What does a historian of sexuality do when confronted with something that looks compellingly modern, but decades before it was supposed to exist? Specifically, I mean evidence of identity and political activism built around a positive interpretation of same-sex desire in the 1820s.
The evidence, although fragmentary and sparse, isn’t really ambiguous. One document, long known to Byron scholars as the fifty-two-page poem Don Leon, contains statements that same-sex desire was written into character from birth. The endnotes to the poem indicate that this idea was endorsed by a collective of individuals, and further historical research points to at least some of the men being members of the British Parliament. Remarkably they seem to have lobbied fellow parliamentarians on the need to eliminate the death penalty for sodomy, with one of the more dramatic moments in that effort occurring in 1825.
Does this mean, as a commentator said after one of my recent panel presentations, that a generation of work on the late nineteenth-century origins of homosexual identity is now “out the window”? Is it proof of the timeless nature of homosexual identity, or perhaps, if not that, then proof that homosexual identity has its origins in the eighteenth century, as some in the profession have argued for decades?
Or does it mean that even though this looks like the modern homosexual identity in the 1820s it’s really not, and that in fact there is more ambiguity and strangeness – something more queer – than there appears at first glance. Am I, as a twenty-first century reader, singling out the aspects of identity and activism that these documents are presenting, and reading out the other evidence of ambiguity and contradictions, in order to make something coherent, unified, and recognizable out of something that really is not?
This material seems to polarize opinion, and most individuals who question me on it want to know whether I believe this to be a “queer” or a “homosexual” story, following the distinction outlined above. Few assumptions seem more consistent in these comments than the idea that the two positions are incompatible, and that I have to choose between them. It is interesting that the interpretive decision facing me is usually framed in this way, as an either/or choice, because it seems an unproductive way to understand the question, and one that still causes unnecessary confrontations among those who should be working together. To see why this is the case, and why it is important to try and bring these two positions together with consensus rather than confrontation, it is necessary to review the argument for the origins of homosexual identity in the late nineteenth century.
That argument begins with the idea that individuals make sense of both the world around them and their internal feelings and desires through the cultural texts that they have available. The late nineteenth century was unique in being the first period in western history with a relatively well-circulated discussion of a broad range of deviant sexual practices. Individuals adopted and appropriated these texts, taking characterizations that were initially negative and using them to fashion positive self-understandings. But in other world regions the cultures and the texts were different, resulting in other configurations that made greater room for variation by gender, gender identity expression, culture, race, sex, and any number of other categories. The rigid homosexual/heterosexual binary has increasingly come to be seen as a product of the unique mix of elements that existed within Western Europe within a particular period. Also, because of its time and place of origin, elements of Victorian morality were retained within the self-conception of the homosexual, who often rejected effeminacy and other qualities incompatible with respectable masculinity. The modern homosexual often ruthlessly policed himself to be otherwise “normal” by the standards of middle-class masculinity, with the cultural configuration he created taking on outsized importance in the world through being spread (usually inadvertently) by imperialist powers along with their economic, political, and cultural institutions.
Thinking about the homosexual this way makes it easier to see how similar circumstances in the early nineteenth century and also the late nineteenth century gave rise to very similar cultural configurations. Elite men in both periods, under the threat of intensified persecution from the state, used their economic and cultural capital to craft a narrative using available cultural texts that allowed them to form a positive interpretation of their internal desires. The men in the 1820s made use of selected texts from the ancient world, drawing on passages from Plato, Socrates, Bion of Smyrna, Plutarch, Mantuan, Horace, Anacreon, and many others. They took as texts dozens of newspaper reports on the punishment of men for homosexual acts, and they made them into evidence that there were others like them in their own day. Finally they used their creativity and internal desires to shape the fragmented texts of others into a wholly new, bold narrative that reconfigured the world as they wanted it to be, so that all would see:
That this little spot, which constitutes our isle,
Is not the world! Its censure or its smile
Can never reason’s fabric overthrow,
And make a crime what is not really so.
What these men made in the 1820s was short-lived and not widespread. It was made only from the more limited texts of the time, but it still provided a positive model for self-understanding to the men who crafted and collectively endorsed it. Thinking about these men in this way follows the methodology developed by Anna Clark to understand the identity of Anne Lister, a Yorkshire landowner from the early nineteenth century who left extensive diaries documenting her sexual relationships with other women.
Clark argues that when attempting to understand anyone’s sexual identity we should look at the internal desires of the individual, the cultural texts they had available, and the economic resources they had to meet those desires. In this formulation we have something that combines the best insights of the social historian (emphasizing material resources) and the cultural historian (emphasizing cultural texts), and that is fully compatible with the insights most often stressed in queer theory (contingency and discontinuity). It also does not overreach and attempt to explain the nature of desire, so it does not deny (or confirm) that there were individuals in the past who might have exclusively felt same-sex desire (or any other configuration of desires).
This approach is useful because it emphasizes the queer origins of homosexual identity. It does not place the homosexual at the center of the field, but it also no longer uses him as a foil for defining what a queer approach ought to be. The homosexual is a part of queer history. Yes, he would like to take it over, to be seen the template for all others, to speak for and be emblematic of everyone else. But he is after all a Victorian white male, and they were like that. The homosexual can be a bit insufferable, but he’s still queer, and he shouldn’t be the figure we define ourselves against.
Detailed evidence for the points above will appear in “The Consequences of Dating Don Leon,” in Christopher Reed and Jongwoo Jeremy Kim, eds., Queer Arts and Cultures: Rethinking Sexual Identity (Ashgate, 2016).
Charles Upchurch is an Associate Professor of British history at Florida State University. He received his Ph.D. in modern British history from Rutgers University in 2003, and his research focuses on nineteenth-century British gender and social history. His book, Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform was published in 2009 by the University of California Press, and explores the ways in which family and class influenced the interpretation of same-sex desire in the period between 1820 and 1870. His work has been published in Gender and History, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, and the Journal of Social History. His current book project investigates a group of men in the British Parliament who were working to reduce the penalties for homosexual acts in the early nineteenth century. Charles tweets from @cupchurch2
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