HOMOSEXUALS, INVERTS AND FAIRIES
Gissing does not use the word ‘homosexual’ in his letter, perhaps because it was still a relatively new term in 1895; its first appearance in English was probably in an early translation of Krafft-Ebing’s sexological compendium Psychopathia Sexualis in 1892. By classifying people according to their sexual histories, Krafft-Ebing helped to provide a medical warrant for thinking about sexual acts in terms of pathological types of individuals; or, in Foucault’s famous epigram: ‘[t]he sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species’ (Foucault 1979: 43). In effect, Gissing’s shocked and exasperated defence of Wilde rests on the claim that his behaviour was ‘a temporary aberration’, that Wilde’s un-natural acts were indeed unnatural since they formed no part of his nature.
For much of the twentieth century ‘homosexuality’ was more than a ‘name’ that dared not be spoken: within clinical medicine
it has been a diagnostic category, a suitable case for treatment, a condition to be cured wherever possible by psychotherapeutic and other, less savoury methods like electro-convulsive therapy. Because of the institutional prestige enjoyed by the medical profession, this way of thinking leached into and strengthened popular beliefs and prejudices about which sexual preferences were acceptable and which were not. It therefore took some time before this terminology could be turned against itself, and ‘homosexuality’ started ‘to demand that its legitimacy or “naturality” be acknowledged’, a development aided by liberal sexologists like Havelock Ellis who insisted on viewing ‘sexual inversion’ as ‘a congenital anomaly’ rather than as a pathology or sickness (Foucault 1979: 101). As Ellis’s analysis suggests, the question of whether homosexuality should be considered as a naturally occurring phenomenon has long been a troubling issue for critics and advocates alike.
How accurate is Foucault’s broad contrast between sodomy as a deviant act and the homosexual as a deviant type of individual? It is not hard to find historical examples where same-sex desire seems relatively unproblematic compared to its dominant perception in Western Europe throughout the twentieth century. In the late-seventeenth-century ‘Song’ (‘Love a woman? You’re an ass’) by John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, the triumphant riposte voiced in the final stanza appears to be free of shame or stigma, despite the poem’s evident sense of irony and misogyny:
Then give me health, wealth, mirth, and wine, And if busy Love intrenches, There’s a sweet, soft page of mine Does the trick worth forty wenches.
(Wilmot 1994: 37)
Yet the fact remains that these sentiments derive their impact from their scandalous assault on what would today be (erroneously) understood as heterosexual values (‘I’ll change a mistress till I’m dead’), values which are more or less taken as given in the bulk of Rochester’s poetry. These lines hardly equate with the ‘free choice’ between men and women as sexual partners that
Foucault identifies in the ancient Greek world, the belief ‘that the same desire attached to anything that was desirable — boy or girl — subject to the condition that the appetite was nobler that inclined toward what was more beautiful or more honorable’ (Foucault 1987: 188-92). Nevertheless, in Rochester’s ‘Song’ it is the act that matters; no inference is being made about a particular sort of person who engages in the act. That would come later.
It is, of course, true that in Rochester’s time sodomy was a capital crime. But its meaning was not restricted to sexual relations between men. In the early sixteenth century the word covered a variety of practices: it proscribed anal intercourse (with anyone), but also the use of a dildo or sex with animals. (Even today in those parts of the United States where sodomy laws remain on the statute books they typically include cunnilingus and fellatio and make no distinction between their practice by heterosexual and non-heterosexual persons.) Moreover, sodomy played a complicated role in the religious politics of the period. In Protestant England the Papacy was often identified with the corrupt biblical city of Sodom and hence was seen as a hotbed of vice, with buggery being defined as a peculiarly Italian habit (Cohen 1993: 103-6). In similar vein, Rochester’s ribald poem ‘Signior Dildo’ (c. 1673) seems to have been occasioned by the controversial marriage of the heir presumptive to a Catholic princess from Italy, an event which the poet facetiously linked to the import of Italian dildoes into the country. The point, once again, is that the legal category of ‘sodomy’ did not correspond to the modern notion of ‘homosexuality’.
If it is impossible to imagine a history of ‘homosexuality’ that is not primarily a history of our medical and legal categories and their impact upon us, what of same-sex passion? What kind of history might it have? This has been a productive, but at the same time an immensely difficult, question. Historians like Randolph Trumbach and Alan Bray have found evidence of what they see as ‘sodomitical subcultures’ coming into existence in major urban centres like London by the early eighteenth century. Trumbach, for example, has argued that ‘a profound shift occurred in the conceptualization and practice of male homosexual behaviour’ during this period, but sees this as part of a wider ‘reorganization of gender identity’ in which the differences between men and women started to become more sharply defined. In an argument that echoes Thomas Laqueur’s account of the two-sex model, Trumbach claims that the majority of men now came to regard themselves as male ‘because they felt attraction to women, and to women alone’ (Trumbach 1987: 118). Not only did this ‘gender revolution’ undermine the older idea of the sodomite as someone who would engage in sex with boys and women, it also made sexual interest among men more dangerous than ever before. In London’s post-Restoration theatre, for example, references to sodomy began to be suppressed and to portray unmanly fops on stage was to court legal and financial disaster (Senelick 1990). Notice that the word ‘fop’ has acquired a new meaning here: when Rochester writes of a ‘rival fop’ he is merely referring to someone whom he thinks is an insipid fool, but by the early eighteenth century the term has come to be associated with effeminacy and a male desire for the love of men (Wilmot 1994: 191). And it is worth adding that ‘effeminacy’ — a word that could variously mean ‘tender’, ‘soft’, ‘gentle’ or ‘womanly’ — only began to take on specifically sexual overtones around 1700. In Thomas Nashe’s description of the defeat of the Anabaptist uprising in The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), for example, the mood of ‘stern revenge’ among the Imperial troops ‘made them so eager [i. e. to slaughter their enemies] that their hands had no leisure to ask counsel of their effeminate eyes’ — in other words, these men killed without mercy or compassion (Nashe 1972: 285).
Was the sodomite beginning to turn into the modern homosexual by 1700? In their discussion of ‘sodomitical subcultures’, both Trumbach and Bray emphasize the historical importance of the ‘mollies’ as an early example of what a collective same-sex lifestyle might look like. As one eighteenth-century observer put it, these were men who ‘mimick all manner of Effeminacy. . . that they may tempt one another, by such immodest Freedoms, to commit those odious Beastialities, that ought for ever to be without a Name’ (Ward 1756  : 265). Stories survive of their nightly meetings in a room in a tavern
where they rapidly became renowned for their cross-dressing and elaborate rituals such as the simulation of childbirth and long sessions spent gossiping about their husbands and children.
Reading these descriptions today it is hard not to see the sexual underground of the mollies as the distant forerunners of the Harlem drag balls captured in Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary film Paris Is Burning, a portrait of a self-subsistent enclave whose members compulsively mime and parody the conventions of the straight world around them. The molly sounds like a new kind of identity, a step into the future; it was, writes Alan Bray, ‘a broader word’ than the older term ‘sodomite’ and was not necessarily ‘intrinsically sexual at all’ (Bray 1995 : 103). But unfortunately our information about these men is extremely sketchy, drawing heavily on court records and other unsympathetic sources. Edward Ward’s A Compleat and Humorous Account Of All the Remarkable Clubs and Societies in the City of London and Westminster cited above was clearly written to divert and entertain its readers, and alongside the account of the ‘Men who chuse this backward Way’ are tales of the ‘Club of Ugly Faces’ and the ‘Farting Club’. And what is one to make of the doggerel which ends this section?
But Sodomites their Wives forsake Unmanly Liberties to take;
And fall in Love with one another As if no Woman was their Mother.
(Ward 1756: 268-9)
Is this evidence that the ‘molly’ was not so very different from the sodomite after all; or is it merely a piece of invective or perhaps a cheap jibe? Conspicuously absent here are any firsthand accounts of how the mollies viewed themselves, or how they regarded their own activities.
Nevertheless, the idea that in ‘the Mollies Club’ we see the crucible of modern gay culture remains a tantalizing, if uncertain, possibility. Historians continue to disagree as to whether it makes sense to talk about well-established sodomitical subcultures in eighteenth-century London. The picture only starts to become clearer as we move towards the present. Once again, the coining of new words or new usages offers important clues: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, ‘drag’ (in the sense of men dressing up in female attire) and ‘lesbian’ can both be traced back to the 1870s and obviously pre-date the Wilde trials, while another cluster of explicit and/or derogatory terms like ‘queen’, ‘queer’, ‘pansy’ and ‘homo’ seems to enter the language in the 1920s. These popular linguistic shifts imply that modern gay or lesbian identities did not emerge solely in a space created for them by medical and legal judgments, as the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality tends to suggest; rather, they were the product of a complex interaction between familiar, subcultural values and practices on the one hand and attempts at control by the state and the professions on the other.
By far the fullest and most detailed cultural history of gay urban life is George Chauncey’s pathbreaking book Gay New York (1994) which covers the period from 1890 to the outbreak of the Second World War. Combining personal recollections and private diaries with official archival sources, Chauncey not only charts the changing fortunes of the city’s gay male communities, but also examines the interface — the conflict and the mutuality — between the nation’s ‘gay capital’ and the ‘normal’ or ‘straight’ world. Here different languages, vernacular and regulatory, overlapped and collided. To the police, doctors and anti-vice campaigners gay men were ‘inverts’, ‘perverts’, ‘degenerates’ or sometimes ‘homosexuals’ or ‘homosexualists’, while the men would identify themselves variously as ‘faggots’, ‘fairies’ or ‘queens’, words that had many more subtle inflections than when they were used homophobically as insults or as terms of abuse. For these slang words were highly mobile: ‘faggot’ (later corrupted to ‘fag’) seems, for example, to have originally circulated among African-American gay men before it was taken up by whites.
However, as Chauncey notes, by the 1910s and 1920s the word most often chosen to indicate that they belonged to ‘a distinct category of men’ who were sexually interested in other men (though not necessarily adopting or approving a blatantly ‘effeminate manner’) was queer (Chauncey 1994: 15—16). In the 1940s the preferred term had become ‘gay’, but by then the world had begun to change and the cultural climate had become more inhospitable to lesbians and male homosexuals. ‘Gay’ was not really an equivalent to ‘queer’: it was at once a more guarded signifier of belonging, a word that was frequently used with caution — outsiders would not at first have understood what ‘having a gay time’ or being in a ‘gay bar’ meant. Yet it was also paradoxically a more inclusive word, sometimes referring specifically to those ostentatious styles of dress and deportment that the word ‘queer’ had tended to preclude. The next section considers some of the reasons behind this change and looks at two individuals who tried sometimes to confront and sometimes to side-step the homophobic ethos of the 1950s and early 1960s: James Baldwin (1925-87) and Andy Warhol (1928-87).