Natives and Colonists
The cultural variability of same-sex desire and its labeling is evident from the era of European settlement. Before the arrival of Europeans, many Native American cultures incorporated a form of cross-gender identity and, in some cases, a form of same-sex marriage. In many tribes, a man who felt or dreamed that his true identity was that of a woman could take the female role, wear women’s clothes, work at women’s tasks, and marry a man. In a few tribes, a woman could take on a male identity and marry a woman. Europeans called this practice berdache, and they considered the Indians to be barbaric in their toleration of such relationships.
Historians and anthropologists disagree on whether these cross-gender individuals were simply tolerated or whether they were denigrated or in fact venerated by their tribes. In any case, certain groups — particularly tribes in which gender roles were relatively fluid in comparison to those among Europeans, in which religious beliefs did not denigrate carnal relations, and in which spiritual messages (such as dreams that decreed a gender reversal) carried great weight — provided a social space for a particular socially constructed identity, the cross-gender berdache. It is important to recognize, however, that gender identity, and not necessarily sexual desire, formed the core of this construct and that despite some contemporary efforts to claim those who engaged in the berdache as gay ancestors, the practice did not resemble modern homosexual identity, although it did include the opportunity for same-sex intimate relationships.2
The Europeans who pronounced the berdache so barbaric adhered to much more rigid gender roles. Their Judeo-Christian ethic also condemned all nonreproductive sexual relations. (They accepted that both women and men had sexual desire and the capacity for pleasure but insisted that lust be channeled into marriage.) Reproduction was especially important to the settlers who came to North America. America’s scarcity of laborers and abundance of land encouraged a “high” reproductive strategy to populate the land. Indeed, natural increase largely accounted for the doubling of the European colonial population from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century; during this time, a married woman could expect to bear eight children.
Whether Puritans in New England or Anglicans in the southern colonies, the European settlers established firm laws to channel sexuality into marriage and reproduction, outlawing adultery, rape, and sodomy. Because they so clearly defied the norm of reproductive sexuality, the crimes of sodomy, buggery, and bestiality carried the death penalty.3 As the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, explained in the case of a man who was executed for sodomy and corrupting youths “by masturbations,” these acts were “dreadful” because they “tended to the frustrating of the ordinance of marriage and the hindering [of] the generation of mankind.”
Execution was in fact rare, but men convicted of “sodomitical acts” such as “spending their seed upon one another” received severe and repeated whipping, burning with a hot iron, or banishment. Although the term “sodomy” was not applied to sexual relations between women, one colony, New Haven, listed women’s acts “against nature” among its capital offenses. There were also cases of “lewd behavior” between women; in 1642, for example, a Massachusetts court severely whipped a servant and fined her for “unseemly practices betwixt her and another maid.” The colonial crimes of sodomy or “unnatural acts” were not, however, equivalent to the modern concept of homosexuality. For one thing, sodomy referred to “unnatural” — that is, nonprocreative — sexual acts, which could be performed between two men, a man and an animal, or a man and a woman. In addition, unlike the Native Americans’ attitude toward cross-gender berdache, British colonial society had no permanent cultural category for those who engaged in sexual relations with members of their own gender. Like other sinners, those who were punished for unnatural sexual acts did not acquire a lifetime identity as “homosexual” and could be reintegrated into the fold if sufficiently repentant.
Why colonial society had no social space for a modern concept of homosexual identity becomes clearer when we look beyond the legal record to the larger social and economic context of the period. In early America, sexual values and behaviors were almost fully contained within family life and organized around reproduction. In New England, solitary living was often outlawed. Although individual men and women might experience sexual desire for members of their own gender and, in some cases, act to satisfy that desire, it was economically impossible for men and women to leave their families and pursue what we would now call a “lifestyle” of homosexuality. Same-sex desire might result in an act, called sodomy, but it did not lead to a social role or identity that would conflict with the formation and maintenance of reproductive families. That transformation in meaning did not occur until the late nineteenth century, and understanding it requires an overview of the changing meanings of reproduction, sexuality, and love over the course of that century.