Reviews

Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century by Graham Robb

Anne K. Yoder

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.


Strangers

Publisher: W.W. Norton
Length: 352
Subtitle: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century
Price: $26.95
Author: Graham Robb
US publication date: 2004-01
Amazon
"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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
By the Book

Jack Halberstam's 'Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire' (excerpt)

Enjoy this excerpt of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, wherein Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the 20th century.

Jack Halberstam
Music

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.

Music

Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.

Music

L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.

Books

Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.

Music

Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.

Music

Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.

Music

West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".

Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".

Music

Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.

Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.