Literary Hub

A Brief History of Queer Language Before Queer Identity

Throughout literary history, queers have had to be smarter than the rest: we’ve had to hide in plain sight.

In a literary canon full of straight, white men, it can be a powerful thing to suggest that some of our most beloved writers may have been queer—and a more powerful thing, still, to have those suggestions be validated by primary texts, to have writers like Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf definitively shown to have had same-sex relationships. In a time when right-wing nationalism is sweeping the globe, the stakes can feel so high when reclaiming long-dead writers as queer, as trans; when saying, we have always been here.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Simultaneously, the Supreme Court has allowed a ban on the service of openly trans military members to go into effect. Reports of transgender people having their passports’ gender markers retroactively revoked are increasing. Devastating immigration policies continue to put LGBTQ+ migrants to the United States at severe risk. Sexual orientation and gender identity continue to be unprotected classes in many states, with a lack of legal recognition for gender expansiveness on nearly every level.

The official history of these institutions is not, and has never been, a history of people who exist on the margins. If you believe your history textbook tells the whole story—if you believe a history of the state—then your history of queer folks is going to be markedly short, especially if you are looking for queer and trans people of color.

We find at least some kind of history of queer folks if we look to art, to literature, to the text and the subtext. There, you find that we are here and have been here and will always be here, motherfucker. But we, inasmuch as there can be a collective “we” across the vast expanse of queer experience, haven’t always used the same language, the same mechanisms of activism and community, the same methodologies of being in the world or even conceiving of the self. Hell, the idea of a self as queer writers today think of it is so definitively post-Enlightenment that to read queer-ish texts from before the year 1700 can feel like a fool’s errand.

It is important, then, for modern queer activists and audiences and people to establish our history, because history is where we find validation, both for its own sake (not alone not alone not alone), but also as defense: it’s a validation against the accusation of us as sin, as aberrant. Queers are one of those few groups on the margins who are—not always, but often—raised in natal families where we are alone in our experience. Alone, to navigate the terrain. Alone, to find our history.

He slept with men on the docks and with fellow celebrity writers; Oscar Wilde, for one (who he called my big strapping boy).

I am first in line when it comes to wanting to claim the dead as One of us! One of us! I left a PhD program after four years but still write about queer literary foremothers like Virginia Woolf and Mary Oliver. I’m never not reading (or viewing) media with a queer lens. But that lens is also informed by the fact that my academic work was grounded in the long 18th century, between 1680 and 1820, when print exploded (due to the printing press) and, consequently, mass media representations of sexuality rose to the fore. The ways we talk about sex and sexuality—let alone sexuality as an identity category—are constantly changing. The definition of queer and queer sexuality has changed dramatically over the last several hundred years; in many ways, it is anachronistic to refer to queer writers as an identity category, for the simple fact that it sexuality was, in many ways, not an identity category even a hundred years ago in the ways it has become an identity category, now, and this impacts how we interact with queer-coded texts from before.

Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer opens with one of the most famous and influential American writers in history: Walt Whitman. I remember reading Whitman as an undergrad. I didn’t get his poetry; I found it boring. I certainly never learned that Whitman was gay, that he hid in plain sight by, really, not hiding at all. Whitman was public about his sexuality, as much as he could be, because he could be: he was white and cis and masculine-presenting, and, like Ryan notes in his book, he had the freedom to move about the world with a rare security and forwardness. He slept with men on the docks and with fellow celebrity writers; Oscar Wilde, for one (who he called my big strapping boy). Consequently, Whitman is the rare writer who has left behind a treasure trove of personal papers (like Wilde) that confirms so much and makes it relatively simple to interpret the queerness of his work.

Ryan’s research breaks open an abundance of language that was used as queers ebbed and flowed throughout queer history. Ryan talks about fairies and inverts and faggots and degenerates, about how words used to describe women or lower-class folks (like “floozy”) were absorbed as gay slurs.

When Brooklyn Was Queer is breathtaking in its scope, in the depth of what Ryan uncovers with limited primary documents—and it affirms that the definitions of sexuality, identity, orientation, and even what we would call queer community are anything but concrete. The beauty of queer experience is in its ability to shift and mutate and absorb and redefine itself, adapting within and against a culture that constantly seeks to root it out.

In History of Sexuality, Foucault famously wrote that sexuality had replaced the soul as the question in which society had become most interested: no longer were we primarily concerned with the state of a person’s eternal wellbeing, but instead with whom and how they preferred to spend their evening hours. (In this, we find something of an answer to why the Church has pursued and hunted and restricted sexuality to the far corners of the earth: it is, simply put, its competition.) This replacing of the soul with sexuality is a 20th century shift, a modern question.

Language was a code; language was a shield.

Language is plastic, and the organization of sexuality—of specific actions and orientations—into labeled buckets, as it were, comes to us post-Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, the emphasis was on labeling people according to their actions, or sins. Sodomite, for example: a man who engaged in sex with another man. Lesbian and tribad and invert and sapphist were all still being used relatively interchangeably at the turn of the twentieth century; in some literature, lesbian was the female equivalent of sodomite, itself a negatively charged legal term.

The word homosexual comes to us around 1869 from Germany, and is often credited by Michel Foucault to Karl Westphal’s paper “Contrary Sexual Feeling.” Westphal, also the person who coined the phrase agoraphobia, among others, categorized the homosexual as a sexually disordered person.

Categories for LGBTQ+ people were principally used as medical categories (to label what was wrong with them) and legal categories (to punish them for their “wrongness”). When a modern audience scoffs at Modernist writer Djuna Barnes—who lived a notoriously open queer life in Greenwich Village in the 1920s—saying “I’m not a lesbian, I just love Thelma,” there is a failure to take into account the world in which she lived.

There is also the category of romantic friendship, particularly called such among women; queer theorist Eve Sedgwick might call it homosociality. This category is so foreign to modern readers that there is difficulty intellectually understanding it: the rigid way of associating and preferring the company of one’s own gender, with physical affection and deep intimacy and love, but without eroticism. How can there be no hint of eroticism? How can homophobia be a foundation of this, particularly among men?

Queer recovery and queer theory—like feminist theory and feminist recovery—applied to historical texts have been vital to finding and unearthing writers whose work has been lost or hidden. But when it comes to queerness, we have to be mindful of language as shifting tectonic plates beneath our feet. Language was a code; language was a shield. We’ve taken advantage of same-sex categories and codes that, in more regimented and traditional societies, were more prevalent—chivalrous codes, romantic friendship that encouraged love letters among women to pass completely normally.

Take the infamous late 18th century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whose intimate friendship with Fanny Blood is often considered an inspiration for the deeply homoerotic relationship between the characters Mary and Ann in Wollstonecraft’s oft-forgotten first novella, Mary: A Fiction. A potentially positive queer reading of Wollstonecraft’s biography is complicated by her critical statements about sodomy in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in part because of a modern insistence on psychic cohesion: the surprise, by modern readers, that such explicit homophobia could exist within work by the same author who also wrote such a queer-friendly text. Scholars have disputed whether Wollstonecraft’s statements in Vindication are, in fact, “homophobic,” considering the very concept of homophobia too modern, too reliant on coherent definitions of sexual identity to be definitively applied.

We live in a time where visibility and legal recognition feels vital.

In our modern era where sexuality is, for many, a distinct psychosexual identity, we run the risk of anachronistic projections on writers and artists from past centuries whose conception of sexuality was different. We can do queer readings of the texts of Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Bronte; the waters get a lot murkier when trying to assess how they considered their own identities. We have always been here is something queers (myself included) often say, but we have not always conceived of ourselves in the same way, using the same language.

A history of queer language is a history of queer people, especially queer Americans. It marks how we understood ourselves, how we were understood by institutions: how we wrote and rewrote ourselves, how we adapted, how we moved through space and absorbed and reconfigured words to suit what we needed. The more I understand the way our words moved like water around stones, the more I understand where we came from.

Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer fills in so many gaps, insisting on a rich and distinct cultural context that refuses the kind of sweeping statements so many internet writers are prone to these days. Reading Ryan’s work, I walked away with a new appreciation for Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, and so many others, for the rich relationship between queer neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, for the fact that no history or identity can be simply condensed within 280 characters.

Still: there is a reason that seminal queer texts from even the early 20th century like EM Forster’s Maurice was published posthumously, that 1952’s The Price of Salt was first published under a pseudonym. To be queer—to be happy and queer, especially—in public came at a cost. To be queer was to be pornographic and obscene, at best; to be illegal and thrown in prison, at worst. Oscar Wilde’s trial for sodomy wasn’t so long ago.

We live in a time where visibility and legal recognition feels vital, just as, privately, I’ve been part of more than one conversation with groups of queers who question whether we want to put our sexual orientation or gender identity on a census, whether we want to publicly register ourselves with the current administration. Why make it any easier for them than it has to be, you know?

To be queer in 2019 is not what it was to be queer in 1969 at Stonewall is not what it was to be queer in 1855, when Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass and wrote,

As if a phantom caress’d me,
I thought I was not alone, walking here by the shore;
But the one I thought was with me, as now I walk by the shore—the one I loved, that caress’d me,
As I lean and look through the glimmering light—that one has utterly disappear’d,
And those appear that are hateful to me, and mock me

Words and identities are shifting; it’s the action, and the legacy of text, that remains. 

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