Lesbian and Gay Histories: Defining the
In all the fuss about "theory" at lesbian and gay [or
now "queer"] studies conferences, sometimes amazingly
little historical work is discussed. And when it is discussed,
the discussion often opens with reference to "theory".
All in all this is a very odd situation.
There can, however, be no unified "lesbian and gay history",
and this has nothing to do with "theory", shifts in
"epistemes", or "social constructions of sexuality".
Rather historians addressing lesbian and gay histories have to
face the very different histories made possible by the different types of sources which survive from different periods and
different areas of the world.
In defining the fields of Lesbian and Gay history, then,
some basic historiographical source issues need to be examined.
- Pre-Modern Historiography [Pre.-circa 1480 in Europe and
the Middle East]
The sources of the histories of pre-modern cultures are largely
textual with a limited contribution from artistic products. The
texts survive in varying amounts, but not in sufficient quantity
to undertake social science type quantification. Texts might be
literary, legal, epigraphic, philosophical, theological, or liturgical.
Whatever their genre we have them through a process of chance
survival, or somewhat "tilted" survival [e.g. the greater
ability of religious institutions to preserve documents].
Such are the texts used by historians of ancient and medieval
societies. In some cases the number of texts is so small that
the only legitimate comments are about the texts themselves -
little else can be said about the society that produced them.
Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts about homosexuality fall
into this category. To be concrete, a minute number of sources
survive from Egypt, for example, which have any relevance to sexuality
- and this is from a culture which lasted well over 4000 years.
A similar small number of texts from all the variegated Mesopotamian
societies is all we have for that equally long-lasting arena of
When we reach "classical antiquity" [Greece and Rome],
the situation is rather different. Great number of texts survive
from Greco-Roman culture when taken as a whole. But this culture
lasted, at least, from Homer to Justinian, a period of fourteen
or more centuries. In this perspective, the number of texts remains
minute. Furthermore, the texts that do remain survived in such
a way that only rarely can we ascertain how widely read they were.
Some of the most important literary texts survive, for example,
in only one decent manuscript [and these are almost always medieval
copies or copies of copies]. Our evidence is at best partial,
and worse filtered through the copying preferences of Christian
monks. Enough survives, however, that a number of historians have
tried to make claims about the place of homosexuality in Greek
and Roman society, something which cannot be attempted with Egypt
TYPICAL SOURCES: literature, legal texts,
- Early Modern Historiography
For historians the great division between "medieval"
and "modern" is not any event, or shift in consciousness,
but a quantitative, and hence qualitative, shift in source availability.
From the late 15th century on, in some areas of Europe some municipalities have preserved extensive state archives.
Moreover, it is from this point on that records of churches, colleges
and other public institutions begin to be preserved in really
significant numbers. Finally, printing increases the number of
copies of books available, the size and types of audiences, and
transforms the whole nature of writing. In short, whereas ancient
and medieval history requires in depth analysis of small numbers
of disparate sources, modern historians, at least for some areas,
have to operate by selecting from the source materials.
For lesbian and gay history, this shift in source material enables
social history in the full sense to be undertaken. For the first
time there are records about large percentages of the population,
including deviant groups. The sources are not produced by the
deviants, and so present.
At the same time, the older literary/theological/legal sources
do not disappear. Indeed printing now makes them survive in greater
TYPICAL SOURCES: literature, legal texts, court records
- Modern Historiography
The industrial revolution transformed every society in which
it took place. It shifted people from country to town; it abolished
the family-based nature of agricultural production; it enabled
the creation of enormous cities with ample room for subcultures;
and it allowed the creation of a diverse economy. In every respect
modern lesbian and gay subcultures depend on the liberation from
the agricultural bonds of society.
Industrial society also led to the creation of more sources about
the history of sexuality - sources which not only witnessed what
was happening but helped create the culture. Above all the popular
press of the modern period- newspapers and magazines - and later
the cinema provides both
In this same period the old discussion about whether "homosexual"
or "gay" can be used as categories becomes relatively moot. There were clearly by the end of the 19th century homosexual
subcultures in a large number of American and European cities.
Much research has continued to focus on literary and legal texts,
but even with access to oral accounts, it will probably be possible
to do many local social studies for the entire modern period.
Since the period from circa. 1500 also saw an increasing Western
hegemony over the rest of the world, we also see in the modern
period sexual and cultural formations specific to the West affecting
other areas and cultures. This gay "colonialism" is
an incipient area of study.
TYPICAL SOURCES: literature, legal texts, court records, newspapers,
cinema, government records, scientific literature.
- Oral History
Few doubt that past century has seen the formation and development
- both in the West and in other societies - of the most complex
and self-conscious lesbian and gay cultures in history. Although
there are ample textual records for the modern period, another
source is available - the memories of older lesbian and gay people.
Oral history of virtually the entire 20th century is thus still
possible. The techniques of oral history are dramatically different
from the history of earlier periods (a point which is not always,
it seems, evident to oral historians at conferences).
TYPICAL SOURCES: oral records, newspapers, television.
- Non-Western Histories
Historians are now interested in exploring the history of
homosexually active people in non-Western societies. Here I wish
to note some peculiarities. In some non-literate cultures [or
cultures whose literature was destroyed] the preponderant sources
available were produced by Western or other external witnesses.
Some of these noticed social institutions which are of interest
[the "berdache" phenomenon was noted so widely that
it demands comment]. Although later native witnesses eventually
came forward, just how affected they already were by the external
contact remains an open question.
In the case of China and Japan, the situation is even odder. These
were cultures with long literary traditions. But more, they were
cultures with extensive governmental record keeping apparatuses.
Both countries, moreover, had printing and complex economic/literary
cultures. In other words, sources for the history of sexuality
should approximate to the sources for the Western "early
modern" and "modern" periods as described above.
The majority of the scholarship on Chinese and Japanese sexuality
in Western languages, however, treats these developed societies
as if they were ancient societies. Homosexuality is written
about almost exclusively from literary sources. Partly this is
a result of limited access to records by Western scholars and
limited interest in the subject matter by local scholars. At some
point, however, one can expect the government archives of China
and Japan to yield real as yet unavailable information. The same
processes might be seen in India, in Iran, and in Turkey (which
had, in the Ottomans, one of the longest lasting, and most conscientiously
record-preserving governments in history).
In short, non-western historiography of homosexuality [and heterosexuality]
is conducted so differently from western historiography as to
constitute a distinct category. Let's hope that this changes:
that scholars with access to archives will be able to investigate
17th-century Hangzhou just as Guido Ruggiero investigated Renaissance
Venice, or 19th-century Calcuttan police reports as well as 18th-Century
Paris pederastic cases.
TYPICAL SOURCES: literature, legal texts
POTENTIAL SOURCES: court records, newspapers, government records,
©Paul Halsall, 1997