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People with a History: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans* History Sourcebook

People with a History: Introductory Essay

Paul Halsall

[Written 1998]

I: Introduction

There has been a huge outpouring of research on lesbian, gay and bisexual history, as well as the newer "queer studies", in the past fifteen years. [See the Bibliographical Guide to Lesbian and Gay History for evidence.] But the field is awash with controversies, controversies, it must be said, which advance our knowledge on all fronts. The central questions raised address the nature and possibility of a "history of homosexuality". Some scholars assert that "homosexuality" as a discrete identity is a very modern western construction (although the dates suggested by these scholars vary considerably). Others argue that there have always been "homosexuals" with some self-awareness, but even they would acknowledge that the large, highly visible and open "gay and lesbian community: of the past few decades is a new development in history.

For those who argue that "gays and lesbians" are a new creation, the only "gay and lesbian history" that can really deserve the name is the history of the modern political and social movement. In practice, however, even those who argue this way accept that homosexual activity in the past was widespread (however conceived at the time) and that this past is of interest to modern lesbians and gays. An analogy may be made here with "national" histories: there was no "English nation" before the late middle ages - the idea of "nation" is itself a late development - and yet the history of both Roman Britannia and Anglo-Saxon and earlier medieval England is fairly studied as contributing to the history of the modern English nation. In the same way the lives and activities of those who were sexually active, or attracted to, members of the same sex, as well as the attitudes of others towards them may fairly be said to constitute a history of interest to modern lesbians, gays and bisexuals.

But what makes up "modern lesbian, gay and bisexual" [hereafter "LGB"] identity? Clearly "sexuality" - broadly understood as sexual activity and understandings of such activity - plays an important part. The history of sexuality, and especially homosexual activity, is a subject for LGB history. Some indeed would seek to limit LGB history to a history of sexual activity. It does not seem accurate, however, to restrict modern understandings of LGB identities to sex. There are, and have been, societies in which same-sex sexual activity has been widespread but has had little or no emotional significance (as with some modern prison homosexuality). But a preference for, or orientation to, homosexual activity is only part of modern LGB identities. Just as important is an emphasis on emotional contact and partnership with another person of the same sex (called "homoaffectionalism" by author Paul Hardman). Social surveys of modern lesbians and gays in couples show this clearly: the relationships continue to be emotionally central to participants even if sexual activity after a number of years becomes minimal or non-existent. On the other hand, in modern European and American societies emotionally intense same-sex relationships -- sometimes called "friendship" in the past -- have very limited, if any, public role. It is not uncommon for people to claim that they have "hundreds of friends", a nonsensical statement if "friend" were to have its significance in ancient and medieval European discourses. There is thus some reason to claim the history of friendship is of special interest to modern LGBs, who preserve with their subcultures a tradition of intense emotional same-sex friendship, both with sexual partners and with others.

II: The "History of (Homo-)Sexuality" and "Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual History"

Traditional history has sought to understand past and present societies with categories of analysis such as politics, thought, economics, and, at least since Karl Marx, class. In the past twenty or so years other categories of analysis, not considered important in the past, have appeared as significant to many historians. Perhaps the most important of these is gender. To these historians Gender is the cultural meaning given to the rather limited facts of biology. One aspect of gender analysis consists in looking at how "men" and "women", "masculinity" and "femininity", are understood in a society - and at how such understandings play out in people's lives. Another, even newer, aspect of gender analysis looks at issues of sexual behavior and sexuality.

Although Western medievalist, John Boswell, who legitimated lesbian and gay history as a field of study in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980) famously advanced the theory that "Gay people" have always and everywhere existed, this has not been widely accepted by scholars. Since 1980 a very specific theory the history of sexuality as it applies to homosexuals, has come to be accepted by the majority of historians working in the field. The model now is this:

  • Homosexual behaviors exist in most societies, and in most, including European society until about 1700, homosexuality falls into two main patterns (at least for men.) One pattern is based on age-dissonant sexual dominance; an older man (not always very much older by the way) will take a conventionally "male" role in a sexual relationship with a younger male, but will not, in doing so, be regarded as any different from other "male" men in general society. The second common pattern is based on gender-dissonant sexual dominance; this means that in a number of societies there were "biological" males who lived as "non-males" throughout their lives, and these people can also be the sexual partners of "male" men without the "men" loosing any status. The Native American berdache is perhaps the most famous example of a widespread phenomenon.
  • Around 1700, in Western Europe a change took place. A subculture of effeminate men arose in major cities, men who identified themselves as different. The word "molly" was used in London and other words elsewhere. Although they were prepared to have sex with "male" men these "mollies" were also prepared to have sex with each other. This is not, it seems, common across various societies. Some historians have called this the emergence of a "third gender".
  • Since "a third gender" is not the model of modern homosexuality in the West, there has been a question of when the "modern homosexual" emerged. Many writers have argued that that the medicalization of homosexuality in the late nineteenth century resulted in the creation of a new creature - the "modern homosexual" (and the "modern heterosexual"!) What distinguishes "homo-" and "heterosexuals" from earlier models of sexuality is that they are in strict opposition to each other, and are defined not by gender role, or even sexual role, but by "sexual orientation". Certainly in Germany in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century there was a clear notion of homosexuality, and a political movement based on it.
  • A major recent readjustment of this theory, resulting from the work of George Chauncey in his recent Gay New York. Chauncey has called into question the last part of the traditional formulation. He argues that elite terminology and labels (also known as "medicalization") had no immediate effect on the mass of working class New Yorkers (with the suggestion that this was probably true elsewhere.) That although there were, eventually, some self-identified "queers", until as late 1940 [!] it was common for working-class men to have "male role" sex with other men ["fairies"] without in any way feeling that they were "homosexual". What happened around 1940, the Chauncey-amended model says is that, first, more and more of the mass of the population began to identify as "heterosexual" and see any homosexual behavior as transgressive; and secondly among self-identified "queers" a shift in desired sexual partner took place. Previously "queers" had tended to prefer "male" men but now "queers" began to prefer other "queers" as sexual partners.
  • It was this emergence of a social identity of "homosexual" which enabled lesbian and gay people to come together, recognize each other, and begin a social movement for legal, political and social equality.

As can be seen current discussion amongst historians focuses on the history of Western sexuality. It would also seem to imply that there were no "homosexuals", or "heterosexuals", in the past nor in other cultures [there was of course always homo- and heterosexual behavior]. In reading the various texts from other cultures below, readers might consider if the current dominant model applies as widely as its proponents suppose?

III: "Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual History" and Same-Sex Friendship

Lesbian history has long been roiled by the issue of "Romantic friendship" - with Lillian Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men (in which she discusses women's romantic friendships). The question posed comes down to this "Does it matter whether they had sex?" It turns out that there is more evidence of lesbian sex than Faderman may have noticed (see Emma Donahue's book on Early Modern British Lesbian), but for "gay" history this has seemed less of a problem: there is no shortage of evidence about sexual activity between men in the past. If we want to restrict history for gay people to the history of same sex activity, we can do so. The result might be a sorry story of oppression, appearances in court, and Bohemian exceptions, but it is there.

But is this all there is, or is the wider topic of male-male emotional relationships also part of "gay" history? This is the real issue with the whole debate over Boswell's Same Sex Unions. In fact the issue of "Romantic friendship" between men is shaping up as a real panel-buster at conferences [perhaps we need a book "Surpassing the Love of Women" to discuss it?]. When we ask the question "Does it matter if they were having sex?", we have to ask "matter to whom [?]?". And if we have "Romantic Friendship" plus "socially created kinship" minus-"demonstrated or publically validated sexual activity", as seems to have been the case with adelphopoiia, what exactly are we dealing with? Clearly it is not unambiguous "gay history".

Some writers have argued that "homosociality, homoeroticism, and homosexuality are analytically distinct". In response, I would note that almost anything can be distinguished from anything else, and, to use a medieval terminology, nominalism is surely more accurate that realism in discussions of human relationships. If one wanted, I am sure one could make an argument that "homo-whatever" relationships between modern mid-American white men were qualitatively distinct from interracial relationships in LA, and then go on to insist that since they are analytically distinct, they should not be "confounded" by "gay historians". The issue, of course, is who makes the distinctions. All sorts of perspectives can be taken on this: sometimes mere whim is involved, at other times social power relations are involved. As far as I am concerned, history is written to be read: it involves narratives and analyses of current concern. So, why should we choose to argue that "homosociality, homoeroticism, and homosexuality" are analytically distinct? I think that there is no justification for distinguishing homoeroticsm and homosexuality as areas of analysis.

I am more prepared to listen to arguments about homosociality, so nicely misrepresented by the word "friendship", as a necessarily distinct phenomenon, but would ask what is gained and what is lost making the distinction? Does making the distinction make the past clearer or more obscure? Or is some sort of analytic tension required? I would argue that in the modern Western construction of homosexuality, traditions of romantic friendship have played crucial roles: in writers such as John Addington Symonds, Walt Whitman, a real gay tradition of reading Plato's Symposium, and so forth. In other words, there is a direct and demonstrable historical appropriation of traditions of romantic friendship by nineteenth and early twentieth century homosexual men which precedes "gay" and "gay history".


From: original essay

This text is part of the Internet HiIstory Sourcebooks Project. The Sourcebooks are collections of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to all aspects of history.

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© Paul Halsall, 1998

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