual strangers.” (”Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” anyone?)

No dear, not the Fab Five. As convivial as they may appear, they’re cultural radicals.

You’re thinking of Truman Capote.

This was true not just of Wilde but of many contemporary fictional characters as well, from the ambiguous duo of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to Robin Hood and his men.

–who were, of course, fictional characters whereas Oscar Wilde was flesh and blood. But there’s no stopping pedant when he’s on a roll.

Passages of Howard Pyle’s 1883 book, ”The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood,” read like a Mel Brooks parody: ”Prythee, tell me, sweet chuck,” Robin coos to one of his epicene companions, ”why wearest thou that dainty garb upon thy pretty body?”

But as Mel much more memorably wrote “If you’ve got it FLAUNT IT!”

The real mystery may be why so much historical evidence, on a subject of such great contemporary relevance, has remained largely unexamined, or at best misunderstood.

No, the real mystery is why you’re so clueless about homophobia and systematized oppression. Why do you think the Stonewall crew staged a revolt against the police? High spirits?

Part of the reason may be human nature: just as most of us can never imagine that our parents are as sophisticated about sex as we are, so too we patronize our remoter forebears, finding innocent explanations for their hints and innuendoes.

“Hints and innuendoes”?

Oh Prunella!

Part of it may also be the nature of history itself: at some primitive level, it is still a form of ancestor worship, and ancestors are generally heterosexual.

Maybe for YOU it is!

In excavating the long-buried lives of our gay great-great-granduncles and lesbian great-great-grandaunts, Robb has done more than make a major historical contribution. He has, as it were, provided their distant nieces and nephews, gay and straight, with a family tree that we have never had before.

Oh sure they have. They just never bothered to look.

And neither have you.

As for the future,

there

are

a great

many

places

to look.