INTO THE 20TH CENTURY
New York City, 1906. Otto Spengler, a director of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee of Berlin, gives a lecture to the German Scientific Society on “sexual intermediates.” The Committee, cofounded in 1897 by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, was working to change attitudes regarding homosexuality and reform the German penal code, which criminalized homosexual acts under paragraph 175. Following his talk, Spengler reported, a lawyer declared “that homosexuals belong in prison,” and used that comment as an example that much more education was needed on homosexuality in the United States “where such educated people are so stupid… . Now, people just faint when the subject is broached.”
The following year an anonymous writer from Boston sent a letter of support to the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. In part, the writer mentioned “how many homosexuals I've come to know! Boston, this good old Puritan city, has them by the hundreds.” The letter further explained the situation:
Here, as in Germany, homosexuality extends throughout all classes, … Reliable homosexuals have told me names that reach into the highest circles of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., names which have left me speechless with astonishment. I have also noticed that bisexuality must be rather widespread.
There is astonishing ignorance among us of the Uranians [homosexuals] I've come to know about their own true nature. This is probably a result of absolute silence and intolerance, which have never advanced real morality at any time or place. But with the growth of population and the increase of intellectuals, the time is coming when America will finally be forced to confront the riddle of homosexuality.1
The two observers above reveal some significant aspects of GLBT history in the United States at the turn of the century. First is the simple fact the term “homosexual” was by then in use, at least by a few people in urban areas, and that there were people applying the term for themselves. Also, both describe an oppressive atmosphere for homosexuals, and reflect the belief that education would create more tolerance. Finally, the influence of European thinkers on the subject is apparent, particularly the influence of Magnus Hirschfeld and the German homosexual emancipation movement. Despite Page 14 | Top of Articlethe information crossing the Atlantic, however, the United States would be perceived as relatively less open to sexual variety than many places in Europe at different times in the 20th century. This chapter lays the groundwork for understanding these and other developments and attitudes that characterized U.S. GLBT history as the new century opened.
The history of GLBT people in the United States is often divided into two broad eras, divided at roughly 1900. This is more than mere convenience, since by 1900 a medical model of sexuality was gaining currency in the Western world. As reflected above, that model resulted in the creation of the categories homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual that came to dominate sexual discussions for most of the 20th century. At the same time, earlier ways of thinking, often determined by class, ethnicity, or geography, continued to survive alongside the newer concepts, resulting in a surprisingly diverse array of possibilities for self-identification. In fact the 20th century, though it is the era of remarkably successful GLBT rights movements and visibility, also witnessed as much contraction as expansion of options for sexual definition.
In order to better understand the language and developments of the 20th century, then, we must look at least briefly at the various legacies of the nation's colonial beginnings through the 19th century. As Spengler noted about his audience that included lawyers, doctors, and ministers, for example, many educated people viewed homosexuals as criminals by the early 20th century, even as the anonymous letter reveals the existence of many such newly classified people in U.S. cities. Both situations are rooted in earlier developments, as was the concept of sin attached to same-sex acts. The newer construct of illness only added a third association to homosexuality rather than replace any older ones. The result was a triad of sin, crime, and sickness when it came to defining homosexuality, designations that overlapped and continued to dominate most discussions for the next one hundred years. At the same time, not all of the older associations were necessarily negative, since same-sex attractions and activity, as recently as the 19th century, sometimes did not necessarily carry any stigma at all. It is a complicated picture, made more complex in the 20th century by the effort to subsume so many different antecedents and attitudes under the single rubric “homosexual.”
It is now well established that two old worlds met when Europeans began arriving at the shores of the Americas. As Europeans established colonies in what became the United States it was a process involving both cooperation and conflict with natives, and one that combined old ideas and new circumstances in a volatile mix. Although a close look at those encounters is far beyond the present purpose, some attention to the groups involved and their attitudes and actions toward each other sheds some light on later developments.
The cultures that collided—native, a variety of Europeans, and African—were not merely different from each other. At times it seems that the values of the Europeans were opposite to those of the cultures they encountered, a situation made tragic by the assumption of superiority on the part of Europeans—now generally termed ethnocentrism—and their ability eventually to dominate the hemisphere. It is well known that European ideas concerning monotheistic religion, imperial politics, land ownership, and legitimate labor, for example, were strange to the native inhabitants. Less obvious is that the differences between the cultures included assumptions about women's and men's proper roles and behaviors, creating a situation, in Leila Rupp's words, of “competing sexual and gender systems.”2
Europe before Contact
“The Spain that Christopher Columbus and his crews left behind just before dawn on August 3, 1492, as they sailed forth from Palos and out into the Atlantic, was for most of its people a land of violence, squalor, treachery, and intolerance. In this respect Spain was no different from the rest of Europe.” This assessment, by historian David E. Stannard, may seem harsh, but captures something of the reality of many Europeans of the late 15th century, including those who would sail abroad.3 In a brief consideration of this era, a few points are relevant: Europeans, though very different from and frequently at war with each other, might be considered here as a group, sharing more similarities than any of them shared with natives; among those similarities were concepts of religion, politics, and economics and, especially important, the lack of separation among those arenas; and the roots of those similarities lie in the shared history and developments in Europe in the centuries prior to contact. The major players in the race for trade with “the East”—Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, and English—succeeded in establishing themselves around the world, with all but the Portuguese establishing themselves in the area that became the United States. A full consideration is not possible here, but some general outlines, with emphasis on the English experience, illustrate a context for a lasting concern with sex and gender that reverberated well into the 20th century.
In the quotation above, Stannard was quick to note that his was no rehashing of a “Black Legend” against Spain (in which the Spanish were considered more cruel than other Europeans), but a consideration of a Europe in turmoil and the people it produced. Ironically, this same era of violence and intolerance was also that of a scientific revolution and a Renaissance, and all elements combined in a mix that produced the people and ideas that would pave the way for expansion into the Americas. While the Renaissance and scientific revolution produced the ideals, means, and economics (in the form of budding capitalism), equally important were struggles and concepts inherited from previous centuries.
In particular, the less savory elements of European colonization are usually associated with the religious and political warfare of the Reformation and related conflicts over sin, heresy, and witchcraft. Europeans had been at war with one another for centuries before Martin Luther, and later Jean Calvin, helped bring about the religious dissention of the 16th century called the Protestant Reformation. What is important to remember here is that there were long-standing class divisions and political struggles that also found expression through religious war. Rather than any “separation of church and state” the situation was the opposite: political and religious power were intertwined and the institutions of one were used to support those of the other. For this reason, a sin against God or the church could be viewed as treason, or an act of treachery against the state, and vice versa. While church and state each had their institutions of justice, at times they acted in concert—with the church accusing and trying the person and the state carrying out the sentence—to punish those deemed dangerous to orthodox belief: Catholics punished Protestants, Protestants punished Catholics, and everyone went after heretics and witches.
The dynamics of sex and gender in this era would have effects far beyond the 16th and 17th centuries. It is now well known that the vast majority of those executed as witches in Europe were women, for example, and those accused sometimes did not fit into their assigned gender roles; that is, they might be considered more independent or outspoken than women should be. In addition, there was often a sexual dynamic to Page 16 | Top of Articletheir supposed relationships with Satan and demons. Similarly, there is some evidence to suggest that one attribute associated with heretics was their willingness to engage in sex acts prohibited by orthodox religion. Finally, it is very telling that one consistent accusation launched at outsiders, from ancient times to modern, was the danger posed to children. Both Christians and Jews were accused (by Romans and Christians, respectively) of killing babies, while witches and heretics endured these charges, as well as the more subtle view that they might lure children into their practices. In other words, in the world that produced explorers and colonists, “deviant” sexual practices were linked to people considered dangerous to both church and state, and those dangers extended to influences on the next generations. As we shall see, these deeply rooted ideas may help to explain some of the later attitudes and treatment of GLBT people.
Collision and Dominance
Although European contact with natives often included collaboration, particularly during the earliest contacts, the eventual “victory” of Europeans in establishing lasting colonies all too regularly was coupled with tragic results for non-Europeans. At best, natives faced enforced acculturation or displacement and at worst virtual slavery (though technically outlawed in New Spain and never defined as such in British colonies) and extermination. Africans, of course, met similar fates as captive immigrants. Patterns of conquest and settlement were similar in many ways, and all imperial nations—Spain, France, the Netherlands, and England—left their marks on the Americas. Since our focus is on the later United States, however, the British colonies of the Atlantic seaboard demand particular attention.
As English settlers established colonies in New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the South in the 16th and 17th centuries they naturally relied upon the familiar institutions of family, church, and government. Although these varied in structure, colonists shared basic assumptions about them and their relationships, even if they differed widely on colonial governance or which Christian denomination was the “correct” one. Perhaps the overriding institution of all was patriarchy, or a power structure in which males are dominant over women and children. From the patriarchal family came ideas about a well-ordered society, which often was thought of as a large family. Since patriarchy assumes the dominance of men over women, it works in concert with strict gender rules, rules of masculinity and femininity that prescribe appropriate behavior for each gender.
Legal codes also varied from colony to colony but again there was general agreement on the source of law: the Christian Bible and English common law, the latter developed through centuries of practice and precedent. To the New England Puritans, for example, the very purpose of law and government was to support the establishment of what they considered a godly community. Like nearly all their fellow Europeans, they had no concepts of separating church and state, or of individual rights. Rather, to the Puritans the individual was a servant of God and the community (though men and women might fulfill this purpose in different ways). Family, church, state, and eventually school all were designed to aid in keeping the covenant, a special relationship with God the Puritans believed they possessed. Certainly not all colonists were Puritans, but the reliance on biblical interpretation as a basis for law was not unusual. In particular, buggery was a capital crime among the English and thus in the colonies. Buggery included both sodomy (anal intercourse, whether male–male or male–female) and bestiality (intercourse between a human and animal). Terms and laws varied from colony to colony—in New Haven sex between women was expressly outlawed—but in Page 17 | Top of Articlegeneral were designed to discourage nonreproductive sexual activity. Importantly, what the laws reveal is the attitude that same-sex acts were just that: acts, which were all the more threatening because anyone, not just a specific type of person, could be tempted into engaging in them. This fit the prevailing views that (1) all people were inherently sinful and in need of control in order to preserve the social and moral order, and (2) the role of law was to uphold a Judeo-Christian version of morality. Overall, though, only five people were executed for sodomy during the colonial period. Because conditions changed by the 20th century, those same sodomy laws could be interpreted as directed at specific people rather than acts, and therefore discriminatory. By that time, concepts of rights and identity had developed that would have been completely foreign to the colonists.
The people that English adventurers and later colonists encountered along the eastern coast of North America represented a variety of cultures and languages, as did the natives throughout the interior of the Americas. One constant, however, is the opposing worldview of natives when compared to Europeans, a fact Europeans used to justify their actions over the centuries. At the root of these differences was spirituality. Just as Christianity functioned for Europeans, out of native religions arose concepts of the natural world and the proper roles of all living things. Where Europeans saw a rigid hierarchy, with humans over nature, men over women and children, and God over all, however, the native view professed more interdependence. Humans were as much part of nature as other beings rather than dominant over them. Further, while both systems have creation stories and creator gods, native religions infuse all nature with spirit and are generally polytheistic. These differences fueled an already tense situation in which Europeans’ desire for land and laborers led to their exploitation of both in the Americas. “Property” was among the fundamental rights of Englishmen, for example, and came to define their “freedom” in many ways; it was also the source of goods and people that would define their wealth and status. To natives, land was (and is) sacred ground possessing spiritual qualities in the life supported there.
The conflict over land and resources spawned many others between the cultures. Eventually, any variation from European conceptions might be used to justify exploiting, displacing, and exterminating natives when not causing those actions in the first place. In this light, the natives’ sex and gender systems were but one more reason to consider them inferior people, ripe for conquest. In particular, there is and was a place in most native cultures for “two-spirit” individuals, who today would be called trans-gendered. These are people whose gender appearance and behavior does not match their biological sex, through cross-dressing, performing tasks of the other sex, and/or acting as sexual “wives” or “husbands” to persons of the same sex. Where Europeans saw “devilish” and “sinful” things, natives saw people behaving in accordance with their own inner spiritual natures. At times these berdache, as French explorers called males, were also shamans who commanded respect as having special spiritual powers. Historians disagree over the actual roles and effects of cross-gendered natives, and men in particular, but their very presence indicates a tolerance of sex and gender diversity not found in the colonizers. Equally significant, some historians suggest a relationship between this diversity and the relatively greater power of women in many native societies. That is, respect for feminine power, whether embodied in men or women might enhance a greater respect for diversity generally, as does a belief in many possible spiritual paths. What we do know is that Europeans found intolerable both the power of women (when they recognized it) and the sexual and gender variety they often encountered; more reason to “civilize” or conquer those who allowed them.
The collision of cultures persisted, of course, through the centuries between first contact and 1900, as Euro-Americans settled the interior and Pacific coasts. Only as native populations dwindled from disease, starvation and war, dropping to about a quarter million by 1890, did attitudes regarding both native cultures and sexuality begin to change. Apparently the 18th-century “noble savage” was much less threatening as an ideal than a living being, and so the concept became increasingly attractive as actual natives disappeared. Added to this was the development of anthropology in the 1800s. Although they never escaped the biases of their own cultures, early anthropologists contributed to the attempt to observe and record mores and practices, including those of sex and gender, with less judgement and persecution.
By 1900 some of the changing ideas about sex, gender, and natives were combined in the notoriety of We'wha, a Zuni “two-spirit” person. Born around 1849 in the southwest, We'wha was a biological male who represented a genuine mixture of masculine and feminine as understood by Zunis. Ethnologists James and Matilda Coxe Stevenson “discovered” We'wha and obtained valuable cultural information from him/her. S/he achieved national fame due to a visit to Washington, DC in 1886, where s/he engaged in cultural and political diplomacy with the U.S. government. Before his/her death in 1896, however, We'wha had been arrested by U.S. soldiers in a confrontation over governmental authority on native land.
If information about the sex and gender structures of native societies is scattered, and too heavily based on European reports, such is also the case of the cultures from which Africans were taken and transported to the Americas. Further, the question of what attitudes and practices survived under slavery—sexual or otherwise—has long been controversial. In general, African cultures from which slaves came were similar to those of natives in having a place for some same-sex and/or cross-gender behavior. Sodomy among Africans is reported, for example, and in some cultures sex with an older man might be part of an adolescent male's initiation process. Eventually, though, he would be expected to behave in a “heterosexual” way, as the 20th century would understand it, partnered with a woman and fathering children.
In the colonial era, legal records hint at practices but, as is often the case, reflect only the cultural ideas of the lawmakers. Those records show punishment of the occasional “Negro” for sodomy, for example, but nothing about the concepts of those punished. They also support the theory that a two-caste racial system was developing in North America well before the 19th century, in which only blacks could be enslaved and only whites could possess all the freedoms of citizenship. As part of this racial division, sodomy continued as a capital crime for blacks/slaves but for not whites/free people in some colonial and state legal codes.
For an understanding of later developments in the United States the mythology of African American sexuality created by the enslavers and their descendants is as important as actual practices. Stereotypes emerged early and continued through U.S. history regarding the supposedly greater sexual prowess or desire of both men and women of African descent. These notions clearly served the dominant race by shifting blame to slave women when they bore the masters’ children, and by portraying black men as dangerous to white women. Also, for white racists, their ideas that (a) blacks were more sexual and (b) sex was less rational and more animalistic further supported their foregone conclusion that white dominance over blacks was natural. By the mid-nineteenth century, when slaves numbered about four million and free blacks about 500,000, sex and race were fully intertwined with images of the “exotic” and “forbidden” and all this merged with Victorian sexual reticence into a powerful jumble. This may have Page 19 | Top of Articlehelped create an atmosphere in which same-sex activity also would be associated with blacks, in the same complicated web of attraction/repulsion that characterized white racial thinking of the early 20th-century Jazz Age. Such association also may have contributed to later homophobia among some African Americans as they attempted to offset centuries of using sexual “otherness” against them.
The American Revolution, as the political birth of the United States, also became the touchstone for later generations seeking to define themselves and their country's role in the world. To some degree, the unique nature of that identity—what Americans have told themselves about themselves—may have contributed in surprising ways toward a society seemingly obsessed with proper gender roles as the 19th century became the 20th century.
Undoubtedly an American identity was taking shape long before the shots fired in 1775. This is revealed not only in the Declaration of Independence the following year, but also in the ability of the empire's opponents to rouse and maintain a spirit of rebellion, and eventually to emerge as victors. The ideals stated (if not always obeyed then or later), became the center of the self-image 19th-century Americans would develop and bequeath to their 20th-century descendants. The various ideals, deriving from sources as various as 17th-century English politics, the 18th-century “Age of Reason” in Europe and, very likely, the example of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) League, were codified by the early 19th century and subsequently lumped under the rubric “republican ideology.” In brief, this concerned the special demands placed on citizens of a republic, whose government ideally was to exist only for the protection of “natural rights” (especially life, liberty, and property). From this base came the tenets of “liberalism” as the term was understood throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries: representative, constitutional government, in which the rule of law is supreme; separation and balance of power within a central government; separation of church and state; and “free trade” without government control or interference. In the United States, social order and natural rights have been viewed as equally important, resulting in a tension between them. In very general terms, conservatives have been those concerned more with maintaining order, and liberals more with protecting individual rights. Liberty, defined differently over time and by different people, emerged foremost among those rights, and equality joined them in an uneasy balance by the mid-nineteenth century.
Lincoln, of course, expressed this well in the Gettysburg Address in 1863, when he described the United States as a “nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Just as important are his closing words, in which he expressed the determination that the United States “shall not perish from the earth” since that was exactly the fear of many Americans. Republics, Americans had been taught, did not seem to last very long by historical standards—a couple of hundred years at most—and this raised questions about what caused their demise. Naturally, opinions varied widely, and throughout the 19th century there were repeated debates over the definition of citizenship and, especially, just how much democracy and freedom a republic could withstand before it dissolved into a meaningless heap of individuals. While 19th-century liberals feared the concentration of power into the Page 20 | Top of Articlehands of the few, conservatives feared the potential of “mobocracy” that they believed could arise out of extending citizenship too quickly and broadly. The end result, they believed, was not anarchy, but instead the opposite: the rise of demagogues (one or more) whose only qualification for office was their ability to appeal to “the people.” There was general agreement, however, that a republic depended upon a virtuous citizenry and this originally meant those who were willing to sacrifice something for the greater good; that living in a republic demanded attention to the whole and not just to personal liberty.
During the 19th century this 18th-century concept of virtue gradually merged with one rooted in Judeo-Christian concepts of “morality.” This was not necessarily new in the 19th century, since Puritans, for example, had seen their enterprise as part of God's plan for the world, and Thomas Jefferson had further universalized the colonial rebellion by linking the rights of Englishmen with human rights. However, a new evangelical fervor was infused into Americans during the Second Great Awakening that swept the country in the first half of the 19th century, strengthening the link already forged between Christian and “American” standards of behavior. Popular histories at the time portrayed the United States as the creation of the Christian God (though it was not clear what denomination He was), and the civil life of the nation as the unfolding of His plan—for the United States and the world.
In this way America had a “civil religion” not unlike that of the ancient republics, in which the devotional and the political were often indistinguishable. Not only was God invoked at public gatherings of all kinds, but at those gatherings (like that at Gettysburg in 1863) the sacred and secular were interchangeable. In this atmosphere, and in a manner reminiscent of 16th-century Europe, “sin” could be treasonous, or at least politically suspect; now “good” citizenship virtually required profession of Christianity, and the Protestant variety at that, while the loyalty of all others (including Catholics) would be questioned for decades. As we shall see, even in the more secular 20th century, the vestiges of 19th-century civil religion would be apparent in many ways, from inherited legal codes that outlaw “unchristian” sexual behaviors such as sodomy to the equation of “immoral” with “un-American.”
At the same time, the Second Great Awakening was only one of the many factors that have led historians to label the early 19th century an “age of reform.” Beginning just as the last founders were dying in the 1820s, this era would become the first round of a cycle of significant reform activity that repeats roughly every other generation: 1830s; 1860s (Civil War and Reconstruction, to some, more “revolution” than reform); 1890s–1900s (Progressivism); 1930s (New Deal); 1960s. The causes of any or all of these are never clear, but in the early 19th century, it appears that rapid changes contributed to both the hope and the fear that is revealed in so many projects for the improvement of the country.
Early 19th-century America saw expansion in every sense of the term. The population grew sixfold, from five million in 1800 to over thirty million in 1860, while the Western boundary of the United States shifted to the Pacific Ocean by 1850. New means or routes of transportation and communication—roads, canals, telegraph, and of course the railroad—arose to alter the countryside while the number of newspapers, magazines, and books would explode throughout the century.
As if these were not enough, the political and economical realms experienced their own expansion. Property qualifications for voting were eliminated by 1830, enlarging the base of white male voters age twenty-one and older, and industrial capitalism was rapidly developing from its 18th-century roots in New England. By the end of the Page 21 | Top of Articlecentury, suffrage was extended to all males twenty-one and older, and an urban and industrial economy was well on its way to replacing the agrarian lifestyle of generations. At the least Americans were ambivalent about all this. Some viewed these changes as proof of genuine progress and God's special favor while others worried about their effect on the still new republic. Could a republic be spread over such a large area of land? What qualifications should one have to vote? Can a republic also be industrial and capitalist? If democracy is extended too far, what will assure an ordered society? Many Americans worried over all these questions as the nation grew, contributing to an outburst of reform activity.
Activists called for a wide range of changes to ensure the nation's survival. Abolitionists believed that slavery was the largest stain on the nation, and that God would withdraw His support if it were not eliminated, while other worked against slavery for more political or pragmatic reasons. Temperance advocates and diet reformers worried over the physical and spiritual health of Americans, prisons and hospitals came under scrutiny, and a political movement for women's rights was born. Laborers began to organize, tax-supported public schools arose to train good citizens, and dozens of secular and religious utopian communities came and went, each with its own vision of a better United States.
Complicating this picture further was the uneasy relationship between the states and the federal government. Since the end of the revolution, in fact, Americans had debated that relationship, considering it a vital question as they fashioned constitutions. States’ rights advocates emerged before 1800, fearful of too much centralized authority. Among their descendants were New England Federalists in 1814 and southern Democrats in 1860 who so feared federal power that they advocated secession from the country; the latter group claimed to have accomplished this in forming the Confederacy, accelerating the onset of the Civil War. Although the end of that war may have resolved the issue of leaving the Union, the argument over state versus federal authority, especially in questions of civil rights, only intensified in the 20th century.
These changes and responses affect later GLBT history in several ways. First, it is important to note the apparent anxiety caused by both the promise and the realities of 19th-century American life. The self-imposed pressure on the United States to succeed (by whatever definition) was tremendous, while its self-image as God's chosen nation added an apocalyptic dimension to potential failure. (This helps explain why the Civil War, for example, was viewed by so many Americans as a universal struggle literally of biblical proportions.) As both revivalists and reformers responded to these changes, they would create and adopt techniques eventually used by all movements in U.S. history. Some were organizational: societies founded local and state chapters and some gathered in national meetings; circulars, magazines, and other print media were created; activists (abolitionists especially) endured violence and engaged in ever more drastic actions, from demonstrations (against the return of fugitive slaves) to attempting to start a slave insurrection. All these techniques were adopted in some fashion by later U.S. activists, including GLBT activists.
Equally important are the assumptions and rhetoric of reform inherited as a legacy of the 19th century. At their root most reforms and movements, no matter how secular their cause, have something of revivalism in them. Evangelicals preached their messages in hopes of converting others not just to thinking, but to feeling that their message was right. Their goal was to inspire others to action, internal or external. Paradoxically, despite their message of the inherent sinfulness of humans, the preachers revealed in their expectation of conversions a faith in others’ potential for goodness. Page 22 | Top of ArticleEventually, whether the topic was alcohol, slavery, votes for women, or labor organizing, leaders “preached” their messages in a similar way, with identical hopes of “converting” others to their causes; as “good” people at heart, others surely would see and feel the “rightness” of the cause. This basic faith in Americans’ sense of justice and fairness (as different activists have interpreted those words) would underlie virtually every movement for rights in the United States from this era forward, including that for GLBT rights.
Finally, this era's legacy of fear and anxiety over rapid political and social changes may help to explain Americans’ preoccupation with gender roles then and since, a preoccupation inseparable from later attitudes towards GLBT people. Gender roles cannot be understood, however, without a closer look at the drastic transformation of the economy in the 19th century and its effects throughout society.
The industrial revolution that began in 18th-century England and the United States blossomed fully in the 19th century, affecting all realms of life. Industrialization, capitalism, and urbanization developed hand-in-hand, each supporting and encouraged by the other two. Rural life did not disappear by 1900, of course, but the outlines of an agrarian economy were by then altered forever. It was not that all of America became industrial, in other words, but rather that the nation's markets and producers became interdependent as never before, and increasingly more of those markets were urban and international. By 1900, even farming itself was well on its way to becoming another big business with farmers at the mercy of economic as well as natural forces.
Changes in concepts of labor and the family were as much by-products of industrialism as the type and place of labor performed. In some interpretations, the interdependent family of the self-sufficient farm was gradually replaced by both the idea and reality of the male breadwinner. Families had always been patriarchal, but now the economic role of women and children was transformed from producers to dependents and consumers. As a (predominantly white, urban) middle class developed, women and children, without an economic role, had little if any legal agency as well. When a woman married, in fact, she and her property, including any children she might bear, became her husband's property. Now the home, or “private sphere” was the domain of the middle-class wife, who was expected to provide a haven in which her husband could escape the nasty “public sphere” of business and politics. The sexes were consigned to different social worlds, as were the accompanying genders, or sets of roles and behaviors. That is, masculine gender attributes were to coincide with biological maleness and feminine attributes with femaleness. Sex and gender were supposed to match exactly and the characteristics of each were appropriate (even necessary) to its sphere and complementary of the other in a balanced society. Men needed to be masculine, meaning physically and intellectually strong, aggressive, competitive, and rational. Women were to serve humanity by protecting the feminine virtues of spiritual strength, passivity, cooperation, compassion, and emotion. Barbara Welter summed up these traits in her classic examination of the antebellum “Cult of True Womanhood” as piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.4 Further, when men and women were geographically outside their spheres, they were expected to carry them along, so to speak. Women, of course, left their houses and entered public space, but a “good” woman took along her femininity, just as a man did not leave his masculinity at the office. These gendered codes of behavior, and their rigidity, are key to Page 23 | Top of Articleunderstanding later attitudes and behaviors of both those deemed “homosexual” and their opponents.
The uncompromising nature of gender division in the United States, in fact, was observed as early as the 1830s. In his famous commentary on the United States, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville praised the differences between European and American notions of the “Equality of the Sexes.” “There are people in Europe,” he wrote, “who, confounding together the different characteristics of the sexes, would make man and woman into beings not only equal but alike.” In the United States, however, such was not the case:
The Americans have applied to the sexes the great principle of political economy which governs the manufacturers of our age, by carefully dividing the duties of man from those of woman in order that the great work of society may be the better carried on.
In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways that are always different.5
It is no accident that Tocqueville saw this in the context of democracy, which was seen by many as a social leveler. Equality was feared as much as celebrated, particularly by those who felt that traditional class boundaries, together with the authority of church and divine-right government, had helped stabilize society and prevent chaos. It is possible that gender (and race) “replaced” a rigid class system in a country experiencing the level of political and economic change and dissention—over expansion, slavery, the federal/state relationship, etc.—as did the United States in the early 19th century. Eve Kornfeld nicely summarized the situation in her study of Margaret Fuller:
Paradoxically, their construction of more rigid gender boundaries reconciled many middle-class Americans to the tremendous social changes and fluidity of the early nineteenth century. Developed by and for northern middle-class men and women to anchor their own identities in a world of flux, the doctrine of separate gender spheres also formed their standard for understanding and judging the lives of others. Gender norms allowed an elite threatened by political democratization and economic mobility to distinguish itself from the rest of society. Clearly articulated gender spheres became a mark of worth and civilization in a confusing world.
Thus Indians were perceived as “savage” because of their refusal to abandon communal economies (in which women participated and sometimes dominated) in favor of private property held by individual males… . Similarly, the poor were condemned as indolent, immodest, and immoral for their failure to separate family life from public life and to keep their women and children out of the workplace, off the streets, and in the home. They, too, seemed unwilling or unable to assume the polarized gender roles that many middle-class Americans considered most natural, most civilized, and most their own.6
As Kornfeld suggested, gender cannot be fully separated from the categories of race and class. This situation would not only be inherited by 20th-century Americans, but used by them to continue to marginalize those outside the idealized white, rigidly gendered middle class. Even after the crisis of the Civil War was resolved in favor of the Union, the republic faced the upheaval of Reconstruction and even more rapid industrialization. Masculine qualities were essential, it seemed, to fulfilling the duties of citizen and capitalist, while those feminine were their opposite. For those who believed this, effeminate men and masculine women were both threats in their own ways, undermining in one case and usurping in the other the “normal” arrangements. Page 24 | Top of ArticleThis may help explain the eventual hostility against both groups, which only intensified in the 20th century once sexuality was defined by gender conformity.
Finally, there is another, more positive, side to urban, industrial capitalism and its role in GLBT history. The rapid growth of cities represented significant economic opportunities as well as changes, and increasingly larger populations. People moved from the American countryside and from overseas, finding ways to form or join communities on the one hand or remain anonymous on the other. Both situations contributed to GLBT activity and identity, as described further in Chapter 3.
In addition to the drastic changes created by the creation of the United States and the industrial revolution, in 1865 the end of slavery signaled yet another revolution in American life. Since slavery was an institution that organized legal, economic, and social relations among people, its absence meant a reevaluation and restructuring of all those relations. To further complicate the picture, American slavery had been so intertwined with Anglo-American racism against Africans that the legal end of slavery was only the beginning of potentially new racial relations in the country. The eras known as Reconstruction (1865–1877) and Redemption (1877–1945) represent the efforts toward greater equality and the backlash against those efforts, respectively.
For our purposes, Reconstruction produced both legal and social activism that influenced all subsequent thought and activity around the issue of civil rights. At that time the debate over equality between the races produced questions, arguments, court cases, and three constitutional amendments concerning the rights of U.S. citizens. The 14th Amendment in particular would be used in the 20th century as the basis for new interpretations of individual rights. Less formally but just as influential were the organized movements and variety of methods and arguments African Americans and their allies created to demand enforcement of the new laws and liberties. Although civil rights as a movement is usually associated with the years following World War II, its structure was built on the groundwork laid during Reconstruction. When GLBT people adopted a “minority model” and came to demand equal rights in the 20th century they relied on that foundation, knowingly or not.
ORGANIZING PERSONAL LIVES IN THE 19TH CENTURY
The gender division in the middle class limited the behavior of both men and women in many ways, and there was a general concern with conformity to the norms of the class. Those norms, however, have not been static over time. The strict nature of gender roles, in fact, likely contributed to the “homosocial” worlds of Victorian men and women, making it easier in some ways to develop and maintain varieties of same-sex relationships that only later would be considered abnormal. A consideration of relevant 19th-century ideas and practices highlights some of the changes that distinguish the 20th century from the previous years.
Although it is customary to divide human interaction into public and private spheres (and the Victorians added gender to these, as we have seen) actual life is rarely that tidy. Also, it should be noted that “private” life is usually circumscribed in some ways by institutions of the public arena. Laws, for example, establish legal behavior and/or legal relationships and once that occurs the line between public and private is blurred.
Marriage, when applied to same-sex couples, was among the most controversial topics of the late 20th century. One reason is the combination (and sometimes confusion) of religious or spiritual marriage with legal marriage. In the first, an organized church usually sanctions the union while in the other it is the government (individual states, in the United States) that claims the exclusive right to determine who is “married” and controls the process by issuing licenses. (This control is evident in the usual marriage ceremony when an official, sacred or secular, pronounces the couple married “by the authority vested in me by the state of .”) This combination of religious and legal definitions of marriage in the United States predates the 20th century, and the 19th, and is a result of centuries of specific developments over the course of Western European history. In other words, marriage is “historical” as it is already defined in this volume. While 19th-century marriage closely resembles its earlier and later counterparts, there are also elements particular to those years in American history. Those elements clarify both the changes and the debates of the 20th century by revealing possibilities of the 19th century.
One way to look at 19th-century marriage is to consider it as an economic and social institution as well as a spiritual and legal one. This requires thinking about the reasons for marriage, or what each person expected from it. Given the gendered world of the middle class, marriages might be divided into “his” and “hers.” Men sought “good” wives and potential mothers who would provide a private haven for the family. Women, in the middle class in particular, had little recourse outside marriage to economic survival, and no real legal standing once they were married. This forced them to seek someone who could and would support them and their children. This is not to say that no one married for love in the 19th century. However, there were other, more pressing considerations in that world that could override mere mutual attraction.
Just as marriage is not absolute proof of love, neither is it proof of sexuality. As noted in Chapter 1, it is difficult to discuss sexuality in the 19th century using 20th-century terms, yet the question of whether someone was homosexual or not is often raised. In these cases, being married, and producing children, are often equated with heterosexuality (an assumption exploited by actors and others in the 20th century). The parallel is assuming that homosexuals will be found among only the “old maids” and “confirmed bachelors,” past and present. However (and setting the difficulties of using these terms aside for the moment), neither is necessarily the case. Again, 19th-century marriage was not necessarily defined by love and sexual passion, and the latter was deemed unseemly in the good wife, anyway. Though these may have been present, marriage was (and still is in significant ways) a legal and economic arrangement. Marrying and having children were no more proof of heterosexuality then than in the 20th century, since it was the norm expected of everyone. Equally important, 19th-century ideas regarding love, sex, and friendship allowed some private lives to be organized in ways that accommodated what we would now call homosexual love, with or without its sexual expression.
Friendship, like sex and sexuality, has both universal and historical aspects. We know that friendship has always existed, but its forms and limits can vary according to time and location. It has been argued, for example, that ancient cultures considered Page 26 | Top of Articlefriendship a relationship of equals; since ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans viewed men as superior to women, male–female friendship was an unlikely occurrence. Further (in a very early anticipation of When Harry Met Sally) sexual tension between men and women supposedly complicated their potential friendship, a view reappearing down to the present. Ironically, then, the assumption of opposite-sex attraction contributed to the respect given same-sex friendships in both ancient and modern times, a respect diminishing again only in the 20th century.
In 19th-century America, as in the ancient world, same-sex friendships were often very intense but may or may not have been expressed sexually. Those without a sexual dimension are usually called platonic or homosocial in nature, and those sexual on some level are labeled homoerotic. The terms “romantic” and “passionate” are also used to describe special friendships, especially those of women, and these may be either homosocial or homoerotic. There are difficulties, however, in conveniently labeling any historical same-sex relationships as “sexual” or not. As noted in Chapter 1, there is the question of evidence; not only is there usually a lack of “proof” as usually understood (someone writing about their sexual lives in diaries, letters, etc.), but historians disagree over what constitutes proof. Finally, there is the issue of interpreting past language and action using assumptions of the present, which underlies the debate between essentialists and social constructionists (see Debate, Chapter 1). For these reasons, historians argue over whether the intense friendships between men and between women should be classified as gay or lesbian, respectively.
What we do know is that middle-class Victorian Americans lived in a homosocial world of strict gender roles. Men socialized with men and women with women. Although most men and women married, their most intimate connections may have been with same-sex companions. We also know that this was acceptable as long as husband and wives fulfilled their duties to the family. Some women and men never married, of course, and some women paired up in lifelong partnerships called “Boston marriages.” Undoubtedly some men had similar arrangements but the very lack of a comparable term may indicate they were less accepted. Given the assumption of men's baser, sexual nature, perhaps male partnerships were seen as automatically sexual and hence sinful. At the same time, the culture saw women in contradictory ways, as both dangerously sexual and inherently more innocent in a dualism often called “Madonna/whore” or “Mary/Eve.” When women were idealized as Marys, their “marriages” were more likely seen as “pure,” a view aided by the idea among some that sex without a penis was impossible anyway.
There are numerous examples of women's romantic friendships, beginning with “smashes” among schoolgirls and continuing through life partnerships, despite marriages to men of one or both women. The true extent of these friendships can never be known, but diaries and letters of lesser-known women, combined with the known circumstances of prominent educators, reformers, suffragists, and social workers suggest how common and accepted they were until late in the century. Among the more famous women in these relationships were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (with each other), Anna Howard Shaw, Carrie Chapman Catt, Jane Addams, and “America the Beautiful” author Katharine Lee Bates. Bates, in fact, was a faculty member at Wellesley College, where these friendships were so common they were also known as “Wellesley marriages.” It was only later, though, that the women in these “marriages” would be labeled homosexual or bisexual, an indication of gendered views of “marriage”—if they were between women, sex was not assumed—and changes in thinking by the 20th century.
Despite the culture's general tolerance, not every female passionate friendship ended in a happy Boston marriage. The most notorious example of tragic consequences is the 1892 murder of Freda Ward by Alice Mitchell in Memphis, Tennessee. Both girls were teenagers, met in school, and developed a relationship initially considered typical despite its intensity. They were separated, however, when it was discovered they planned to run away and marry, with Mitchell posing as a male to support Ward. Once apart from Mitchell, Ward wrote to boys and socialized with them. Fearing Ward would marry someone else, Mitchell, age 19, slit 17-year-old Ward's throat, and was ultimately committed to the state mental institution. In 1898, at age 25, Mitchell committed suicide. From her thorough study of the case, Lisa Duggan has noted that the inquiry into Mitchell's sanity was significant in revealing the state of both public and medical thinking at the very time that new sexual categories were emerging (see Constructing the Medical Model).
For men in the 19th century the situation was both similar to and different from that of women. From his study of fiction of the mid-nineteenth century, Robert K. Martin concluded that “a range of possibilities existed that could run from boyhood ‘chums’ to an idealized comradeship of ‘knights-errant’ to an anguished and guilt-ridden projection of the self onto figures of Gothic evil.” Further, he noted the changes occurring in the years he studied that contributed to the mixture of images: “By the 1880s … homosexuality seems to have emerged sufficiently so that it has a public profile (certain authors, certain poems, certain subjects), while in the 1840s it was indistinguishable from other forms of male friendship.”7 For men as well as women these years provided opportunities for a variety of relationships with members of the same sex. These opportunities are apparent in real life as well as novels, and found not only in written sources but also in photos in which men are clearly comfortable with physical expressions of friendship (such as sitting in each others’ laps). Soldiers, sailors, cowboys, miners, and others who found themselves in predominantly male environments have left records of intimate bonding. These occurrences are later called “situational homosexuality,” but the implication that men—or women—resort to members of the same sex for love, sex, and/or companionship only when there are not enough of the opposite sex available is heterosexist. Rather, it is also possible that some people with homoerotic attractions seek out same-sex environments. (Also see Chapter 3 for community formation.) Finally, for men as well as women, passionate friendships can be found among the famous as well as the anonymous. A number of political and literary figures experienced intense male bonding, including Abraham Lincoln (see Chapter 1), Daniel Webster, James H. Hammond, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and, infamously, Walt Whitman. Some friendships, like selected ones of Hammond and Whitman, were erotic by any standards.
The years examined by Martin were also those bisected by the Civil War. Again, various attitudes are evident at that time and accentuated by the intensity of the experience for the soldiers, black and white. As depicted in the film Glory, for example, the “manhood” denied African American men in a racist society could be proven in battle, rendering their participation that much more important to them. Out of the war, too, came the focus on the “strenuous life” for men that, like battle, should render them fit for the rough world of industrial America. At the same time, the circumstances of war provoked expressions of intense emotions, whether directed at males, females, or loss generally. People of this era were more comfortable with men crying, sharing beds, and hugging and kissing each other, an indication of how quickly gender norms can change; once these behaviors were labeled effeminate, however, the label remained in place for the next hundred years.
While both men and women in the middle class could experience romantic friendship, the strict gender code caused some distinctions in perceptions and expectations. First, it has been easier to assume that homoeroticism underlay men's passionate friendships more than women's. Sexual desire was deemed “natural” to men (and often something to be overcome, regardless of the sex of the desired) but denied to any but “loose” or “fallen” women. In a culture and class suspicious of sex generally, male bonding, if assumed to contain sex, would be subjected to greater scrutiny than women's natural affinity for the pure in each other. Second, the cultural tolerance of male romantic same-sex attachments decreased as boys became adults. Men might continue boyhood friendships, but it would have to be alongside marriage, family, and their economic and civil responsibilities. Tellingly, there is no male equivalent to the term “Boston marriage,” indicating not the absence of lifelong male partnerships but only the lack of the kind of cultural “space” for them as there was for those of women.
Women Passing as Men
It is interesting that for 19th-century women passionate friendships were not outside the norm, but passing as men (or attempting to) was. Although later Americans might see cross-gender behavior and same-sex attractions as equally “abnormal,” for Victorians the threat lay not in what women did privately, in their assigned sphere, but publicly. The public life of women, especially in the middle class, was limited to activities appropriate to their gender. Advocates like Catharine Beecher, for example, were able to convince their countrymen that women could be allowed to teach young children since it was a natural extension of their maternal and moral roles. The argument was so successful that women made up the vast majority of all elementary teachers by 1900. For similar reasons reform activities were appropriate (as long as they did not get too radical or include public speaking), and women had always had a place in the arts, though in selected kinds of activities beyond the home circle. After the Civil War women could enter medicine, too, as long as they aspired to nursing and were thus answerable to a male physician. Even when women worked for pay outside the home, wages or salaries were less those paid to men—female teachers generally earned one-third to one-half the compensation of male teachers.
The economic limits placed on women, then, were one motivation for women to pass as men. This meant cutting their hair, wearing male clothing, and adopting mannerisms and anything else that would make them more masculine by their era's standards. Besides employment, the social and geographic mobility allowed men, and just plain adventure, were added attractions. Like many men, some women wanted to sail and see other lands, to fight for their country on the battlefield, or to roam freely without supervision. Finally, there were women clearly attracted to other women, who desired to live as “husbands” to them; perhaps more “male-identified” than their counterparts in Boston marriages, for them passing as men made their lives easier and possibly more fulfilling than trying to conform to feminine behaviors.
One of most fascinating examples of a cross-dressing female comes from the colonial era of Spanish America. Had she lived in the 20th century the Basque adventurer Catalina de Erauso would be called not only a transvestite (cross-dresser) but also transgendered (identifying more completely with the opposite gender) and possibly transsexual (desiring to be the opposite sex and gender). By passing as a male at age fifteen she escaped the convent in which she had been placed as a child and eventually Page 29 | Top of Articlemade her way to New Spain. She was a soldier and clerk in South America until her sex was discovered. Remarkably, however, the pope granted her permission to dress as a man, which she apparently did after returning to the colonies, where she lived until her death around 1650. She continues to defy 20th-century categories of sexuality and gender, suggesting once again the degree to which norms can vary across time, place, class, and other factors.
The wars that marked the birth and division of the United States also had their women in uniform. During the revolutionary era, Deborah Sampson (1760–1827) achieved fame similar to Catalina's in Europe, serving in the Continental Army as Robert Shirtliff. During her eighteen months as a soldier she was wounded in battle, and contracted a fever, after which she was discovered to be female and then honorably discharged. Sampson later married, had three children, and toured the Northeast speaking about her experiences as a soldier. She received pensions from both Massachusetts and the U.S. government, and Congress voted her heirs a pension upon her death. Hundreds of females donned disguises in the Civil War on both sides, for reasons ranging from the desire to be with male loved ones to the impulse to live and act as men, and in ways then barred to women. Sarah Emma Edmonds and Loreta Velazquez left famous memoirs of their exploits posing as male spies, Edmonds for the Union, Velazquez for the Confederacy. Rosetta Wakeman fought with a New York regiment until she died of disease in 1864, at age 21. Her last letter to her family, written from Louisiana two months before her death, reads in part:
Our army made an advance up the river to pleasant hill about 40 miles. There we had a fight… . I was not in the first day's fight but the next day I had to face the enemy bullets with my regiment. I was under fire about four hours and laid on the field of battle all night. There was three wounded in my Co. and one killed… .
I feel thankful to God that he spared my life and I pray to him that he will lead me safe through the field of battle and that I may return safe home.8
Perhaps the most famous cross-dresser of the era was Dr. Mary Walker, a Union surgeon later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Dr. Walker adopted male attire during and after the war, but differed from the passing women. Her intention was not to disguise herself as a man, but to wear male clothing as a woman. After the war and until her death in 1919 she continued cross-dressing, and wrote and lectured on various causes, including women's suffrage.
Women wore not only uniforms but whatever clothing their circumstances deemed “male” as well. There are scattered references to slave women passing as men in order to escape, and many accounts of working-class women, who led colorful lives dressing and/or passing as men in both urban areas and as miners and adventurers on the frontier. As long as there have been gender rules there have been people willing to defy them. For some women of early and Victorian America, living as men, for a few years to a lifetime, allowed them freedom and opportunities normally denied them. The situation would change somewhat in the 20th century, but not so much so quickly that passing women disappear. The presence of women dressed as men in the history of the American West should not be explained away solely as trading femininity for opportunity, though. Historian Peter Boag has noted the tendency of Western narratives to “normalize” those women in just this way and presents two challenges to us: to reconsider them as part of a history of transgenderism and to ask why the possibility “they did not consider themselves women” has been consciously avoided in the record.9
Limits and Laws
Despite the possibilities for same-sex romantic friendships, it would be a mistake to assume that the 19th century was a time of “anything goes” in personal relations. While there was more social space for expressing same-sex eroticism and emotion openly, that space was defined somewhat by such factors as class, race, and age. Power, Page 31 | Top of Articlein other words, has always been a factor in who could do what with whom, and the 19th century was no different.
A case in point is that of Horatio Alger, Jr., whose name became synonymous with the self-help philosophy of the 19th century. In Alger's novels, poor urban youth succeed through a combination of hard work and often the luck of finding an older male sponsor. As historian Leila Rupp noted, “ … Alger glorified the affection and support of older, powerful men for ‘gentle’ boys from the ‘dangerous classes.’”10 In Alger's own life, this support apparently had crossed over into sexual relations, resulting in his 1866 expulsion from his Unitarian ministry in Brewster, Massachusetts. Upon being confronted with charges that he committed with two teenaged boys “deeds that are too revolting to relate” he received them “with apparent calmness of an old offender—and hastily left town on the very next train … ”11 Alger settled in New York City where he worked for several of the newly emerging humanitarian organizations devoted to addressing urban poverty and especially its effects on children. Also at this time he began publishing the novels that would total over one hundred before his 1899 death; his books increased in popularity in the early 1900s and influenced future adolescent series such as those featuring Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. His story reveals something of prevailing attitudes, at least of his community, and the willingness of the community to censure the sexual offender. Importantly, had Alger's partners been older and classified as “men” (a category with no single fixed age in the 19th century) his dalliances may have been tolerated.
The legal situation surrounding same-sex acts had changed only slightly, though enforcement would wane and wax through the century. As colonies became states, sodomy and/or buggery (also called “crimes against nature”) continued to be a crime in most of them, but less and less a capital one (the Carolinas were the last to drop the death penalty for sodomy, after the Civil War). Even Thomas Jefferson, during the Revolution, turned his attention briefly to Virginia's statue and proposed eliminating the death penalty in favor of lesser punishments (a bill not passed at the time):
Whosoever shall be guilty of Rape, Polygamy, or Sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro’ the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least.12
Regardless of penalties, enforcement of sodomy laws was spotty and seemingly targeted more at nonwhite and foreign-born people until the late 19th century. At that time moral/social crusades of various types gained popularity; older laws were used to prosecute offenders and newer ones included oral sex as sodomy and outlawed “disorderly conduct,” “public indecency,” “lewdness,” and so on. In this way, sin and crime, far from being disconnected, were bound as tightly together as they had been when natives first sighted European ships, and sexual “degeneracies” topped the list of illegal acts. It only remained for scientists to help define those acts, associate them with types of people, and add “illness” to the list of synonyms for the newly defined condition of homosexuality.
CONSTRUCTING THE MEDICAL MODEL
By the late 19th-century new professions, and the very idea of the professional, or expert, was taking hold in the western world. In the United States these new experts, who began to make their appearance during the Civil War, reflected the sense that bodies of knowledge were growing too rapidly to be mastered by any one person. Technology Page 32 | Top of Articlewas equated with progress even more than before, and science was in ascendancy. Certainly not everyone became a Darwinist, but capitalists and social theorists alike found something in his ideas to forward their own goals, while more literally minded Christians entered into a long-standing debate with Darwinists over human origins.
Charles Darwin's ideas were imported, of course, as were those of Sigmund Freud and other pioneers of psychology, continuing a long tradition of exchange across the Atlantic. In the meantime, homegrown experts were also tackling illnesses of mind and body. All this combined to begin the long and complicated relationship between medical professionals and GLBT people in the United States.
The United States and Europe in the 1890s
Europe and the United States had already been in their own long and complicated relationship, lasting throughout the entire 19th century. Americans saw Europe as possessing models to be both avoided and emulated. Undemocratic forms of church and state served as constant reminders of the past Americans hoped to escape, while European literature and fine arts seemed to defy the notion that the United States was superior in all things. This ambivalence would continue into the 20th century, even as ideas and people, including those associated with new modes of sexuality, continued to flow in both directions.
Even without crucial developments in GLBT history, the 1890s signaled more than one turning point in the United States. Politically and socially it was the decade of Populism, Progressivism, and Plessy v. Ferguson. By 1894 the Populist Party rose from midwestern discontent to fashion a remarkably successful coalition. Urban Progressives emerged slightly later to address social issues with legal solutions, culminating in four new amendments to the U.S. Constitution (16, 17, 18, and 19) by 1920. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Plessy decision, legalized segregation between blacks and whites, further spurring organized action by African Americans and their allies. In the next two decades the Niagara movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People provided a critique of Booker T. Washington's more conciliatory tone in his famous “Atlanta Address” of 1895. These kinds of differences over strategy—especially whether to “accommodate” those in power and assimilate into the majority rather than embrace and celebrate differences—have divided every movement for equality, including those of GLBT people.
Other events and causes distinguished the 1890s. The relationship between the federal government and Native Americans had further deteriorated after the Civil War due to a combined policy of forced acculturation through the Dawes Severalty Act and armed conflict in the deserts and plains. The year of the Battle at Wounded Knee, 1890, also saw the two major women's suffrage organizations merge into the National American Women's Suffrage Association, though success in the form of a constitutional amendment was still thirty years in the future. Economically, Americans experienced their worst crisis yet in the 1890s. By the end of the decade, though, many were celebrating a new American Empire following victory over Spain and the acquisition of territory in the Caribbean and Pacific. The stage was set for Frederick Jackson Turner to speculate on the meaning of America's frontier history; its supposed “closing” offered imperialists good reason to continue seeking frontiers elsewhere. Turner's speech in 1893 coincided with the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a remarkable event that embodied progress in a city that, ironically, was then and later known for some of urban America's worst features.
The Chicago World's Fair, in fact, embodied many of the contradictory aspects of American culture. One of these was the historical relationship between the United States and Europe, in which Americans felt both superior and inferior to Europeans—superior in politics, business, and technology but inferior in literature and the arts. The Fair's premier engineering “exhibit,” the gigantic Ferris wheel, was designed to outdo the Eiffel Tower, for example, even while much of the Fair's architecture relied heavily on European precedents. This reflected the ongoing dilemma of U.S. architects, writers, and artists who were trying to create “American” works based on highly regarded European models.
In the sciences and social sciences, there was less overt nationalism, perhaps due to the very notion of objectivity built into its disciplines, but their origins and receptions remained products of their time and place. The relatively new sciences of anthropology, sociology, and eugenics, for example, all reflected the 19th-century belief in progress through mastery of knowledge and conquest (or manipulation) of nature; eugenics especially reflected class, race, and imperial biases while touting “improvement” of the human race through genetic control. Of all the 19th-century sciences, psychiatry, psychology, and the even newer sexology had the greatest and most lasting impact on GLBT people. Information in all areas continued to flow in both directions across the Atlantic, with developments in Germany and England of particular significance for GLBT history then and since. It is interesting that some movements, such as Freudian psychology, gained tremendous acceptance in the United States while others, like homosexual emancipation, did not.
The selective nature by which ideas and movements crossed the Atlantic highlights the importance of specific histories, even as nations shared larger trends. France, Italy, and Holland, for example, were among the Western European countries that did not outlaw homosexual acts, and Paris especially featured a thriving subculture of “bohemians” (see Chapter 3). Since social and legal situations are often related, it may be that those areas less affected by Victorianism generally, and especially its specific notions of gendered spheres of influence, were less likely also to involve the state in policing some realms of sexual behavior. These differences reflect too the heightened nationalism which played out on the global stage as competition for colonies in the “New Imperial” age of the era, an age the United States was just entering. By 1914, the tensions produced by the virulent nationalism and revived imperialism of the 19th century resulted in a world war that for many is the dividing line between the Victorian and Modern eras. Many elements define that division and among them are ideas about sex and sexuality. In the decades just preceding World War I Europeans and Americans were developing and exchanging many of those ideas.
In the same year as the World's Fair in Chicago, German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld visited the United States and later included his observations in his Homosexuality in Men and Women (1914). The terms homosexual and heterosexual had been introduced to U.S. readers—at least those of medical journals—only the year before, and “homosexual” is usually dated from the late 1860s, when Hungarian Karl Maria Kertbeny coined it in defense of male love. Hirschfeld, Kertbeny, and other sexologists of the era were working in the specific context of legal repression. This introduces two important themes of 20th-century GLBT life: the stimulus to organize around an identity caused by discrimination, persecution, or worse; and a kind of love/hate relationship Page 34 | Top of Articlebetween GLBT people and professionals in law and medicine (since doctors and lawyers had power to both cause and relieve homophobia).
Hirschfeld, an openly homosexual physician, was probably the most important theorist in an impressive list of German, English, and American doctors. In Germany, a turning point came in 1871 when the newly created Second Empire adopted the Prussian legal code and its paragraph 175, which included homosexual acts between males as “unnatural fornication,” and made them criminal offenses. This law, coupled with the era's faith in science, helped stimulate inquiries into same-sex love, sex, and attraction. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Karl Westphal, and Richard von Krafft-Ebing developed differing but related theories of sexuality, often relying on the gender norms of their day. Westphal's writings of “contrary sexual feeling” that was congenital (or inborn) were influenced by Ulrichs, who further described such feeling as basically natural and healthy. In Ulrichs’ view, occasionally there was a mismatch of “soul” to body; males, whom he called “Urnings,” might have female souls, and vice versa, but to persecute people born thus was “cruel, unjust and senseless.”13 Ulrichs’ work also influenced that of Krafft-Ebing, a neurologist whose exhaustive study of perversions, Psychopathia Sexualis (1886; translated and published in the United States, 1892), represented his conviction that the appropriate response was medical correction rather than punishment.
Hirschfeld in turn rejected theories of mental illness and degeneracy. Like Ulrichs, he promoted a positive view of homosexuality as natural, and further contributed the idea of the “Uranian,” a person of an “intermediate” condition or “third sex.” In 1897 came his Scientific Humanitarian Committee and in 1919 he founded the Institute for Sexual Science. He continued to oppose paragraph 175, and although it was repealed in 1929 under the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), the repeal never took effect and the law remained in some form until 1994. Hirschfeld lived until 1935, having witnessed the Nazis come to power and destroy his work—literally, by burning his library. The German homosexual emancipation movement he helped create, however, had already made its way to the United States, though in fits and starts.
In England too a changing legal climate advanced sexology by stimulating literary and scientific reactions. Sodomy had been a capital offense from the 16th century to 1861, and since then punishable by life imprisonment. In 1886, amid a more general “purity crusade” also underway in the United States, the Labouchére amendment went into effect. It more broadly defined “acts of gross indecency” between two men as criminal, regardless of age or consent. It was this amendment, in turn, that precipitated the era's most sensational English trials, those of Oscar Wilde in 1895. Perhaps the nation's most eminent writer and wit, Wilde was made an example when he was found guilty and sentenced to the maximum penalty of two years hard labor, which he served in full. The trials also popularized the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name,” from a poem by Wilde's companion, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde famously defended that love in an eloquent speech, and in doing so insisted that the “spiritual affection,” between an older and younger man, was historic, noble, and without sexual meaning.
As mentioned above, in late 19th-century England and the United States, the two nations where Victorian ideals predominated, reformers had organized “purity” movements and sought to entrench their morals through law. Concerns ranged from prostitution to the birth rates of various groups (were the “wrong” people breeding too quickly while Anglo-Saxons were engaged in forms of nonreproductive sex?). In England as in Germany, sexologists emerged to challenge negative views of same-sex desire and activity.
Edward Carpenter, John Addington Symonds, and Havelock Ellis were among those in England seeking to understand sexual variation. Carpenter and Symonds both were familiar with Walt Whitman's poetry and affected by it. Both also promoted very positive views of homosexuality—Carpenter contributed to the concept of an “intermediate” sex—in response to the prevailing view even in medicine that it was abnormal and demanded a cure. Symonds, a physician, was especially concerned with revising the law to abolish penalties for homosexual acts. Of the English writers, Ellis was probably more known in the United States, and then only among budding specialists. The second volume in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897–1928) was titled “Sexual Inversion,” a label for the dominant concept of homosexuality through the next hundred years. He contributed also to the debate over the causes of “inversion” and its manifestations. That is, “inverts” were primarily people whose gender behavior did not match their biological sex, but there was debate over two issues: whether the condition was inborn or acquired, and whether same-sex attraction and gender inversion were invariably coupled. Could a “masculine” man desire other men, and if so, did that desire alone make him an invert? Regardless of the individual theory, two results of the discussions, in England, Germany, and the United States, are important. First, what was previously considered a sinful and/or criminal type of behavior was becoming a type of person who required treatment (or not) rather than incarceration. Second, it logically followed, to the new medical professionals, that they were better equipped to address the issue than lawyers, judges, and ministers.
The most influential work on sex and psychology came not from Germany or England, though, but from Vienna. The writings of Sigmund Freud, often distilled and simplified, became immensely popular in 20th-century America. One of the most controversial thinkers of his time, Freud helped end the century-long public silence surrounding sex and suggested that sexual impulses were a normal part of being human. Famous for his ideas of repression and sublimation of sexual feelings, he also proposed the ideas that humans may be born bisexual, but that “normal” development would be in stages—oral, anal, genital—towards sexual maturity. By these theories inverts (whom he defined more by attraction to a same-sex object choice than gender attributes) still fell into the abnormal category, as victims of arrested development. He had doubts about curing homosexuality, however, and possibly doubts about the need to do so. According to a now-famous story told by Freud's student Helene Deutsch to her grandson, Dr. Deutsch had been treating a lesbian patient. “My grandmother was disturbed,” recalled Nicholas Deutsch,
because, although the analysis finally concluded successfully—the woman could deal with various problems in her life—she was still a Lesbian. My grandmother was rather worried about what Freud would say about this turn of events. When she next saw Freud the first thing he said was, “Congratulations on your great success with Miss X.” My grandmother, startled, said, “But she's still a Lesbian.” To which Freud replied, “What does it matter as long as she's happy?”14
As Otto Spengler found in 1906, the idea that one could be well adjusted and be homosexual was not a popular view in the United States, even among professional men. Still, there had been some discussion of sexuality by then, stimulated by the same kind of scientific curiosity and possible legal reform as among the Europeans. Foremost among Americans studying sex were neurologists James G. Kiernan and G. Frank Lydston. Kiernan is credited with the first known use of the term “heterosexual” in the Page 36 | Top of ArticleUnited States in a medical article in 1892. Interestingly, at that time it was meant to suggest what is now called bisexuality, and was a “perversion” due to a focus on pleasure over reproduction. As Jonathan Ned Katz has illustrated in The Invention of Heterosexuality, both homosexuality and heterosexuality were conceived (not “discovered”) relatively recently and out of the specific conditions of the late 19th century. Also, he demonstrates changes in even those concepts, until they more or less solidified into the opposition of heterosexuality-as-normal versus homosexuality-as-abnormal in the early 20th century. Kiernan, Lydston, and other American doctors considered sexual “perversions” to be biological, and, typical in an era concerned with social reform and the progress of (American) civilization, they were as concerned with their effect on American society as well as on the specific individual.
Supposed causes generated possible solutions. People committing homosexual acts continued to be arrested and jailed, but alongside that response came treatments and proposed “cures.” Again, this was the product of a parallel shift in thinking from acts to types of people (perverts, inverts) and the incursion of medicine into the legal realm. The variety of treatments proposed would set the stage for the entire 20th century, and ranged from abstinence and cold baths to castration, from psychoanalysis to surgery (also see Chapter 4 for treatments). What they shared was the general view that some kind of treatment was needed. “Natural,” as in biological, was not necessarily “normal” any more than other inherited diseases of the body or mind. A few sexologists and many self-identified homosexuals continued to argue the normality of same-sex attraction, but were overwhelmed by the immense value eventually placed on heterosexuality as a foundation of a good society.
At the turn of the 20th century, then, there were many views in the Western world about human sexuality and its variations. Sexologists described those who sexually desired people of the same sex and/or whose gender was that of the opposite sex variously as “Uranians,” “deviants,” “variants,” and “inverts,” all the while proposing these as neutral, scientific terms. Most important, their work led to a simple duality in which heterosexual was normal and homosexual abnormal; a third category, bisexual, has had meaning only in the context of these poles, and has since occupied an uneasy place between them.
SEXUAL POLITICS AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY
The 19th century is often associated with “isms”—industrialism, liberalism, romanticism, realism, Darwinism, and so on. By the late 19th century, nationalism, imperialism, and feminism combined to create an explosive situation in the West; certainly the first two are seen as major contributors to World War I, while feminism added another dimension to a volatile situation. “Sexual politics” basically refers to the intersection of public and private worlds—ways one sphere is affected by the other—with the private dominated by concepts of sex and gender that dictated the separation of men and women, male and female.
By the turn of the century, ideas about men and women were a mix of the Victorian and the modern. There was still concern with appropriate behavior for males and females. A “cult of masculinity,” for example, has been linked to imperialism abroad and feminism at home in the Western nations experiencing both. Nations as well as male individuals needed “manly” qualities to assert their authority in the world; feminists were seen as threatening to the social order needed at home by trying to undermine barriers between men and women. As Theodore Roszak put it in his classic Page 37 | Top of Article1969 analysis of responses to feminism, … “the last hundred years stand as the historical crisis of masculine dominance… . The period leading up to 1914,” he wrote,
reads in the history books like one long drunken stag party where boys from every walk of life and every ideological persuasion goad one another on to ever more bizarre professions of toughness, daring, and counterphobic mania—until at last the boasting turns suicidal and these would-be supermen plunge the whole of Western society into the blood bath of world war. Compulsive masculinity is written all over the political style of the period.15
In this context feminism and lesbianism were equally dangerous and at times interchangeable. To many, lesbians were women “acting like men” regardless of their personal lives. Their public demands for the vote, property rights, access to professions and the education necessary for them made them as “manly” as anything they might do with other women in their bedrooms. At the same time, Boston marriages did come under more scrutiny, too. A newer ideal of “companionate marriage” was replacing the older homosocial world of the middle class. While this was a boon to men and women who believed marriage and sexual desire were two sides of a coin, and who wanted to socialize together, it now called romantic friendships into question as immature at best, abnormal and dangerous at worst.
The sexual politics of the era included the rise of professions and specialties within those professions; by definition, the professional was in the public sphere, and therefore male. Education and medicine provide examples of the gendered consolidation of power through the 19th century: nurturing females assisted male professionals (principals, doctors) in appropriately subservient roles. In some areas, such as childbirth, male experts gradually replaced females altogether. Power was involved in the development of the sciences of the mind and of sexual behavior also. In order to wield any power, however, the new doctors had to convince legal and penal officials that sex and gender deviants were ill, not criminal.
The creation of the medical model produced mixed results. For some, the label “homosexual” offered relief in knowing they were not alone and possible association with others like them. While some would accept the supposed need for a cure (later termed “internalized homophobia”), others chose rather to accept their difference and assert its value. The latter was the case especially in Germany, whose emancipationists influenced the first U.S. efforts at homosexual organizing (see Chapter 3).
The relationships among identity, community formation, and movements are contested, as is the idea that defining homosexuality was necessarily a positive development. Those who argue the disadvantages of the new identity focus on two aspects: the stigma attached to it, and the contraction of options for identity and lifestyle compared to those available to those with same-sex affinities in the 19th century. Whatever the intentions of the sexologists, their views entered a context in which gender was still crucial to social order, and deviance therefore threatening. Also due to this context, the medical model did not simply replace constructions of sinful and criminal behavior but was instead added to the mix, and became further justification for arrest and punishment through most of the 20th century.
Finally, it is well to remember that the origins of the medical model are contested and the impact of that model was uneven. Sexologists may have invented new terms but did so with knowledge of people (sometimes themselves) already behaving or identifying in a variety of ways. The people they described might accept those terms or not, when they even knew about them; race, ethnicity, class, and location all might
determine the relationship, if any, with the newer and more limiting categories. Not everyone with same-sex desire identified, then or since, as homosexual. Neither would all homosexuals, then or since, accept the stigma, and certainly not all homosexuals ever joined a movement. As we turn to the 20th century, the variety of experiences possible among what become GLBT Americans remains an important theme.
1. All quotations from Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Meridian, 1992), 381–83.
2. Leila Rupp, A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 14.
3. David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 57.
4. Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860,” American Quarterly 18 (1966): 151–74.
5. All quotations from Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2 (New York: J. & H.G. Langley, 1840; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), 211–12, from the chapter entitled, “How the Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes.”
6. Eve Kornfeld, Margaret Fuller: A Brief Biography with Documents (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997), 8–9.
7. Robert K. Martin, “Knights-Errant and Gothic Seducers: The Representation of Male Friendship in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. (New York: New American Library, 1989), 182, 180–81.
8. Lauren Cook Burgess, ed., An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862–1864 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 71.
9. Peter Boag, “Go West Young Man, Go East Young Woman: Searching for the Trans in Western Gender History,” Western Historical Quarterly 36 (Winter 2005): 477–97; quote p. 486.
10. Rupp, Desired Past, 67.
11. Quoted in Katz, Gay American History, 33.
12. “A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments in Cases Heretofore Capital,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 2, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950), 497.
13. Quoted in Jay Hatheway, The Gilded Age Construction of Modern American Homophobia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 102.
14. Quoted in Katz, Gay American History, 161.
15. Theodore Roszak, “The Hard and the Soft: The Force of Feminism in Modern Times,” in Masculine/Feminine: Readings in Sexual Mythology and the Liberation of Women, ed. Betty Roszak and Theodore Roszak (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 90, 92.
16. Suzanne Pharr, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism (Berkeley, CA: Chardon Press, 1997), 8.
17. Hatheway, Gilded Age Construction of Modern American Homophobia, 11.
Colonial America/Native America
Allen, P.G. (1989). Lesbians in American Indian cultures. In M. Duberman, M. Vicinus, & G. Chauncey, Jr. (Eds.), Hidden from history: Reclaiming the gay and lesbian past (pp. 106–117). New York: New American Library.
Benemann, W. (2006). Male-Male intimacy in early America: Beyond romantic friendships. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press.
Jacobs, S.-E., Thomas, W., & Lang, S. (Eds.). (1997). Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Native Americans/Gay Americans: 1528–1976. (1992). Pt. IV of J.N. Katz, Gay American history: Lesbians and gay men in the U.S.A. (Rev. ed., pp. 281–334). New York: Penguin Meridian.
Roscoe, W. (Ed.). (1988). Living the spirit: A gay American Indian anthology. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Williams, W.L. (1986). The spirit and the flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian culture. Boston: Beacon Press.
19th Century: Same-Sex Relations/Passing Women
Duberman, M. (1989). ‘Writing Bedfellows’ in South Carolina: Historical interpretation and the politics of evidence. In M. Duberman, M. Vicinus, & G. Chauncey, Jr. (Eds.), Hidden from history: Reclaiming the gay and lesbian past (pp. 153–168). New York: New American Library.
Edmonds, S.E. (1999). Memoirs of a soldier, nurse, and spy: A woman's adventures in the union army (1865). DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.
Faderman, L. (1981). Surpassing the love of men: Romantic friendship and love between women from the renaissance to the present. New York: William Morrow.
Faderman, L. (1999). To believe in women: What lesbians have done for America—a history. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hansen, K.V. (1995, August). ‘No Kisses Is Like Youres’: An erotic friendship between two African-American women during the mid-nineteenth century. Gender and History, 7, 153–182.
Johnson, S.L. (2001). Roaring camp: The social world of the California gold rush. New York: W.W. Norton.
Katz, J.N. (2001). Love stories: Sex between men before homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Passing women: 1782–1920. Pt. III of Katz, Gay American history (pp. 209–279).
San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project. (1989). ‘She Even Chewed Tobacco’: A pictorial narrative of passing women in America. In M. Duberman, M. Vicinus, & G. Chauncey, Jr. (Eds.), Hidden from history: Reclaiming the gay and lesbian past (pp. 183–194). New York: New American Library.
Smith-Rosenberg, C. (1975). The female world of love and ritual: Relations between women in nineteenth-century America. Signs, 1, 1–29.
Stepto, M., & Stepto, G. (Trans.). (1996). Lieutenant nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. Boston: Beacon Press.
Velazquez, L.J. (1972). The woman in battle: A narrative of the exploits, adventures, and travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez (1876) (C.J. Worthington, Ed.). New York: Arno Press.
Vicinus, M. (2004). Intimate friends: Women who loved women, 1778–1928. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Young, A.F. (2004). Masquerade: The life and times of Deborah Sampson, continental soldier. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Sexuality: History and Construction
Duggan, L. (2000). Sapphic slashers: Sex, violence, and American modernity. Durham: Duke University Press.
Katz, J.N. (1995). The invention of heterosexuality. New York: Dutton.