People with A History: Introduction
There has been a huge outpouring of research on lesbian, gay and
bisexual history, as well as the newer "queer studies",
in the past fifteen years. [See the Bibliographical Guide to Lesbian and Gay History for evidence.] But the field is awash with controversies, controversies,
it must be said, which advance our knowledge on all fronts. The
central questions raised address the nature and possibility of
a "history of homosexuality". Some scholars assert that
"homosexuality" as a discrete identity is a very modern
western construction (although the dates suggested by these scholars
vary considerably). Others argue that there have always been "homosexuals" with some self-awareness, but even they would acknowledge that the large, highly visible and open "gay and lesbian community: of the past few decades is a new development in history.
For those who argue that "gays and lesbians" are a new
creation, the only "gay and lesbian history" that can
really deserve the name is the history of the modern political
and social movement. In practice, however, even those who argue
this way accept that homosexual activity in the past was widespread
(however conceived at the time) and that this past is of interest
to modern lesbians and gays. An analogy may be made here with
"national" histories: there was no "English nation"
before the late middle ages - the idea of "nation" is
itself a late development - and yet the history of both Roman Britannia and Anglo-Saxon and earlier medieval England
is fairly studied as contributing to the history of the modern
English nation. In the same way the lives and activities of those
who were sexually active, or attracted to, members of the same
sex, as well as the attitudes of others towards them may fairly
be said to constitute a history of interest to modern lesbians,
gays and bisexuals.
But what makes up "modern lesbian, gay and bisexual"
[hereafter "LGB"] identity? Clearly "sexuality"
- broadly understood as sexual activity and understandings of
such activity - plays an important part. The history of sexuality,
and especially homosexual activity, is a subject for LGB history.
Some indeed would seek to limit LGB history to a history of sexual
activity. It does not seem accurate, however, to restrict modern
understandings of LGB identities to sex. There are, and have been,
societies in which same-sex sexual activity has been widespread
but has had little or no emotional significance [as with some
modern prison homosexuality]. But a preference for, or orientation
to, homosexual activity is only part of modern LGB identities.
Just as important is an emphasis on emotional contact and partnership
with another person of the same sex [called "homoaffectionalism"
by author Paul Hardman]. Social surveys of modern lesbians and
gays in couples show this clearly: the relationships continue
to be emotionally central to participants even if sexual activity
after a number of years becomes minimal or non-existent. On the
other hand, in modern European and American societies emotionally
intense same-sex relationships -- sometimes called "friendship"
in the past -- have very limited, if any, public role. It is not
uncommon for people to claim that they have "hundreds of
friends", a nonsensical statement if "friend" were
to have its significance in ancient and medieval European discourses.
There is thus some reason to claim the history of friendship is
of special interest to modern LGBs, who preserve with their subcultures
a tradition of intense emotional same-sex friendship, both with
sexual partners and with others.
II: The "History of (Homo-)Sexuality" and "Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual History"
Traditional history has sought to understand past and present
societies with categories of analysis such as politics, thought, economics, and, at least since Karl Marx, class. In the past twenty or so years other categories
of analysis, not considered important in the past, have appeared
as significant to many historians. Perhaps the most important
of these is gender. To these historians Gender is the cultural meaning given to the rather limited facts of biology. One aspect of gender analysis consists
in looking at how "men" and "women", "masculinity"
and "femininity", are understood in a society - and
at how such understandings play out in people's lives. Another,
even newer, aspect of gender analysis looks at issues of sexual
behavior and sexuality.
Although Western medievalist, John Boswell, who legitimated lesbian
and gay history as a field of study in his book Christianity,
Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980) famously advanced
the theory that "Gay people" have always and everywhere
existed, this has not been widely accepted by scholars. Since
1980 a very specific theory the history of sexuality as it applies
to homosexuals, has come to be accepted by the majority of historians
working in the field. The model now is this:
- Homosexual behaviors exist in most societies, and in most,
including European society until about 1700, homosexuality falls
into two main patterns (at least for men.) One pattern is based
on age-dissonant sexual dominance; an older man
(not always very much older by the way) will take a conventionally
"male" role in a sexual relationship with a younger
male, but will not, in doing so, be regarded as any different
from other "male" men in general society. The second
common pattern is based on gender-dissonant sexual
dominance; this means that in a number of societies there were
"biological" males who lived as "non-males"
throughout their lives, and these people can also be the sexual
partners of "male" men without the "men" loosing
any status. The Native American berdache is perhaps the
most famous example of a widespread phenomenon.
- Around 1700, in Western Europe a change took place. A subculture of effeminate men arose in major cities, men who identified themselves
as different. The word "molly" was used in London and
other words elsewhere. Although they were prepared to have sex
with "male" men these "mollies" were also
prepared to have sex with each other. This is not, it seems, common
across various societies. Some historians have called this the
emergence of a "third gender".
- Since "a third gender" is not the model of modern
homosexuality in the West, there has been a question of when the
"modern homosexual" emerged. Many writers have argued
that that the medicalization of homosexuality in the late nineteenth
century resulted in the creation of a new creature - the "modern
homosexual" (and the "modern heterosexual"!) What
distinguishes "homo-" and "heterosexuals"
from earlier models of sexuality is that they are in strict opposition
to each other, and are defined not by gender role, or even sexual
role, but by "sexual orientation". Certainly in Germany
in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century there was
a clear notion of homosexuality, and a political movement based
- A major recent readjustment of this theory, resulting from
the work of George Chauncey in his recent Gay New York.
Chauncey has called into question the last part of the traditional
formulation. He argues that elite terminology and labels (also
known as "medicalization") had no immediate effect on
the mass of working class New Yorkers (with the suggestion that
this was probably true elsewhere.) That although there were, eventually,
some self-identified "queers", until as late 1940 [!]
it was common for working-class men to have "male role"
sex with other men ["fairies"] without in any way feeling
that they were "homosexual". What happened around 1940,
the Chauncey-amended model says is that, first, more and more
of the mass of the population began to identify as "heterosexual"
and see any homosexual behavior as transgressive; and secondly
among self-identified "queers" a shift in desired sexual
partner took place. Previously "queers" had tended to
prefer "male" men but now "queers" began to
prefer other "queers" as sexual partners.
- It was this emergence of a social identity of "homosexual"
which enabled lesbian and gay people to come together, recognize
each other, and begin a social movement for legal, political and
As can be seen current discussion amongst historians focuses on
the history of Western sexuality. It would also seem to imply
that there were no "homosexuals", or "heterosexuals",
in the past nor in other cultures [there was of course always
homo- and heterosexual behavior]. In reading the various texts
from other cultures below, readers might consider if the current
dominant model applies as widely as its proponents suppose?
III: "Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual
History" and Same-Sex Friendship
Lesbian history has long been roiled by the issue of "Romantic
friendship" - with Lillian Faderman's Surpassing the Love
of Men (in which she discusses women's romantic friendships).
The question posed comes down to this "Does it matter whether
they had sex?" It turns out that there is more evidence of
lesbian sex than Faderman may have noticed (see Emma Donahue's
book on Early Modern British Lesbian), but for "gay"
history this has seemed less of a problem: there is no shortage
of evidence about sexual activity between men in the past. If
we want to restrict history for gay people to the history of same
sex activity, we can do so. The result might be a sorry story
of oppression, appearances in court, and Bohemian exceptions,
but it is there.
But is this all there is, or is the wider topic of male-male emotional
relationships also part of "gay" history? This is the
real issue with the whole debate over Boswell's Same Sex Unions.
In fact the issue of "Romantic friendship" between men
is shaping up as a real panel-buster at conferences [perhaps we
need a book "Surpassing the Love of Women" to discuss
it?]. When we ask the question "Does it matter if they were
having sex?", we have to ask "matter to whom [?]?".
And if we have "Romantic Friendship" plus "socially
created kinship" minus-"demonstrated or publically validated
sexual activity", as seems to have been the case with adelphopoiia,
what exactly are we dealing with? Clearly it is not unambiguous
Some writers have argued that "homosociality, homoeroticism,
and homosexuality are analytically distinct". In response,
I would note that almost anything can be distinguished from anything
else, and, to use a medieval terminology, nominalism is surely
more accurate that realism in discussions of human relationships.
If one wanted, I am sure one could make an argument that "homo-whatever"
relationships between modern mid-American white men were qualitatively
distinct from interracial relationships in LA, and then go on
to insist that since they are analytically distinct, they should
not be "confounded" by "gay historians". The
issue, of course, is who makes the distinctions. All sorts of
perspectives can be taken on this: sometimes mere whim is involved,
at other times social power relations are involved. As far as
I am concerned, history is written to be read: it involves narratives
and analyses of current concern. So, why should we choose to argue that "homosociality, homoeroticism, and homosexuality"
are analytically distinct? I think that there is no justification
for distinguishing homoeroticsm and homosexuality as areas of
I am more prepared to listen to arguments about homosociality,
so nicely misrepresented by the word "friendship", as
a necessarily distinct phenomenon, but would ask what is gained
and what is lost making the distinction? Does making the distinction
make the past clearer or more obscure? Or is some sort of analytic
tension required? I would argue that in the modern Western construction
of homosexuality, traditions of romantic friendship have played
crucial roles: in writers such as John Addington Symonds, Walt
Whitman, a real gay tradition of reading Plato's Symposium,
and so forth. In other words, there is a direct and demonstrable
historical appropriation of traditions of romantic friendship
by nineteenth and early twentieth century homosexual men which
precedes "gay" and "gay history".