The history of a love that dares speak its name

Edmund White is the author of numerous books, including "Fanny: A Fiction," "Genet: A Biography" and "States of Desire: Travels in Gay America."

Homosexuality is the most obvious and often-practiced erotic alternative to heterosexuality and the one, because it shades into friendship and rivalry, fealty and rebellion, that calls on an extraordinarily wide range of human sentiments and institutions. In the 20th century, it became a theme that haunted most of the best writers of fiction: D.H. Lawrence and Andre Gide, Jean Genet and Marcel Proust, Christopher Isherwood and Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather. Whether thought of as a literary theme or as a social force, homosexuality is the reverse side of the tapestry, and the design can best be made out in its scrambled threads. So interesting is it as a subject for novelists and historians that a library of books about homosexuality has accumulated in the last 25 years. This season more compelling volumes have arrived, deepening our sense of the historical trajectory -- and complications -- of human sexuality, as well as the history of human intolerance.

Homophobia, though gradually receding, can be exacerbated when gays are seen to be invading the basic institutions of our society, including marriage and adoption. Gay marriage will undoubtedly be the most discussed social issue in the upcoming presidential election. The recent decision by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts that denying homosexual couples the right to marriage violates the state constitution has alarmed the Christian right and its conservative allies, among others.

This is hardly surprising since Christianity, it turns out, has long been homosexuality’s great enemy. For the 600 or 700 years before the political triumph of Christianity, the classical world of Greece and Rome honored love between males as being superior to heterosexuality. Indeed (as Louis Crompton points out in his brilliantly researched “Homosexuality and Civilization”) Plutarch made a splash in the 2nd century arguing in the “Eroticus” that conjugal love is preferable to the love of boys.

“Plutarch has from the first presented himself as a defender of conjugal love,” Crompton says. “But his panegyric is in fact a paradox. Since he chooses to draw on episodes from traditional Greek history and myth and the commonplaces of popular opinion, the vast majority of his examples are inevitably homosexual. Whereas the first part of the ‘Eroticus’ accorded equal time to two differing points of view, and though Plutarch will later defend matrimony, heterosexuality assumes a distinctly minor role in the panegyric. So strong was Greek tradition that to reconstruct the idea of love on a primarily heterosexual basis would have been extremely difficult, even at the end of antiquity, and Plutarch does not try. Nothing could be more revealing of the prestige male love still held in late Hellenic culture.”


About 150 years later the “Amores” attributed to Lucian takes up once more the debate between the defenders of women and the defenders of boys. One of the heterosexual apologists argues that homosexuality threatens the survival of the race and is unnatural since it is not to be found in the animal kingdom. The defender of pederasty replies that in the early days of civilization men were struggling to subsist and did not yet know “the proper way to live.” The love of males -- “the privilege only of philosophy” -- is not to be found among other animals because it is a gift of humanity: “Lions do not have such a love, because they are not philosophers either. Bears have no such love, because they are ignorant of the beauty that comes from friendship.” (Interestingly, a book published in 1999, Bruce Bagemihl’s “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity,” establishes that homosexuality is found in more than 450 species.)

The classical preference for pederasty vanished with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity. Suddenly the polite debates about boy love versus heterosexuality were replaced by legal persecutions of homosexuals. Constantine’s own sons passed stringent laws against sodomy, and these were codified and expanded under the Emperor Justinian. As Edward Gibbon wrote in the 18th century, “Justinian declared himself the implacable enemy of unmanly lust and the cruelty of his persecution can scarcely be excused by the purity of his motives.... " Men -- even bishops -- accused of sodomy had their penises removed and were paraded naked in the streets.

In the Middle Ages the punishments were still harsher and more widely applied. Many sodomites were burned to death. In Ireland consent wasn’t even an issue. One Irish penitential decreed: “A small boy misused by an older one, if he is ten years of age, shall fast for a week; if he consents for twenty day.” Under Charlemagne the laws against homosexuality were conflated with those against bestiality (quite literally homosexuality had been “de-humanized”), and a church council at Paris explicitly endorsed capital punishment for homosexuals. The council interpreted the writings of St. Paul as advocating the death penalty -- in the Epistle to the Romans, Paul had found “this infamous crime” to be “worthy of death.”

One of the most fascinating sections in “Homosexuality and Civilization” deals with the Knights Templar. When this order lost its control over the holy city of Jerusalem during the Crusades, it also lost its prestige. King Philip IV of France (“Philip the Fair”), in need of money for his wars, declared the Templars (with little or no evidence) to be sodomites, worshipers of an idol in the form of a cat who enjoined their members to spit on the Holy Cross. Pure invention, but the king rushed the Templars to judgment, exacted confessions from them with torture and, before they could retract, had them burned to death. Once they were out of the way, their property was seized by the crown. Even Dante, whose “Inferno” contains some harsh passages about homosexuals, denounced Philip the Fair in “Purgatorio” for his “cruelty and avarice.”


Crompton, drawing on his immense erudition, contrasts Christianity and its barbaric cruelty toward same-sex love with more benign traditions in Moorish Spain (where virtually all love poems by Jews or Muslims were addressed to boys, despite the strictures of the Koran and of Leviticus). Crompton also discusses the cult of romantic homosexuality in traditional Japan, where relationships of intense loyalty and idealism sprang up between the samurai and their pages. Curiously enough, in late 19th century Japanese literature male homosexuality became associated with uncouth brutes, usually from the rural south, whereas a disposition toward heterosexuality was linked to refinement and even effeminacy.

The violence done to homosexuals in the Christian West made queer individuals go underground and disperse. No wonder gay history has been so hard to recover, though we are witnessing a flourishing of such endeavors. “Toward Stonewall,” by Nicholas C. Edsall, begins with the Enlightenment, overlapping with “Homosexuality and Civilization,” which ends there. Edsall finds that “sodomitical subcultures” began to emerge in northwestern Europe about 1700, accompanied by a corresponding wave of persecution. In Paris, the police attempted to avoid public scandals, especially those involving aristocrats and public figures. (Even well into the 1980s the French had a special police force called “la Mondaine,” which kept tabs on prostitution and protected the reputations of celebrities.)

In 18th century London, there were Societies for the Reformation of Manners, an ad hoc movement for the suppression of bawdyhouses and sodomy as well as obscenity, drunkenness, blasphemy and Sabbath breaking. This kind of highly publicized reform movement, however, encouraged, Edsall says, “blackmail, extortion and bribery, the manufacturing of evidence, and the criminalization of otherwise relatively harmless activities.” In Holland the celebrated tolerance of the country sometimes gave way to savage witch-hunting of homosexuals. In a village near Groningen in September 1731, 24 men and boys were accused (probably falsely) of sodomy and were burned at the stake.

As the 18th century went on, the Enlightenment led to more progressive attitudes, and by the 1730s the systematic persecution of homosexuals had come to an end in most places. (“Only” seven sodomites were burned in Paris during the 18th century.) The leading philosophers took lenient positions. Diderot declared that “nothing that exists can be against nature or outside nature,” though he did not mention sodomy explicitly. Such directness was left to the Marquis de Sade, who declared, “It makes absolutely no difference whether one enjoys a girl or a boy, no inclinations or tastes can exist in us save the ones we have from Nature.” Sade’s argument was the most “evolved” one in any country until the 1960s. In England at the end of the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham argued for a benign neglect of homosexuals on the basis that persecution only hardened these men in the pursuit of their misdeeds -- but even this guarded defense Bentham did not dare to publish (indeed, some of his texts on sodomy were published only in 1978).

In America, perhaps the necessary conditions for a visible homosexual subculture did not come together until after the Civil War, though the police record and news articles from earlier in the 19th century occasionally picked up stories of extortion or prostitution in New York. The first homosexual spokesman in America was Walt Whitman, though he was always careful to cover his traces. The English gay apologist John Addington Symonds revered Whitman, as did Oscar Wilde, who visited Whitman in New Jersey and wrote: “There is no one in the great wide world of America whom I love and honor so much.” In our own times, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg proudly claimed that his lover, Neal Cassady, had slept with Gavin Arthur (President Chester Arthur’s grandson), who had slept with the homosexual advocate from England Edward Carpenter, who had slept with Whitman -- a sort of apostolic succession that Ginsberg felt, half-seriously, legitimized him as a gay bard.

“Toward Stonewall” is a good overview, suitable for courses in queer history. It summarizes the research in other books, such as the first gay liberation movement of the 1910s and ‘20s in Germany or the strenuous persecution by the Nazis (Edsall estimates that 50,000 or 60,000 homosexuals were arrested by the Reich, even if one counts only civilians and German citizens). Many of these men died in concentration camps. Edsall covers the McCarthy years of persecution in America and ends with the beginning of modern gay liberation, the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 in New York, the event that gay marches all over the world commemorate every year.

Gay history, of course, is a fraught subject starting with the very words “gay” and “queer.” Is it historical to talk about a figure like Whitman as “gay,” since he would never have used such a designation for himself nor would he have defended (or known how to defend) an identity based on his sexuality? Jonathan Ned Katz explores this thorny area in “Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality,” in which he demonstrates that in the 19th century the line between a same-sex romantic friendship and an overtly sexual relationship was a wavering one, never firmly drawn. Katz discusses the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and the man with whom he shared a bed for several years, discusses Whitman and gives diary entries from a pre-Civil War Harvard student bewildered by his affection for a classmate.

Michel Foucault famously argued that before the 19th century there may have been the crime of sodomy but not the genus of “sodomite.” (Foucault’s position has been vigorously contested by historians during the last two decades.) Foucault’s argument is the one taken up by social constructionists, who argue that there is virtually no link between the pedophiles of ancient Greece, say, and modern urban male homosexuals. Indeed, as K.J. Dover first proved in his 1978 book “Greek Homosexuality,” every aspect of classical boy-love was regulated, from the ideal ages and age difference of the partners to the sexual practices, to courtship etiquette and the pedagogical purposes of the relationship. And, truth be told, this kind of rapport seems to have almost nothing in common with modern American homosexuality -- with the civil union, say, of two bearded 35-year-old lawyers in San Francisco who have adopted a Korean girl....


If social constructivists insist on discontinuity in “gay history,” the members of the opposite school, the “essentialists,” believe there is an underlying if elusive drive or at least similarity -- biological or situational or even mystical -- that links gay people across the divide of centuries and cultures.

I’m not sure where Graham Robb, the biographer of Balzac and Rimbaud, would place himself on the constructivist-essentialist scale, but in “Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century,” he does a brilliant job in analyzing the prevailing myths about homosexuality in the past that he found:

“Fact: Homosexuals are less likely to marry than heterosexuals.

Theory: Homosexuality is caused by celibacy.

Fact: Homosexual acts were illegal.

Theory: The homosexual is a criminal type.

Fact: Many homosexuals studied by doctors had suffered blackmail, arrest, public mockery and a humiliating medical examination.

Theory: Homosexuals are neurotic.


Fact: Lunatic asylums provided pathologists with large numbers of more or less compliant experimental subjects.

Theory: Homosexuals are insane.”

Robb reminds us that “homosexuality” was a term probably invented in the 1860s by a Hungarian man of letters named Kertbeny in a letter to the sexual theorist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Ulrichs had proposed the term “Uranians” for homosexuals and “Dionians” for heterosexuals. Of course, “heterosexual” was itself a term that acquired its present meaning only in the 20th century; before that it usually meant “oversexed.”

Robb is amusing and informative about the signals gays sent to each other in the 19th century. Not only did they use ordinary words with an unusual emphasis, they also put their fingers under their tailcoats and wagged them (in London) or walked beautifully groomed poodles (lesbians in 19th century Paris). Green had been a gay color for centuries. (I can remember, in high school in the 1950s, how wearing green on Thursdays was tantamount to an open confession.) Once homosexuals were assured of another person’s complicity, they could become transformed completely; I have read that when Tchaikovsky met Saint-Saens, they were both in drag within minutes, dancing about and laughing. By the 1890s New York homosexuals were meeting at such venues as the Golden Rule Pleasure Club and the Cercle Hermaphroditos, which congregated at Paresis Hall in Manhattan.

Robb has read widely and quotes from Byron’s letters and even Smollett’s “Roderick Ransom,” in which Earl Strutwell defends homosexuality with wit and concision. We learn that when Byron was forced to leave England in 1811 because of his homosexual reputation, he was only following the path of William Beckford, an earlier so-called martyr of prejudice, just as late in the 19th century frightened English homosexuals followed Wilde’s path to Paris or Rimbaud’s to Abyssinia. “These new maps of martyrs’ travels,” Robb writes, “were superimposed on older routes with historical and mythological staging-posts: Chaeronea, where the Theban band of soldier-lovers perished; Leucadia, where Sappho jumped to her death; Mount Ida, where Zeus ravished Ganymede.”

Discussions of homosexuality -- at least in histories -- can become a bit abstract, a tendency corrected by “Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography” by John lbson. These portraits, which range from the Civil War to the 1950s, show same-sex friendships in the era before Freud became a household word and Kinsey revealed how extensive homosexual experience truly was in contemporary society. These pictures -- of soldiers, sailors, athletes, fellow students, brothers or just friends -- show men holding hands, linking arms or sitting on each other’s laps. Sometimes they are obviously clowning, but more often they look at each other with deep, unembarrassed affection. A closing section is devoted to pictures and text about Americans, male and female, who fought in World War II.

For many historians the war was the forcing shed of modern homosexual identity. All the necessary conditions for coming out were present. Large groups of young men -- and of young women -- were separated from the opposite sex in barracks. Soldiers and sailors faced imminent death, which promoted a seize-the-day psychology. They were living far from home and the surveillance of old friends and family members. They had a bit of money of their own. On leave they could get drunk and do as they pleased. Allan Berube’s “Coming Out Under Fire” is the definitive book on the subject.

James McCourt’s “Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985" is as idiosyncratic and funny as many of these other studies are impersonal and solemn. McCourt, a novelist known for his hilarious novel about an opera diva, “Mawrdew Czgowchwz,” has assembled interviews with Mae West and Bette Davis, old diaries and news clippings, lists and apothegms -- all to portray a camp sensibility that thrived on indirection and absurdity and that acted, as Susan Sontag once observed, out of affection for failed glamour. Religion, world literature, old movies, opera anecdotes are all discussed here. McCourt’s book is not a study of gay rights and certainly not of gay sexuality; instead it is a sly and resolutely disorganized homage to a vanished sense of humor.

Equally entertaining are the texts anthologized by our best lesbian critic, Terry Castle. In her wonderfully elucidating introduction to “The Literature of Lesbianism,” Castle points out that the word “lesbian” did not refer to love between women before 1890, just as sapphism (to mean unnatural relations between women) did not acquire that acceptation until the same year. And yet writers since the Renaissance had dealt with the subject -- a revival partly because of the rediscovery of classical Roman and Greek authors who wrote books about the love between women (Sappho, Ovid and Juvenal above all).

Castle is careful to point out that the authors she anthologizes are not always or even usually lesbians, though all of them are aware of the idea of sexual love between women. She includes the Italian poet Ariosto because in 1531, when his “Orlando Furioso” first appeared, “lesbianism became openly, if ambivalently, ‘thinkable’ for the first time since late antiquity.” The ways in which writers since then have thought about lesbianism occurred most often in poems, plays and stories about Sappho. Sappho interested Boccaccio and Petrarch in Italy and Louise Labe and Pierre Ronsard in France and, in England, poets from Alexander Pope to Swinburne.

Many of Castle’s writers about lesbians are men, from Theophile Gautier to Henry James, Proust to Ronald Firbank and Hemingway. “In each case,” Castle writes, “there is something emancipating in the encounter between male writer and sapphic Muse -- a sort of mad permission-granting that can sometimes resolve (as in Gautier or Firbank) into profound emotional gratification. She lets him be himself, while also providing that psychic arousal from which a complex human art is born.”

If men have often written their best pages about lesbians, the opposite case also applies. Colette wrote convincingly about homosexual men in “The Pure and the Impure”; Marguerite Yourcenar raised a literary monument in the “Memoirs of Hadrian,” as did Mary Renault in “The Persian Boy.” And the best (and sexiest) story about gay men written in the last two decades, “Brokeback Mountain,” is by Annie Proulx. Even in this odd, unexpected way, it seems, opposites attract -- and pure invention remains at the heart of all creative work. *