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Lesbian and Gay Histories: Defining the Fields

Paul Halsall


[not complete]

In all the fuss about "theory" at lesbian and gay [or now "queer"] studies conferences, sometimes amazingly little historical work is discussed. And when it is discussed, the discussion often opens with reference to "theory". All in all this is a very odd situation.

There can, however, be no unified "lesbian and gay history", and this has nothing to do with "theory", shifts in "epistemes", or "social constructions of sexuality". Rather historians addressing lesbian and gay histories have to face the very different histories made possible by the different types of sources which survive from different periods and different areas of the world.

In defining the fields of Lesbian and Gay history, then, some basic historiographical source issues need to be examined.

  • Pre-Modern Historiography [Pre.-circa 1480 in Europe and the Middle East]

    The sources of the histories of pre-modern cultures are largely textual with a limited contribution from artistic products. The texts survive in varying amounts, but not in sufficient quantity to undertake social science type quantification. Texts might be literary, legal, epigraphic, philosophical, theological, or liturgical. Whatever their genre we have them through a process of chance survival, or somewhat "tilted" survival [e.g. the greater ability of religious institutions to preserve documents].

    Such are the texts used by historians of ancient and medieval societies. In some cases the number of texts is so small that the only legitimate comments are about the texts themselves - little else can be said about the society that produced them. Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts about homosexuality fall into this category. To be concrete, a minute number of sources survive from Egypt, for example, which have any relevance to sexuality - and this is from a culture which lasted well over 4000 years. A similar small number of texts from all the variegated Mesopotamian societies is all we have for that equally long-lasting arena of civilzation.

    When we reach "classical antiquity" [Greece and Rome], the situation is rather different. Great number of texts survive from Greco-Roman culture when taken as a whole. But this culture lasted, at least, from Homer to Justinian, a period of fourteen or more centuries. In this perspective, the number of texts remains minute. Furthermore, the texts that do remain survived in such a way that only rarely can we ascertain how widely read they were. Some of the most important literary texts survive, for example, in only one decent manuscript [and these are almost always medieval copies or copies of copies]. Our evidence is at best partial, and worse filtered through the copying preferences of Christian monks. Enough survives, however, that a number of historians have tried to make claims about the place of homosexuality in Greek and Roman society, something which cannot be attempted with Egypt for example.

    TYPICAL SOURCES: literature, legal texts,

  • Early Modern Historiography

    For historians the great division between "medieval" and "modern" is not any event, or shift in consciousness, but a quantitative, and hence qualitative, shift in source availability. From the late 15th century on, in some areas of Europe some municipalities have preserved extensive state archives. Moreover, it is from this point on that records of churches, colleges and other public institutions begin to be preserved in really significant numbers. Finally, printing increases the number of copies of books available, the size and types of audiences, and transforms the whole nature of writing. In short, whereas ancient and medieval history requires in depth analysis of small numbers of disparate sources, modern historians, at least for some areas, have to operate by selecting from the source materials.

    For lesbian and gay history, this shift in source material enables social history in the full sense to be undertaken. For the first time there are records about large percentages of the population, including deviant groups. The sources are not produced by the deviants, and so present.

    At the same time, the older literary/theological/legal sources do not disappear. Indeed printing now makes them survive in greater number.

    TYPICAL SOURCES: literature, legal texts, court records

  • Modern Historiography

    The industrial revolution transformed every society in which it took place. It shifted people from country to town; it abolished the family-based nature of agricultural production; it enabled the creation of enormous cities with ample room for subcultures; and it allowed the creation of a diverse economy. In every respect modern lesbian and gay subcultures depend on the liberation from the agricultural bonds of society.

    Industrial society also led to the creation of more sources about the history of sexuality - sources which not only witnessed what was happening but helped create the culture. Above all the popular press of the modern period- newspapers and magazines - and later the cinema provides both

    In this same period the old discussion about whether "homosexual" or "gay" can be used as categories becomes relatively moot. There were clearly by the end of the 19th century homosexual subcultures in a large number of American and European cities. Much research has continued to focus on literary and legal texts, but even with access to oral accounts, it will probably be possible to do many local social studies for the entire modern period.

    Since the period from circa. 1500 also saw an increasing Western hegemony over the rest of the world, we also see in the modern period sexual and cultural formations specific to the West affecting other areas and cultures. This gay "colonialism" is an incipient area of study.

    TYPICAL SOURCES: literature, legal texts, court records, newspapers, cinema, government records, scientific literature.

  • Oral History

    Few doubt that past century has seen the formation and development - both in the West and in other societies - of the most complex and self-conscious lesbian and gay cultures in history. Although there are ample textual records for the modern period, another source is available - the memories of older lesbian and gay people. Oral history of virtually the entire 20th century is thus still possible. The techniques of oral history are dramatically different from the history of earlier periods (a point which is not always, it seems, evident to oral historians at conferences).

    TYPICAL SOURCES: oral records, newspapers, television.

  • Non-Western Histories

    Historians are now interested in exploring the history of homosexually active people in non-Western societies. Here I wish to note some peculiarities. In some non-literate cultures [or cultures whose literature was destroyed] the preponderant sources available were produced by Western or other external witnesses. Some of these noticed social institutions which are of interest [the "berdache" phenomenon was noted so widely that it demands comment]. Although later native witnesses eventually came forward, just how affected they already were by the external contact remains an open question.

    In the case of China and Japan, the situation is even odder. These were cultures with long literary traditions. But more, they were cultures with extensive governmental record keeping apparatuses. Both countries, moreover, had printing and complex economic/literary cultures. In other words, sources for the history of sexuality should approximate to the sources for the Western "early modern" and "modern" periods as described above. The majority of the scholarship on Chinese and Japanese sexuality in Western languages, however, treats these developed societies as if they were ancient societies. Homosexuality is written about almost exclusively from literary sources. Partly this is a result of limited access to records by Western scholars and limited interest in the subject matter by local scholars. At some point, however, one can expect the government archives of China and Japan to yield real as yet unavailable information. The same processes might be seen in India, in Iran, and in Turkey (which had, in the Ottomans, one of the longest lasting, and most conscientiously record-preserving governments in history).

    In short, non-western historiography of homosexuality [and heterosexuality] is conducted so differently from western historiography as to constitute a distinct category. Let's hope that this changes: that scholars with access to archives will be able to investigate 17th-century Hangzhou just as Guido Ruggiero investigated Renaissance Venice, or 19th-century Calcuttan police reports as well as 18th-Century Paris pederastic cases.

    TYPICAL SOURCES: literature, legal texts
    POTENTIAL SOURCES: court records, newspapers, government records, scientific literature.


©Paul Halsall, 1997