Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century by Graham Robb
With the recent brouhaha over the latest actions taken to legalize gay marriage and the conservative Right's counteractions to ban such unions, it's surprising to learn that there were advocates of gay marriage within the church over a hundred years ago.
StrangersPublisher: W.W. Norton
Subtitle: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century
Author: Graham Robb
US publication date: 2004-01
"The Love that dare not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect.... It is in this century misunderstood.
� Oscar Wilde
With the recent brouhaha over the latest actions taken to legalize gay marriage and the conservative Right's counteractions to ban such unions, it's surprising to learn that there were advocates of gay marriage within the church over a hundred years ago -- the only difference now is that the debate has moved to the public sphere. As Graham Robb states in his latest book, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, in the later half of the 1800s, "A surprising number of priests and vicars were prepared to perform marriages for homosexual men or lesbians, and there were also many private arrangements." By no means should this be mistaken for general acceptance of homosexuals during the Victorian era, but instead it helps situate the current debate within a slow, ongoing battle for gay rights in Britain and the United States.
The 20th century gay rights movement officially began with Stonewall, and so oftentimes the public memory of gay culture trails off when looking back to a time when most homosexuals remained closeted, beginning with '50s post-war America and moving backwards. Robb's thoughtful and thorough new book takes the reader back even further. It attempts to fill a blank space in public memory, and acts as reminder that the underpinnings of an unabashedly gay culture were in place a century ago, and that shunned homosexual love affairs have been going on for far longer. While contemporary references to the Victorian era often refer to a more uptight, conservative, and reserved society than the one we live in, the time period is easily dismissed as repressed without looking more deeply into the matter. Strangers helps bridge the past with the present; it marks how far we've come in establishing equal rights for homosexual men and lesbians in some cases, while it shows us that it's really not as far as we'd like to think or would hope to go.
The leaps and bounds forward are the easiest to discern as Robb explores gay culture by examining the British legal system's classification of sodomy during the first half of the 18th century, a crime punishable by execution. While admitting to the shocking nature of the punishment, Robb compares sodomy to other crimes and their respective punishments, a comparison which makes the punishment for sodomy no less regrettable, but which does provide a better context for interpretation. More people were executed for crimes against property in the early 1800s than were executed for sodomy, and minor theft was also punishable by death. Oddly enough, once Britain stopped executing those charged with sodomy in 1835 (almost 30 years before an official ban was imposed), the number of convictions, which were then imposed as a deterrent instead of a death warrant, rose tremendously.
As sodomy lost its status as a major crime, the act soon became a hot topic in the medical fields as a symptom of a larger disease: homosexuality. The medical investigation and treatment of homosexuality became the new cultural watchman as the legal persecution of sodomy declined toward the end of the century. Robb provides a detailed account of the medical investigation and treatment of homosexuality, including lists of common characteristics used to identify homosexuals, such as bone size, body hair, and poor whistling and spitting technique for gay men, and quite the opposite for lesbians who were purportedly skilled whistlers and spitters and frequently indulged in smoking.
Given the seemingly Cro-Magnon ways Victorian doctors classified and attempted to treat homosexuals, contemporary culture may think of itself as progressive in relation to this seemingly close-minded and intolerant past. Robb makes sure that modern society doesn't confuse its difference in perspective with a pat on the back for tolerance and progress. Sodomy was still a crime in 13 states at the time of the book's printing (though these laws were finally deemed unconstitutional by a Supreme Court ruling in late 2003). Barely twenty years have passed since homosexuals had to bear charges that AIDS was a gay disease sent by God as punishment and then spread by their promiscuity. Some conservative Christian groups still try to convert gay men and lesbians to heterosexual lifestyles. Even in researching the book, Robb found libraries that shelved books on homosexuality separately from the general collections, and other obstacles such as a photography archive that denied the use of an image for the book because of its topic.
Strangers is a sprawling investigation that takes on a great deal of history by discussing a century of homosexual love. Although it's packed with interesting facts -- from the well-known Oscar Wilde trial to lesser known to the prosecution of two cross-dressing thespians, nee Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, who were arrested when one used the women's room, a myriad of love affairs, both illicit and accepted; the advancements made by the original father of gay rights, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and his coming-out speech to the Congress of German Jurists in 1867-- it suffers by trying to paint too large a picture and account for too diverse a culture for too large a timeframe. Admittedly, the numerous details and varied experiences underscore the loosely defined boundaries of gay culture at the time. In trying to categorize the gay clubs and organizations that existed, Robb admits, "The sheer variety of these groups and coteries makes it hard to identify anything like a 'gay community.'" Thus, deciphering the veiled accounts of homosexual sexual encounters and the ambiguous language used between gay lovers in clandestine letters requires a great deal of reading between the lines and sleuthing.
It's fitting, then that Strangers ends by connecting the development of detective fiction to the era's gay culture, and traces the genre from its first gay detectives, Poe's Auguste Dupin and Balzac's Vautrin, on through Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson. Robb's point is simple -- that homosexuals, at the time, were forced to create two-sided identities, one that was accepted within society, and another cloaked, yet readily apparent and open to those who knew how read the clues: "Both Poe and Balzac saw in the city-dwelling homosexual the much older [homosexual] type: the berdache or the shaman, the sexually ambiguous warlock (or sherlock?) who knows how to live on the night-side of life and to decipher its secrets." And so, the private eye becomes a figure of empowerment, a respected and resilient homosexual character from the 19th century, a gay man accepted within the larger community, outsmarting his contemporaries and not compromising his sexuality. Only camouflaging it a bit.