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The Ties that Bind

The development of the homosexual persona as a historical narrative of restriction

¯ Stephany Qiouyì Lu∗ May 2, 2009

In the popular mindset, homosexuality has always existed. Surely the Greek practice of pederasty was a homosexual practice—and surely Victorian-age same-sex “friendships” were not friendships, but rather gay and lesbian sexual relationships. However, such attitudes are an inaccurate retroactive labeling of other eras with our modern terms, similar to, perhaps, calling a horse-drawn carriage a “car”. The existence of homosexuality as both a definition of a certain class of sexual acts, as well as a particular persona, has not always existed in American society, and is instead a construct that emerged from the changing structures and power dynamics of American society. Moreover, while the emergence of a gay movement has led to solidarity within the gay community, the “liberation” of the gay identity into the public sphere has proven to be, paradoxically, another restriction and limitation on the full expression and understanding of sexuality and sexual expression.

The development of a homosexual persona
A sexual “predilection”: Sexual acts and identities in the colonial era Religious influence deeply permeated every aspect of Puritan life, and nowhere was this religious influence stronger than in regulation and control of sexuality. The official definition and understanding of sexuality, and in particular the acceptability of certain sexual acts, lay in the hands of the clergy.1 Sodomy, or sexual relations between people of the same sex, was considered as
Contact: sqlu@email.unc.edu Richard Godbeer, “‘The Cry of Sodom:’ Discourse, Intercourse, and Desire in Colonial New England,” William and Mary Quarterly 52 (1995) 259-286. 262
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¯ Stephany Qiouyì Lu

The Ties that Bind

May 2, 2009

“going after strange flesh”2 and heavily condemned by the church as a defilement of one’s body3 ; the clergy derived their power from Biblical passages such as Leviticus 18:224 . Thus, clerical understanding of forms of sexuality that were labeled as deviant was just that—that sodomy, for example, comprised only of individual sexual acts that bore no reflection of a larger sexual identity, but rather were a reflection of the overwhelming power of sin and human corruption.5 Thus, the official standing on acts that would comprise what we think of today as “homosexual” or “gay” was that they were simply acts, and not a manifestation of a larger identity; there was no notion of a homosexual persona, but rather simply the notion of a sinner. The idea of a “gay community” would have been untenable, as, for those in power, there was not even such a thing as a gay person. However, popular understanding and interpretation of sexual acts was different from the clerical understanding of the same.6 Members of the community at large, or laypeople with significantly less political power as clergymen, did notice that certain members of their community had a “predilection” for same-sex relations, even though the official standing on the matter was that these predilections did not exist.7 For members of Nicholas Sension’s Connecticut community, Sension’s persistent pursuit of sexual relations with other men was seen as a distinct, lasting trait of his personality, as indicated by the use of the word “trade”, or way of life, by a fellow community member in reference to Sension’s activities 8 . But how important was Sension’s predilection on his social standing and the way he was perceived by other members of his community? In 1978, California Proposition 6, commonly known as the Briggs Initiative, was introduced to the ballot, and it purported to ban known homosexuals to serve as teachers in California public schools.9 For some Californians in 1978, the very notion of a person being homosexual was enough to stigmatize them from holding positions of power, particularly those that allowed them to have influence over a population considered as impressionable; namely, children.
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Danforth, Cry of Sodom, 3–5, referenced in Godbeer, 263. Godbeer 263–264. 4 “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” English Standard Version. 5 Godbeer 265. 6 Godbeer 272. 7 Godbeer 272. 8 Godbeer 274. 9 California Proposition 6, <http://holmes.uchastings.edu/cgi-bin/starfinder/6091/calprop.txt>

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¯ Stephany Qiouyì Lu

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However, for Puritans in and around 1677 in Sension’s community, the notion of Sension being homosexuality did not bear as much influence on his social standing. Although some men feared Sension—particularly, servants, who were the demographic that Sension targeted—the general attitude towards Sension’s activities was one of tolerance.10 For example, although the colonists were very much aware of Sension’s predilection, he was allowed to continue pursuing men for over thirty years, despite the strict laws against sodomy.11 Sension was a wealthy member of the community and integral to the community; thus, community members discarded concern over his homosexuality in favor of preserving their social structure.12 Rather than lower or remove Sension’s influence and social standing, community members turned a blind eye towards his activities. A similar tolerance was displayed towards Stephen Gorton, who was a pastor of a Baptist church in New London. Although he had sexual relations with other men, his activities were, for the most part, tolerated by his congregation, and his congregation voted to keep him as their pastor.13 Again, keeping the social fabric and structure of the community was more important than punishing members—or, at least, high-profile members—of the community for their predilection towards sodomy. The division between sexual acts and sexual identities in Puritan society of America allowed for a degree of social flexibility for regarding people who would now be labeled as “homosexual”. For one, a person’s social standing could help prevent them from being heavily stigmatized in society, suggesting some freedom in sexuality.

Same-sex friendships: Sexual acts and gender norms during the nineteenth century As religious influence and power began to decline, social influence began to take more precedence in determining what was acceptable and unacceptable. Furthermore, social structure and subsequent social hierarchies and systems of power all clustered around one focal point of Victorian-era America: gender. In Victorian-era America, there was a strict separation of the genders—SmithRosenberg argues that there was a specifically female world in this era comprised of an intricate,
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Godbeer 275. Godbeer 276. 12 Godbeer 276. 13 Godbeer 278.

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¯ Stephany Qiouyì Lu

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close-knit network of women who formed the basis of almost all social interaction in a woman’s life.14 Men and women were very much emotionally estranged because of this strict segregation of gender spheres, causing women and men to turn to friends of the same-sex for the emotional support that we would now see in heterosexual relationships and friendships. By today’s standards, these same-sex friendships are saturated with homoeroticism. Letters exchanged between two female friends would often be laden with passionate, often physical language, and the bonds between the two women would be extremely close, strong, and longlasting.15 Often, these friendships would be exclusive—these bonds generally formed between pairs of women, and one would be loathe to see the other being taken away via marriage. However, these intense friendships were considered solely as friendships and not as homosexual relationships. The vast majority of these women and men in intense same-sex friendships later married, of course to people of the opposite gender. This marriage was simultaneously dreaded yet revered, as they stood as the focal point of a person’s life—marriage became the threshold to adulthood, and these same-sex friendships, in part, functioned as “rehearsals” for marriage, in that they often would allow people to play-act roles of marriage among their friends.16 Despite the intense same-sex friendships during this era, the main focus of men and women’s lives was marriage, indicating, still, the importance of “heterosexual” relationships and marriage. A lessening of the taboo of intermingling of the sexes has led to the vast disintegration of this gender-segregated society and has allowed for the emergence of a society in which these intense friendships and relationships have become confined to be permissible solely in the context of emotional and sexual relationships. Moreover, as sexual identity becomes more of a forefront in American culture, the societal stigma against being labeled as “homosexual” has increased: Whereas, in Victorian society, there was no stigma attached to having an intense same-sex friendships—if anything, it was encouraged—in today’s American society, there is a strong stigma that prevents these same intense same-sex friendships. Integration of the gender spheres has led to a limitation of the expression of friendship and what can be considered as “friendship”.
Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in NineteenthCentury America,” in Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 53-76. 60. 15 Smith-Rosenberg, 73. 16 Sweet, lecture, 19 Mar 2009.
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¯ Stephany Qiouyì Lu

The Ties that Bind

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Solidarity and community: The emergence of a gay subculture in early twentieth-century New York By the early twentieth century, sexual acts and sexual identities began to become conflated with one another. Distinct sexual identities that were based on specific sexual acts, which were conflated with gender performance, began to form, as exemplified by Bowery culture in New York during this time period. First and foremost, for working-class society, it was not sexual acts and sexual identities that were conflated, but rather gender performance and sexual identities that were conflated.17 This conflation is best illustrated by the character of the “fairy”, who would be considered by our terminology to be a “queen”—a effeminate man who would occasionally cross-dress or, more often, take on other physical traits normally ascribed to women, such as having tweezed eyebrows. These men were understood to be inverts, the term at that time for what we would consider “homosexuals”, because they were actually women, or playing the role of women.18 These fairies exemplify the emergence of a specific gay persona based on certain social codes. In Puritanical society, attempts to create a sodomitical network were often called out and halted in their tracks, as exemplified by the case of John Allexander and Thomas Roberts in 1637 Plymouth Colony, who were tried for attempting to recruit other men to participate on sodomy with them.19 However, during the early twentieth century, a number of social markers and codes began to take root—codes that were meant to signal fairies and men adhering to specific gender/sexual roles to one another.20 These traits and signals allowed for the creation of a quasi-community and subculture. The main factor that distinguishes this sexual culture of the early twentieth century from ours is that of the role of gender. That is, in our society, any man who has sex with another man is often considered to be gay, or, at the very least, having committed a gay sexual act. However, the sexual culture of 1900s New York allowed for much more flexibility with regards to which sexual acts were considered as “normal” and thus permissible as not being considered as “gay”. So long
George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994). 48. 18 Chauncey 48. 19 Godbeer 273. 20 Chauncey 56.
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The Ties that Bind

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as men were adhering to a masculine gender role, their sexual relations with other men were not stigmatized.21 Fairies were stigmatized because their behavior transgressed gender lines, and they became the women of the relationship and therefore lost the social power that came with being a man and acting in a masculine manner. In addition to the gender performance of the other man in the relationship, there was also particularly heavy emphasis placed on the gender script of the man who was having sexual relations with the other man. That is, these same-sex sexual acts were often seen as extensions of a man’s inherent desire and aggressiveness in pursuing physical pleasure. The gender of the person providing the pleasure, thus, became irrelevant, and the man playing the dominant role was not stigmatized.22 Because the definition and stigmatization of the “gay” identity during this time period was based primarily on gender performance and not on sexual acts, men were allowed to have greater sexual freedom and greater expression of sexual identity, as they were, for the most part, free to express their sexuality in a multitude of ways, so long as they adhered to a masculine gender performance. The strict heterosexual-homosexual binary had not yet formed, allowing for a wide and diverse range of what we would consider to be homosexual personas.

Sexual psychopaths: The response to emerging homosexuality during the mid- to late-twentieth century By the late twentieth century, the gender binary-based understanding of male sexuality gave way to our modern notion of the heterosexual-homosexual binary; sexual acts had become conflated with sexual identity. The prevalence of this binary and the application of this binary to the male population is best exemplified by the emerging notion of sexual psychopaths. During the late twentieth century, popular concepts of sexual normalcy began to dominate the American landscape; the authority of psychiatrists and psychologists began to augment and become more respected. The government, a major normative force in American society, supported these notions of normalcy by passing laws against “sexual psychopaths” based on psychological theory that
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Chauncey 66 Chauncey 96.

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¯ Stephany Qiouyì Lu

The Ties that Bind

May 2, 2009

were intended to protect women and children.23 The sexual psychopath emerged as a catch-all for American society to project its fears regarding the changing nature of sexuality during this time period.24 This clear division between heterosexual “normality” and homosexual “abnormality” shows the extent to which the heterosexual-homosexual had permeated and taken root in the American psyche. This strong stigma against homosexuality bears resemblance to the Puritan clerical detest of sodomy; however, unlike that Puritan era, the protection of social standing and social significance did not bear as much weight—those who were labeled as homosexuals, then, were left very vulnerable.

Liberation?
The understanding of homosexuality in American society has shifted radically since the conception of American society in the colonial era. During the colonial era, sexual acts were very much separate from the concept of a sexual identity, although people often did acknowledge the presence of a sexual predilection. However, these predilections did not define a person, and a person’s social standing and importance to the community often superseded any “abnormal” predilections that they may have had. Then, gender became conflated with sexuality, until, finally, by the end of the twentieth century, acts became synonymous with identities. Today, many people look back on earlier time periods—the Puritan era and Victorian era in particular—as being sexually restrictive and oppressive. However, were these times actually more sexually, in terms of identity, restrictive than our modern times? It actually appears to be the opposite—that, as time went on, and sexual identities were crystalized and defined in order to be better understood, sexuality actually became more restricted. Victorian same-sex friendships allowed for a wide range of passionate, and sometimes erotic, expression between two people of the same sex, and these relationships were not stigmatized at all. However, our modern notion of sexual “normalcy” has labeled intense same-sex interaction as “abnormal”, homosexual, and therefore undesirable. A phobia of being labeled as homosexual, and therefore abnormal, has led to many people in modern American society to shun deeper, same-sex relations; these relations
Estelle B. Freedman, “Uncontrolled Desires: The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920-1960,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 1 (Jun., 1987), pp. 83-106. 84. 24 Freedman, 100.
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¯ Stephany Qiouyì Lu

The Ties that Bind

May 2, 2009

have instead been focused on having intense relationships between a man and a woman. Moreover, the emergence of a heterosexual-homosexual binary has had a restrictive effect on the spectrum of expression of sexual identity. Today, one is heterosexual or homosexual, and sometimes possibly bisexual; a person is one or the other. This binary has had a polarizing effect on sexual expression—rather than having a wide range of expression and identities, as was prevalent in the Bowery of New York during the early twentieth century, we now have two or three categories of sexual expression, and a pressure to conform to either end of the binary. This polarization proves to be extremely problematic. Real sexual expression does not match up to our ideologies of how sexual expression should work. As we become more and more defined by our sexual acts, the need to form an identity is more pressing, and this need for multiple labels and terms for various identities has had a splintering effect, as shown by the various groups, subgroups, subsubgroups, and further iterations within the LGBTIQ community, whose acronym itself captures this splintering. “Breakthroughs” in understanding sexuality—such as the understanding that sexuality is actually very fluid—seem to be a regression rather than a progression: The understanding of the fluidity of sexuality seems to have been much more prevalent in earlier eras. Ultimately, the development of a gay persona and a gay identity is a historical narrative of restriction. Certainly, there has been progress in attempts to try to destigmatize the persona and the community; however, this stigma itself was put into place largely in part by developments and restrictions that were disseminated shortly after the Cold War. As time passes, more and more restrictions and definitions are placed on what the meaning of the “gay community” or “gay persona” truly entails, and, as these personas become more and more defined, it seems that true freedom in sexual expression becomes more and more elusive.

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