The roots of gay oppression

Norah Carlin

This article was originally published in International Socialism Journal 42, London, Spring 1989


Marxists, since Marx and Engels themselves, have always believed that only a socialist revolution could open the way to sexual freedom and equality. Engels, whatever the limitations of his own nineteenth-century understanding of sexuality, went right to the heart of the matter in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State:

What we can conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up … When these people are in the world they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the sexual practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.1

But to argue for the Marxist position we need more than an eloquent and inspiring formula for the future. In order to show that a free, unalienated future of love and pleasure in personal relations possible, we need to understand the past and present of human sexuality and its relationship to the economic and social foundations of society. We need to show effectively that all human sexual practice is socially constructed. Only the human body is a set of given, natural facts (though even such facts may be altered in quite fundamental ways by human technology such as contraception). Its use and abuse, its feelings and desires, are matters of consciousness. This is what distinguishes human beings from other species. As Marx wrote in 1844:

The animal is immediately one with its vital activity. It is not distinct from it. They are identical. Human beings make their vital activity itself into an object of their will and consciousness …. it is this and this alone that makes humanity a species-being.2

Nothing shows more than the history of same-sex relations that the most basic human activities, including sexuality, are collectively constructed in human society.

The starting point has to be a recognition that ‘homosexuality’ is an idea that did not exist before the late nineteenth century. The word was first used in 1869 by a Hungarian doctor, Benkert; its use slowly spread, and it came to be the word most widely used for the ideas also represented from the late 1860s by ‘contrary sexual feeling’, ‘sexual inversion’ and ‘Uranian love’.3 The appearance of not just one but several new words in this period shows that a new attitude was developing towards men and women who were now seen as having a condition, or a certain type of personality. Previously, there had been words for sexual acts between members of the same sex which were regarded as sinful or criminal, but the idea that these acts are the sign of an underlying condition or type of person emerged clearly only in this period.

We must also recognise that the invention of this concept was a labelling process which imposed a certain role on gay men and women. People identified by this label are expected to fulfil society’s definition by acting consistently, dressing in certain ways, frequenting certain places, encountering certain problems all identified with homosexuals. (The fact that human beings do not fall neatly into the opposing categories of homosexual and heterosexual is then accounted for by new labels such as ‘pseudohomosexuality’ and ‘bisexuality’.) As Mary McIntosh described this process in 1968:

In the first place, it helps to provide a clear-cut, publicised and recognisable threshold between permissible and impermissible behaviour … Second, the labelling serves to segregate the deviant from others … The creation of a specialised, despised and punished role of homosexual keeps the bulk of society pure in rather the same way that the similar treatment of some kinds of criminals helps keep the rest of society law-abiding.4

Why should such a concept have emerged in the late nineteenth century? The causes of the change lie in the new social realities of industrial capitalism, as Jeffrey Weeks has argued:

These developments can only be properly understood as part of the restructuring of the family and sexual relations consequent upon the triumph of urbanisation and industrial capitalism. The result of these changes was the emergence in a recognisably modern form of concepts and meanings which are now commonplaces of public discussion: for example, the notion of ‘the housewife’, ‘the prostitute’, ‘the child’; and the concept of ‘the homosexual’… For it is within the specific context of the capitalist family that modern concepts of homosexuality have developed…5

But if we recognise that the late nineteenth century was an important moment of transition, that does not mean we can ignore what came before. On the one hand, some historians have argued that there is plenty of evidence for gay oppression, and even ‘gay genocide’ before the late nineteenth century, and that the problem is not related to capitalist society but to a unique western cultural tradition of homophobia, unknown in the rest of the world.6 This is related to the assertion that there have always been gay people in a constant proportion to the population as a whole, and that there have been – perhaps continuously – gay subcultures hidden from history by the necessity for secrecy.7

On the other hand, some writers have insisted on a complete break between the recent past and the rest of history, and see no point at all in linking same-sex relations in primitive and non-western societies to the modern question of gay oppression. They assert that, in effect, homosexuality did not exist until it was invented in the late nineteenth century.8

This problem cannot be resolved without understanding that the question of same-sex relations has to be seen as linked to the history of the family. In all class societies, the family has been the principal institution by which sexual conformity has been enforced. But the form of the family and its relationship to production have changed quite radically from one mode of production to another, and the nineteenth century saw an important transformation in this field. The coming of industrial capitalist society brought a whole complex of changes – the separation of home from work, the polarisation of gender roles for women and men in these ‘separate spheres’, and a new stress on individuality and personal life – which opened up a new era in attitudes to sexuality.

In order to understand why these changes should include a new definition of same-sex relations, and how this was different from previous attitudes and practices, it is necessary to look at the previous history of sexuality and the family, to combat various myths about the past, and to see how societies construct and reconstruct sexuality according to their material, social and political conditions.

Primitive and non-western societies

It is a central and important fact that same-sex relations have been accepted in most societies other than western, Christian ones. But it is not enough simply to state and illustrate this fact, since this is often used to argue that western attitudes are uniquely irrational and arbitrary, and must be explained by some peculiar cultural trait having nothing to do with class or capitalism.

It is necessary, therefore, to look briefly at some of these other societies, and especially at ways in which same-sex relations have been fitted in so that they do not threaten established institutions such as the family or the sexual division of labour. If we think of human societies as lying along a scale, on which same-sex relations are fitted into socially approved roles at one end and cast out or punished at the other, then we can see that western society lies at one end of this scale, but it is not different in nature from the others. All approved sexual practices tend to maintain the existing society with its specific mode of production and its arrangements for reproduction. This approach should be more revealing than the usual one, which is to approach other societies with a fixed concept of homosexuality and ask whether ‘it’ is tolerated.

The first human societies were gathering and hunting societies, and we can see from a few which have still practised this way of life in modern times that in such societies there are few controls of any kind on sexual activity (other than incest). But even in these societies, all sexual relations take place within a framework of customs and roles developed in order to secure co-operation and survival. There is usually some division of labour between women and men, though it is often overlapping and far from rigid.9

We can also see that with the appearance of primitive cultivation and the keeping of flocks and herds, family and kinship institutions became more elaborate and complex. Warfare developed as communities competed for territory or stock, and gender roles became more distinct. Such societies were still for a long time egalitarian societies, with no class divisions, very fluid forms of marriage and parenting, and equality between women and men. In such societies, two main forms of recognised same-sex relations have been found. The first form is cross-gender transfer, an arrangement found among the native peoples of North America into modern times and known to western anthropologists by the name of berdache. Among the western tribes, a young man or woman who showed a preference for the tasks or pursuits of the opposite sex could, with the approval of the elders, be initiated into that gender role and become for all social and economic purposes a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ according to their acquired gender rather than their biological sex. They could take a husband or wife in this role, and have sexual relations without social disapproval. Further east, among the Plains peoples, cross-gender transfer for women disappeared as the trade in buffalo skins transformed these tribes’ economy, the nature of marriage and the position of women within them, but the male berdache was still known in the nineteenth century.10

The second form of widely recognised same-sex relations in such societies is sex between men and boys, seen as a stage in the development of a normal male, who will grow up, marry and have children, and take boy lovers in his turn without incurring any social disapproval. Among the Azande of southern Sudan in recent times, men married ‘boy wives’ during their years in the young men’s military and labour companies, from their late teens to their late twenties, then left to found families of their own. Men of the Aranda in central Australia who had been initiated as adults but not yet found a permitted woman to marry took ten-to twelve-year-old boy partners. Among the Siwan of the Libyan desert, sex between men and boys was regarded as normal, but between males of the same age-group it was not. There are many more examples of this pattern in pre-class societies.

In class societies, with male domination and the family based on private property, the same basic forms of same-sex relations – crossgender role-playing and sex between men and boys – have been very widespread. But as the status of women has fallen the meaning of such relationships is often quite different in class societies. The ‘effeminate’ man may be held in much lower esteem where the status of women is low, while relations between men and boys are sometimes seen as superior to heterosexual relations for men because they are more ‘manly’. In Japan, during the feudal period from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, relations between male samurai warriors were part of the chivalric code of bushido. 12

Sexual relations between women have often been socially approved in class societies, so long as they do not interfere with the established institutions of marriage and the family. This may be particularly true in societies practising polygamy or something similar. For example, in a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Love for the Perfumed Companion, a woman is forced to marry but persuades her husband to take her lover as a concubine, and they all live happily ever after.13 But because literature has in most societies been virtually a male monopoly, it is rare to find first-hand evidence, or indeed any evidence at all, of sexual relations between women. This means that any history of same-sex relations is bound to appear unbalanced. The most important point to remember is that the absence of evidence for something is not evidence for the absence of it, and that what is far more significant is the absence of evidence, almost everywhere, for the punishment of such relations.

Not all societies have provided a place for same-sex relations, however. Male homosexual acts were punished severely in ancient Babylon under the Assyrians, in Persia (where the Zoroastrian religion was vehemently opposed to such behaviour) and in Peru under the Aztecs.14 These widely separated and very different cultures have something in common, which might repay further investigation: in all of them, alien warrior aristocracies ruled over peasant peoples who may have been, at some stage crucial to the formation of attitudes, reluctant to co-operate by reproducing themselves.

Between the fitting in and casting out of same-sex relations, some societies have had a marked double standard, especially as between the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ roles in anal intercourse between men. In ancient Egypt, for example, the passive role seems to have been regarded as so degrading that it was something to be inflicted on a defeated enemy. The point here is that the ancient Egyptians were not prejudiced against ‘homosexuality’, for in their view there was nothing at all abnormal about a man who desired to perform anal’ penetration with another man (and as far as heterosexual relations were concerned, the Egyptians had no prejudice against this form of intercourse), only about a man who could desire to have it done to him. 15

This brief survey should confirm the fact that there is nothing unusual, abnormal or unnatural in same-sex relations, but it also suggests that there have been many ways of constructing such relations socially and ideologically, just as there have been many different forms of marriage and other sexual relations between men and women.

The conceptual problems arising out of such surveys may be illustrated by the question of bisexuality. Many present-day gays and lesbians would say that what has been tolerated in so many societies has not been homosexuality but bisexuality. Fitting in with established institutions has normally meant that few individuals were able to escape the obligations of marriage and family life, however distasteful or uninteresting they may have found the sexual side of these. Undoubtedly, in the past much heterosexual behaviour was engaged in for social reasons rather than from reasons of what we call desire or affection. (This was probably true of large numbers of exclusively heterosexual individuals in the past also, however.) Under such pressures, many people who practised a bisexual lifestyle must have been ‘really’ exclusively gay, they may say.

The other side of the coin is that in societies where same-sex relations are regarded as normal and acceptable as part of a bisexual lifestyle or as a stage in the normal life cycle, it becomes impossible, because it is unnecessary, to distinguish the ‘straight’ portion of the population.

The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from such dilemmas is that self-definition is a component of society and history just as much as technology or art or politics. The modern concept of homosexuality, which includes the idea of exclusive sexual preference, has to be a point we have in view in this discussion, but it cannot be the starting point.

Ancient Greece and Rome

In classical Greece (c. 500-300 BC), the sexual desire of adult men for boys was considered totally natural and quite compatible with marriage and having children. Some writers heaped the highest praise on such relationships, claiming that the ‘heavenly love’ between members of the male sex was far superior to the ‘common love’ between men and women. All were agreed that no stigma was attached to a grown man who fell in love with, courted and sought the sexual favours of a beautiful boy. The erotic vase paintings of the sixth and fifth centuries BC depict relations between men and boys in which ‘every point on a scale of intimacy is fully represented’. Many famous literary and political figures, as well as gods and heroes in mythology, were lovers of boys, and a pair of male lovers were credited with the final overthrow of tyranny in Athens. In Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical dialogue in the form of a dinner-party conversation about love, one character explains that

the reason why such love, together with love of intellectual and physical achievement, is condemned by the Persians is to be found in the absolute nature of their empire; it does not suit the interest of the government that a generous spirit and strong friendships and attachments should spring up among their subjects. 17

Yet the classical Greek attitude, especially at Athens (the politically and culturally dominant state) was fundamentally ambiguous and apparently contradictory. As the same character went on to say, after describing the high esteem in which lovers of boys were held at Athens:

But when we reflect that the boys who inspire this passion are placed by their fathers in the charge of tutors, with the injunction not to allow them to have any communication with their lovers, and that a boy who is involved in such communication is teased by his contemporaries and friends.. . we are led to the opposite conclusion, and infer that such love is reckoned among us to be highly disgraceful.18

Another puzzling piece of evidence is the speech of Aiskhines, a politician who in about 346 BC prosecuted his enemy Timarkhos in an attempt to have him disqualified from citizenship for the affairs he had had with men when he was a boy. It has been, argued that this shows that the Greeks really disapproved of relations between men and boys, at least outside the intellectually and socially elitist circle of Socrates, Plato and their friends.19

It seems clear, however, that what the Greeks disapproved of was the alleged willingness of a free-born boy like Timarkhos to submit to a man in return for money or presents. Willing submission was regarded as dishonourable for a future citizen, and the behaviour of loose’ boys, who invited lovers by speaking seductively, making eyes and crossing their legs was complained of in comedy. It is notable in this connection that Timarkhos’s later promiscuity in sexual relations with women was brought in as evidence of his bad character, whereas nowadays such evidence would be more likely to be taken as proving he was not ‘homosexual’.20 A double standard was at work here, in which the active, adult lover was approved, but the position of a boy as sex-object was regarded as at best ambiguous and at worst disgraceful. Several explanations of this have been offered.

To take these from the sex act outwards, as it were, we can begin with the question of child abuse: was this what the Greeks were really practising? Historians are usually vague about this, as the Greeks themselves were seldom explicit about the age at which a boy became a legitimate sex partner for an adult male, though most agreed that the first beard marked the beginning of the end of this phase. Athens had a law prohibiting men from hanging around the gymnasium where well-off citizen boys had their education, and the speaker in the Symposium already quoted says that men should be prohibited by law from forming connections with young boys, and that honourable lovers ‘do not fall in love with mere boys, but wait until the age at which they begin to show some intelligence, that is to say, until they are near growing a beard.’21 There were strict laws against forced sex with boys or women of any age, whether they were slave or free, and against procuring free boys or women for sexual use by men.22 All this would suggest that the Greeks were very anxious to distinguish between permitted relationships and abusive ones, and were not unaware of the dangers.

The whole relationship was a formal game of courtship with its inbuilt considerations of propriety and reputation, involving older teenage boys and adult men. Both visual art and literature suggest that a ‘good’ boy was not sexually aroused by his male lover, but granted his favours out of respect and friendship, while a courteous lover did not press for more than the boy was willing to give. Kenneth Dover has shown that anal intercourse was probably seen as one of the problems: it is never depicted between men and boys in the vase paintings, and the adult lover’s desire for it was seen as problematic for the boy. This was not because of any generalised disgust: women are frequently depicted having anal intercourse with men, and it seems to have been practised as a contraceptive precaution by courtesans and their lovers.23 An explanation frequently offered for the practice of sexual relations between men and boys is the low position of women, who had no political rights even in the most democratic states and were kept more or less in purdah at Athens. Sexual submission, in a male, was seen as lowering him to the status of a woman: Aiskhines accused Timarkhos of being unworthy of citizenship because he had ‘committed a woman’s transgressions’.24 But this leaves unanswered the question of why women’s status was so low in the first place.

Some explanations attempt to go further by pointing to ancient Greek militarism as an explanation both for the low position of women and for the practice of sex between men and boys. War was a constant feature of relations between states, and the development of constitutional states began with the military classification of citizens. Such explanations also associate these relations especially with the remnants of tribal institutions to be found in Sparta, where the men of fighting age led a largely separate life in their own mess-houses.

In fact, we know very little about Spartan institutions and customs, since most of our information comes from Athens and its allies. Xenophon, writing in the fourth century BC, said that men courted boys and women also openly courted girls in Sparta, but he insisted that the sexual consummation of relations between men and boys was forbidden. Five hundred years later, a Roman writer of paradoxes claimed that sexual relations between men and boys had been compulsory at Sparta, and this remains a popular myth though it seems unlikely, on this evidence, to be true. The legend of the Thebans’ crack regiment of pairs of male lovers is also hard to confirm, but at least it was widely believed in classical Athens.25

I believe that the explanation of classical Greek sexuality lies elsewhere, in the part that slavery played in production and exploitation in that society. The crucial attitude to be explained is the dissociation of sexuality from procreation. In a famous speech distinguishing between the status of a citizen’s wife and that of other women, the orator Demosthenes said, ‘We keep mistresses for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.’26 More remarkably, when Xenophon came to describe the functions of a wife for the instruction of husbands, he dealt in detail with everything from whether a wife should wear makeup, through how to manage slaves and why pots and pans are best arranged in rational order, except childbearing and rearing, which are taken for granted as matters of no interest.27

The material foundations for this attitude were twofold. First, by far the greatest part of the exploitable labour force, from which all rich and even moderately prosperous citizens derived their wealth, was not born in Greece but purchased from outside in the form of slaves. Slave breeding was rare in the classical period, being regarded as a privilege granted by masters to only a few carefully selected couples rather than as part of the cycle of production and reproduction.28 Secondly, the free, slave-owning family did not aim to produce many children: abortion, infanticide and contraception were all freely discussed and often recommended, perhaps because this was a poor society with a very low technical level and the amount of surplus available to a slave owning household would be very slight if subdivided between too many heirs.

The dissociation of sexuality from reproduction was one feature of Greek society allowing sex between males to be especially approved of. The low status of women – surely also a result of the low priority placed on childbearing – was a reason for hedging these relations round with qualifications and prohibitions. It was important that free males, even in their youth, should not overstep the boundaries between such widely separated gender roles and so ‘lower’ themselves to the position of women as Timarkhos was alleged to have done.

The political disparity between citizens and non-citizens, maintained by every Greek state in the classical period, opened the way to other, more oppressive versions of the relationship between men and boys, which were present but rarely referred to. Aiskhines hinted at them when he appealed to the citizen jury in the case of Timarkhos:

Tell those who are hunters of such young men as are easily caught to turn to foreign visitors or resident foreigners, so that they may not be denied the pursuit of their inclinations and you may come to no harm.30

The choice of boys as sex objects by the adult male ‘hunters’ is not condemned, so long as they choose the kind they are looking for from outside the free citizen community. There may have been male brothels, staffed by slaves, run by the state in Athens; it was later said that one of Socrates’ friends, Phaedo, was purchased for him out of such a ‘public house’.31

In Rome, the double standard in male sexual relations was reinforced as conquest increased the number of slaves and the wealth and luxury of the ruling class.32 The Romans had a very strong bias against a free adult male playing a sexually and socially passive role, but no prejudice against the active role, or against using male slaves as passive sex objects. Both male and female slaves were completely at their masters’ disposal, both for their own use and for hiring out to others. Artemidorus explained that to have sex with a wife, a mistress or a male or female slave was normal, but

to let oneself be buggered by one’s own slave is not right. It is an assault on one’s person and leads to one being despised by one’s slave;

while a lawyer of the early imperial period gave the expert opinion that

sexual service is an offence for the freeborn, a necessity for the slave, and a duty for the freedman.

This situation allowed rich Roman men a very wide choice of sex objects, of which they enthusiastically availed themselves. Sexual preferences were seen as part of the rich variety of life: as a frequently quoted anonymous poet put it: ‘one person likes one, another likes the other; I like both.’ Yet this was a situation of the most gross and callous inequality in sexual relations, a society in which rape of a male or female slave did not count as rape at all because the slave’s consent was legally irrelevant. Most of the Roman laws which have been thought at times to have penalised homosexuality were in fact concerned with protecting free persons of both sexes, and drawing the line between slave and free.33

The Romans did have sexual prohibitions in some ways almost as strong as ours. There was one kind of sex which they thought absolutely revolting and the people who indulged in it quite scandalously decadent. This was – most surprisingly to modern liberated lovers! – oral sex, which they seem to have thought of as submissive on the part of both partners.34

We have no direct evidence for sexual relations between women later than the poems of Sappho, who lived around 600 BC on the island of Lesbos and whose writings survive only in fragments. Many of these poems were quite clearly addressed to other women in the language of love, such as men would use to boys, and it is clear that love between women was publicly acceptable in her time and on the island of Lesbos where she lived. But the details of Sappho’s life and loves – the young women’s academy and the heterosexual relationships which she is also said to have had – are mostly later fancies invented to fill the gaps.35 For male Greek writers sex between women seems to have been an unmentionable subject, and after Sappho we know of no Greek women who wrote on the subject. Roman male writers were less restrained, and there are a few prurient descriptions of aggressively masculine and sexual women, usually prostitutes; but it would be naïve to take such writings at face value.

It has sometimes been suggested that the prevalence of male homosexual behaviour at Rome was due to the ‘emancipation’ of Roman women compared with Greek women. Not only is this inaccurate as to the facts about Roman women – for they still had no political rights and were far from liberated, though they were not confined to the home like Greek women – it is also inconsistent with explaining the prevalence of such relations in ancient Greece by the extreme subordination of women!

In both Greece and Rome, attitudes to sexuality were shaped by the importance of slavery as the main source of ruling class wealth, and also, especially in Rome, by the availability of slaves as a form of luxury consumption. It was only when slavery as a mode of production was permanently superseded by serfdom in the late Roman empire that a new outlook on sexuality came to prominence.

The part played by Christianity

The rise of new attitudes to sexuality in late antiquity coincided with the rise of Christianity, which spread slowly at first, was for a long time unpopular and occasionally persecuted, but was patronised by a number of fourth-century emperors and became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 394 AD It is a common assumption that Christianity caused the changes in sexual attitudes, but it would be more accurate to say that it was changes in circumstances and attitudes in the late Roman Empire that shaped Christianity and enabled it to become dominant.

Before examining the real causes of these changes, we must ask what messages the texts of ancient Judaism and Christianity actually carried on the subject of same-sex relations. The survival of both religions for so many centuries into modern times has meant that they are believed to be fixed, unchanging systems of thought, and statements from one period of their history are taken to be applicable to the whole. Christianity especially, since it has been the official religion in Western society for such a long period of time, has adapted its ideas to the needs of the ruling class in each epoch of its history; if it had been inflexible it would not still be with us today.

Since at least the 1950s, a number of gay Christians and others who have supported law reform or opposed homophobia have tried to defend Christianity against the charge that it has been the chief agency of gay oppression. ‘Blame society, not religion,’ has been their theme.36 In re-examining ancient Judaism and early Christianity, they have shown that some texts have been misread for hundreds of years. But they have perhaps succeeded in throwing up a protective fog of scholarly discussion around the whole subject, obscuring the very real and effective role that religious ideology has played in sexual repression. Christianity as a system of ideas and a set of institutions was fully implicated in sexual repression from ancient times onwards. What we must ask is, what kind of sexual repression and why?

Even when the distortions introduced by modern translations are discarded from the Old Testament (a collection of Jewish texts accepted by Christians as the word of god), it becomes clear that ancient Judaism did forbid sexual relations between men, at least from the sixth century BC when the book of Leviticus (c.20, v.13) prescribed the death penalty. But this ‘Holiness Code’ of Leviticus threatened the death penalty for a number of other sexual offences, including adultery, sex with animals, and intercourse between adults who are related by marriage (e.g. father-in-law and daughter-in-law), and no one seems to know how frequently any of these threats were carried out.

The biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, around which much later homophobia has centred, does not refer to same-sex relations, and was never interpreted as referring to them until about the beginning of the Christian era. Several Jewish as well as Christian writers around that time show a special hostility to relations between men and boys. This may be explained partly by the hostility of Jewish nationalists to Greek imperialist attempts to Hellenise Israel (which were supported by many of the native aristocracy) in the two previous centuries. The attempts of some of the aristocracy to abandon the custom of circumcision in order to participate in Greek-style athletics had incurred the bitter hostility of the fanatical Hasidim, and the Jewish victory in winning independence from the Greeks in 164 BC had reinforced this backlash against the physical and sexual characteristics of Greek culture.37

The subject of same-sex relations is never mentioned in the Gospels, which purport to be the sayings of Jesus, but the condemnation is clear in the writings of Paul of Tarsus, a leader of the Christians after the death of Jesus who had a fairly negative view of sexual relations of any kind. Paul condemned both the active and the passive role in male relations, and probably condemned sex between women also (though theologians have argued about this for at least 1500 years).38 As with Judaism, the prohibition was there from ancient times, but it received no particular stress, and as several commentators have pointed out, many other things were also prohibited, including defrauding the poor of their wages, to which Christians have paid little or no attention in history.

From the third century of the Christian era, however, Christians became more vociferous in their condemnation of other people’s sexual habits. Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo all contributed to the pool of virulent abuse from which later Christian homophobes have drawn their raw material.39 But it is important to realise that this was not at all the same thing as modern homophobia. Specific acts of sinful indulgence were condemned, not a particular type of person, and the target of Christian abuse was much broader, since it consisted of all non-procreative sex, not just same-sex relations. All the major Christian philosophers of this period argued that ‘to have sex for any purpose other than to produce children is to violate nature’ (Clement of Alexandria). Anal and oral sex between men and women, contraception and abortion were all condemned in this doctrine of ‘natural’ sex as an ideal pattern or order decreed by god.40

As an idea, this notion of ‘natural sex’ goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers, and it is true that Christianity owes as much to this tradition as to its Jewish origins.41 But there is a world of difference between the counsels of perfection offered to the Greek ruling elite and the determination of Christians to impose exclusively procreative sex on the whole population of the Roman Empire. Christian ideas borrowed from previous traditions, but essentially they developed along the lines they did because they appeared to offer an explanation and a solution for the problems of the late Roman Empire – a solution that helped to bring about its transformation rather than its salvation.

In the third century AD the Roman Empire encountered its first wave of disasters. Military defeat, plague and famine rocked the state, producing political instability and population decline. In an attempt to remedy this situation, the morality laws of the Emperor Augustus, originally designed to force the old Roman city aristocracy to marry and have legitimate children, were revived and extended to penalise sex between men, which is by definition a relationship outside procreative marriage.42 The new policies adopted by the Emperor Diocletian (284-305) included the fixing of peasants, artisans and officials in hereditary posts with the obligation to reproduce themselves; but because of the heavy taxation and compulsory contributions involved, these laws only led to the flight of more peasants from the land and artisans from the towns. Slave breeding, which had become increasingly common as the period of conquest came to an end, was incapable of providing the labour force needed to keep the ruling class going because it was too costly in relation to the amount of surplus it could generate at existing levels of technology.43 By the early fifth century the Empire was approaching collapse, crumbling from within and assailed by barbarians from without; and it was in these circumstances that Christianity finally triumphed as the official and exclusive religion.

The Roman cities crumbled and their way of life disappeared, as the economic and political focus shifted to the great rural estates and the men who owned them, and the barbarian invasions set the seal on these changes. But this was not a collapse of ‘civilisation’ in the broader sense: it was not a regression to a more primitive state of society. It was absolutely necessary for further material progress that the countryside should be relieved of the crushing burden of supporting cities in the ancient style on the basis of a very poor technology and extremely heavy taxation. In the countryside of the later Roman Empire a new mode of production had been in the process of formation. This was based on serfdom, a set of social and economic relations whose basic principle was that the agricultural producers were bound to the soil of the landlords and obliged to reproduce themselves. In return for significantly reduced economic burdens (compared with the former free peasantry crushed by taxation) and the right to marry and have children (compared with slaves in the early period of the Empire), the cultivators became serfs, and landlord-serf relations became the basis of the successor states which followed the collapse of the western Roman empire in the late fifth century, and of the feudal regimes which followed in the middle ages.44

Christianity did not, of course, offer itself as a programme of economic and social reform. It appeared as a spiritual, theological and magical explanation in which the Roman gods had failed to save the state but the Christian god would save the individual who supported the Christian clergy, took regular part in their rituals, and observed the rules of Christian sexual morality. The masses as well as the rulers turned to it as the ‘heart in a heartless world’, and a way of making sense of the world they lived in.

Many historians have described Christianity as having a totally negative attitude to sex and even to procreation. The fathers of the church regarded celibacy as a state superior to marriage, as Paul of Tarsus had done. Some, like Augustine, thought that the time was approaching when Heaven would be full up with the souls of the dead and there was not much need for further human procreation. But for the mass of the people, as opposed to the clerical elite, the Christian message clearly stressed the importance of marriage and the duty of husband and wife to fulfil their sexual obligations and produce children. Compared with other sects around at the time, such as the Manicheans who were against procreative sex more than any other kind (because it trapped the pure good of spirit in the pure evil of flesh), Christianity developed an ideology of sexuality which fitted the rise of serfdom and the landlord class.45

No other society seems to have gone through such a dramatic transition from a system that relied so crucially on non-native labour to one that needed to restore the native population so much. Thus Christian attitudes to non-procreative sex are not an irrational factor, no wild card in the historical pack, but the product of specific material conditions in the epoch that brought it to power. These attitudes were not homophobic in the modern sense, and those who have looked for condemnations of same-sex relations in the civil and ecclesiastical legislation of the late Roman Empire and early middle ages have often assumed that such vague phrases as ‘those who copulate against reason’ in the Canon of Ancyra (314) are evasive terms for homosexuality.46 In reality, the blanket condemnation of all non-procreative sex was serious and deliberate, and it was not until modern times that any western Christian society had laws distinguishing same-sex relations from other transgressions under this heading.

Medieval relaxation and backlash

The Germanic and other invasions which brought down the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD threw Europe into social and political turmoil, and at the same time reinforced the advance towards a feudal society. The Catholic Church continued to wield great political and economic power, providing an international organisation and a common culture in a Europe now split into a number of kingdoms and principalities.

With the exception of the Visigoths in Spain, the new ‘barbarian’ rulers were not hostile to same-sex relations. In some of their warrior cultures relations between boys and men had been approved of, though there is also some evidence that the accusation of sexual passivity was considered highly insulting to a man. When they adopted Christianity, these peoples formally accepted the Christian prohibition of same-sex relations along with other kinds of ‘unnatural’ sex, but they do not seem to have taken it too seriously in practice.47 During the period known to history as the ‘dark ages’ in western Europe (c. 500-800 AD), there was violence and cruelty in plenty, but no persecution of same-sex relations that we know of, and this relaxation lasted for several centuries more.

From about the eighth century to the twelfth in western Europe, there was no particular hostility to same-sex relations. The word ‘sodomy’ was used to describe a variety of sexual sins: the ninth-century missionary Boniface defined ‘sodomitical lust’ as including incest, promiscuity, adultery, and sex with nuns because these were all examples of inappropriate vessels for the deposit of semen. Sex between men, and often between women, was mentioned in most of the penitentials which prescribed penances to be imposed on the contrite sinner in confession, but these penances were not heavy compared with those for other sins. The penitentials dealt with hundreds of detailed sins, giving sliding scales of penance according to seriousness and frequency, and John Boswell points to some in which anal intercourse was penalised less heavily than heterosexual adultery. In one penitential, sex acts other than anal intercourse between men seem to be ‘about as serious as challenging a friend to a drinking bout or having intercourse with one’s own spouse within two weeks of receiving communion.’48

Throughout these centuries, warm and even passionate relations between persons of the same sex flourished in monasteries and nunneries, where a small educated elite familiar with ancient literature took up and imitated its homoerotic forms in letters and poems addressed to one another. Modern Catholic historians have argued that such expressions of passion were purely spiritual.49 The point here is not just that much of the literature is too explicitly physical for this to be credible, but that no society which had a clear idea and a horror of homosexuality, as these have developed in modern society, would have tolerated such goings-on.

For example, Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx’s love for his monks, especially the young and beautiful ones, was famous in his own time, the twelfth century. Unlike many other abbots, Ailred allowed and encouraged his monks to hold hands, since he believed that earthly love was a step on the road to love of god. He admitted that in his youth he had sometimes failed to distinguish between ‘the sweetness of love and the impurity of lust’, and when his favourite monk died he wrote, ‘Some may judge by my tears that my love was too carnal. Let them think what they wish…’ When old and dying, he had a special large bed constructed so that all his favourites could lie down with him together. A modern psychologist would undoubtedly warn young monks to steer well clear of such a dangerous, dirty old man! Yet Ailred, far from being condemned, was admired and praised by the most austere of twelfth-century saints, Bernard of Clairvaux, to whom he dedicated his writings on love.50

Although the twelfth century also saw Peter Damian and others beginning to write furious diatribes against sexual relations between men (and it should be noted that Damian was as vehemently against the use of reason by Christians as he was against sodomy), they were ignored or played down by the Church authorities, who were preoccupied at the time with their campaign against the marriage of priests rather than the homoerotic relationships of monks and nuns.51

John Boswell has argued that by the twelfth century sex between men and boys was common and a ‘gay subculture’ had emerged in many European cities. He points to homoerotic literature, to references to male prostitution, and to the use of certain words as a kind of code: ‘Ganymede’ for a youth, ludus (the game) for the pursuit of boys.52 He has found new versions of the classical literary form in which the merits of loving boys and of loving women are debated. At least one of these, The Contest of Ganymede and Helen, which is a twelfth-century poem found in many copies all over western Europe, is not a copy of classical models, because in ancient times the characters in such pieces were always two male lovers, rather than a boy and a woman.53

By this time the Church’s control over sexual behaviour had become quite weak in practice, and its formal prohibitions were widely ignored. Before the late eleventh century, the papacy was incapable of enforcing monogamy on the Christian nobility, celibacy on its own priesthood, or (until much later) pre-marital chastity in peasant society. By 1200, economic expansion and social change had broken down many of the material restrictions of early medieval society. The growth of population, the expansion of cultivation, the colonisation of new lands in eastern Europe, and the growth of towns and trade had broken the bonds of control by the lord of the manor and bishop of the town. The expansion of informal education within the Church threw up a layer of intellectuals who openly debated such questions as the relationship between faith and reason and whether the existence of god could be proved.54 Though capitalism had only appeared in its earliest and most basic form, the merchant capitalism common to all feudal societies, increased commodity production by peasants and artisans was already creating pressures for individual freedom and threatening to break down the feudal structures of social control.55

In the thirteenth century, the Church and the new monarchical states launched a massive backlash to keep the new developments in society under control. As the Crusades in the Middle East drew to an unsuccessful close, violence was turned inwards in western Europe – against Jews and heretics at first, but culminating in the witch hunts of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. All these can be seen as part of one long repressive reaction by the feudal ruling class and its priestly servants against the threat of social and intellectual change. The reaction was not precipitated by economic crisis; it began in the full flush of medieval expansion. But the economic crises and plagues of the fourteenth century intensified it and gave its sexual aspects additional implications.

Procreative sex was once again in the forefront of the programme for social control, and the family quite central to the enforcement of the traditional order. Although as an instrument of political and ideological control the family in feudal society was subordinate to other institutions such as the manor, the Church and the guild, it was to become increasingly important as these other institutions weakened in the late middle ages. But the major importance of the family from the decline of ancient slave society until the industrial revolution was as the basic unit of production and property ownership. Peasant and artisan households were still the basic economic units of society, while the property-owning family was central to both the feudal nobility and the rising bourgeoisie. The late medieval backlash shows a determination to keep the laity firmly within this framework, while subjecting the clergy to much stricter control by the Church itself.

Intellectually, a new synthesis of ancient philosophy and Christian doctrine was produced in the universities set up under Church and state control in the thirteenth century. This re-established the importance of nature as an ideal pattern and the idea of the ‘unnatural’ offence as central to Christian views of sexuality, and defined these matters as orthodox religious doctrine. Unnatural sex now fell under the suspicion of heresy, and from this time onwards the word ‘bugger’ (a term of abuse originally applied to Manichaean heretics whose views were supposed to have come from somewhere as outlandish as Bulgaria) was applied to all anal intercourse.

Church councils tightened up the penalties for ‘unnatural’ sex, and the new secular states co-operated. The death penalty for sodomy or buggery was mentioned in all the major law codes of thirteenth century Europe. In England, a standard common-law text of the late thirteenth century mentions the death penalty for sex with Jews, animals or one’s own gender – along with arson, sorcery, apostasy and adultery with one’s lord’s wife.56 In the Italian city-states the new orders of friars, whose mission was to preach repentance in the towns, clamoured for laws against heretics, Jews and sexual offenders from the time of their ‘Great Alleluia’ revival campaign in the 1220s. When these fell into disuse or were repealed they clamoured for more. There was a new surge of legislation against sexual offences in the sixteenth century when conflicts between Church and state, or between central and local authorities, led to the assertion of state control, for example in the 1533 buggery statute in England and the constitutions of the Emperor Charles V for Germany in 1532.

In the late medieval and early modern periods, legislation against ‘sodomy’ always implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, included a variety of sexual transgressions, such as bestiality and heterosexual anal intercourse, along with homosexual acts between men and between women. In Florence, for example, women and under-age boys submitting to anal intercourse were subject to the same penalty (whipping naked through the streets), and scales of penalties were provided for a variety of offences, according to frequency of transgression, and whether one partner was married.

Most historians have questioned whether these laws were ever regularly implemented: there seems to be little doubt, for example, that the common law death penalty for sodomy in England was completely inoperative, and even under the 1533 statute cases were very rare until the late seventeenth century. Others have laboriously mined the voluminous judicial records of medieval and early modern Europe and found that at certain times and places there were regular executions. Louis Crompton has come up with a figure of 400 executions in eight countries over five centuries – far from the ‘gay genocide’ he has claimed, but not by any means a negligible figure. It is no myth that men (and occasionally women) were burned to death for same-sex relations in the middle ages and early modern times, though the outbreaks of persecution were very irregular, and often seem to have happened because of religious or political tensions which were the occasion for attacks on sexual practices normally ignored.57

Other myths have arisen around the great witch hunt which swept western Europe from the fifteenth century to the seventeenth, and in which about 100,000 people, 80 percent of them women, were put to death. One of the most vicious pieces of witch-hunting propaganda, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) by the German Dominicans Kramer and Sprenger (1484), showed a distrust and fear of female sexuality which became central to witch-hunting. They gave several reasons why more witches should be women than men: women’s feebler intellect and will-power, their proneness to jealousy and vengeance; but also because a woman ‘is more carnal than a man … All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.’58

Witch hunters were obsessed with sexual perversion, especially on the Continent, where torture was regularly used, obtaining, for example, confessions from very old women that they had kissed the devil’s arse or been buggered by him. But the focus of the obsession was not relations between women or between men: the persistent fantasy was that women’s sexuality betrayed the human race by intercourse with devils, not with one another. There may have been sexual overtones in the accusation that older witches procured younger ones for the devil, as there were in attitudes to procuresses in general. But historians who contrive to suggest that homosexuality was an issue in the witch hunt are stretching the evidence unbelievably far.59

The late medieval drive for social control by the church and state had many faces, and those who see it as principally an exercise in homophobia are in a way underestimating it. A very wide range of sexual fears and anxieties were brought into play, together with a view of the natural world as violent and dangerous, constantly threatening to drag humanity under – very different from what some modern people think being ‘close to nature’ meant in the middle ages. Unnatural acts, satanic and sexual, were seen as inviting nature to respond with disasters such as plagues, storms and famines, as well as incurring individual punishment from god.60 The issue was still non-procreative sex in general rather than homosexual acts in particular: prosecutions for bestiality were common at some times in rural areas, and the animals involved were tried and almost always executed along with their human partners.61 In urban areas, however, there is no doubt that when they were implemented, men who had sex with one another bore the brunt of the sodomy laws by early modern times.62

From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution

There is more controversy about homosexuality in the Renaissance period than about almost any other part of this subject. According to some historians, sex between men was regarded with the utmost horror and western European society showed ‘a very strong fear or aversion to “abnormal” sexuality’. According to others, it was widely tolerated and made a major contribution to the artistic and literary achievements of the age. There is no doubt nowadays that some major figures such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci had a distinct preference for their own sex and the former was probably exclusively homosexual; yet a glance at any of the major Italian cities will show that there were heavy penalties for sodomy and that these were frequently imposed. King James I of England could both condemn sodomy as a crime no king should ever pardon, and openly flaunt his own love affairs with male courtiers.63

Alan Bray has suggested that these contradictions can be explained by the quite different place that male homosexual behaviour had in the ideology and in the social structure of Renaissance England compared with our own times. On the one hand, ‘sodomy’ was broadly defined, to include bestiality and heterosexual intercourse, and it was regarded as a sin of excess and disorder, a sign of wickedness in general rather than the sexual preference of some individuals. The same man could be accused of sodomy, incest and adultery; and the young rake with his mistress on one arm and his boy catamite’ on the other was a recurring image of general debauchery. As a symbol of evil, sodomy, like heresy and witchcraft, was denounced as an insult to god and nature, inviting terrible retribution on the whole society in which it took place.

On the other hand, when sex between men did take place it was integrated into the existing structure of sexual behaviour. This was based on the family household of master, mistress, children and servants, and the double standard as between men and women. Relations between gentlemen and their boy pages or kept favourites, between masters and servants, older and younger servants, or men-about-town and boy prostitutes, all had their parallels in relations between men and women. The prevalence of late marriage among the lower classes and arranged marriages among the aristocracy meant that homosexual relations were rarely exclusive; they were something to be practised before marriage or on the side, like extra-marital relations with women. Relationships which fitted this pattern were hardly ever prosecuted, unless attention was drawn to them by features such as a parental complaint, individual malice or a breach of the peace.

By the end of the seventeenth century in England, Bray argues, the social context had changed. In the ‘molly houses’ of late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century London, a gay male subculture was being created, with regular meeting places, pubs and back-room clubs in which men drank and danced together, flirted with one another, held drag balls and imitated feminine mannerisms, and indulged in ‘hugging, kissing and tickling each other as if they were a mixture of wanton males and females,’ as a contemporary put it.65 >From the 1690s on there were periodic attacks on the molly houses, organised by societies for the ‘reform of manners’, whipped up by newspapers and pamphlets and resulting in raids, trials and executions. The evidence shows that the men involved were members of the working population of London: masters, journeymen and apprentices representing most of the city’s manufacturing and service trades. From one trial, we have perhaps the first voice raised in defence of sexual freedom in English history: ‘I think there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body,’ were the words of William Brown, a young labourer trapped into arrest by a man he thought he knew.66

Clearly, as Bray argues, something had changed. But while he sees the answer in a ‘revolution in mentalities’ taking place in the late seventeenth century along with the revolution in science, and Randolph Trumbach explains it by ‘the reorganisation of gender identity that was occurring as part of the emergence of a modern western culture’, both evade the question of political and social revolution in seventeenth-century England.67 The bourgeois revolutions of 1649 and 1688 had raised the question of individual liberty, especially in religious and economic matters, and had brought about a marked reduction of state interference in these areas of life. Some of the radicals in the 1640s had also laid much wider claims to personal and sexual freedom. ‘Everyone as he is himselfe, so he hath a self-propriety, else could he not be himselfe,’ Richard Overton the Leveller had written, claiming the right of property in one’s own person. ‘What act soever is done by thee in light and love, is light and lovely… No matter what Scripture, saints and churches say, if that within thee do not condemn thee, thou shalt not be condemned,’ said Lawrence Clarkson the Ranter. Such views were even more widely condemned from pulpits than spread by radical pamphlets and word of mouth. However narrow and male-oriented the Levellers’ conception of self-property turned out to be, and however exclusively heterosexual the Ranters’ claim to sexual freedom, we are surely hearing their echo in the words of William Brown.68

Equally relevant is the growth, in parts of late seventeenth-century England including London, of pockets of workshop manufacture in which production was no longer organised on a household basis and journeymen began to form their own organisations and even to take strike action. For an increasing number of workers there was a separation of work from home before the industrial revolution; yet the household economy still remained overwhelmingly important in agriculture and in those manufactures organised on the domestic rather than the workshop system. In this period, personal life outside of working hours was beginning to break loose from the old patriarchal household, and a man like William Brown could think that what he did outside of his workplace was his own affair. At the same time, the authorities clearly did not think so, and the state was stepping in to regulate what had previously been the domain of fathers and masters.69

The molly houses and their enemies gave a focus to discussions of male homosexual behaviour in eighteenth-century England, and certain new themes begin to appear. One is the effeminacy of the mollies, which comes to be regularly associated with their sexual practices. This may seem to foreshadow later ideas of sexual inversion, but it is still invariably depicted as an artificial and not an innate characteristic. In 1709, one pamphleteer argued that these men imitated feminine mannerisms ‘in order to disguise their natural feelings (as men) towards the fair sex, and to encourage unnatural lusts.’ In 1736 a legal writer claimed that ‘it is seldom known that a person who has been guilty of abusing his generative faculty so unnaturally has afterwards a proper regard for women.’ Neither of these expresses a modern concept of homosexuality, and the second actually claims that the lack of interest in women is the result, and not the cause, of unnatural behaviour.70

In 1813, a pamphlet on the Vere Street affair (a raid on a London pub which was followed by several executions) argued that although ‘it is very widely and naturally supposed that those possessed by such passions were usually very effeminate persons,’ the fact that a six-foot grenadier could be the ‘bride’ of a man half his size, and that ‘athletic sailor, a herculean porter and a deaf smith’ had taken the names of famous whores, showed that such assumptions were false. He added a story that the men in the Vere Street club had taken pleasure in ritually mocking their absent wives.71 These are not modern concepts of homosexuality – though there is a suggestion in the last that popular ideas were closer to the modern ones than intellectual theories. But there is at least one eighteenth-century example of something very close to homophobia in its most literal sense: horror of same-gender contact. The author of a 1749 pamphlet admits that

I feel revolted and scandalised when I see two ladies falling in each other’s arms and kissing each other in a lascivious manner. Still, the sight of two repulsive lads, holding and caressing each other’s hands and exchanging tender kisses, is even more disgusting.

It was probably some time before respectable Englishmen stopped greeting one another with hugs and kisses (and very much longer before women did), but several German writers recorded a marked difference between English and Continental customs in this respect by the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.72

Although capital punishment for sodomy had been rare in the seventeenth century, its incidence increased in late eighteenth century England. Executions reached their peak in the years 1806-1836, when there were two a year on average; and this was a time when capital punishment for other offences was becoming less frequent. There was also an increase in charges of attempted sodomy, for which proof of intercourse was unnecessary: frequenting a certain place, or responding to a decoy from a reform society was enough. Meeting ‘for the purpose of inciting each other to commit a detestable offence’, and ‘unlawfully laying their hands on each other with intent to commit the crime of buggery’ are charges found in this period. The punishment for this offence was the pillory, and public hostility was so great that many men feared it more than the prison sentences and fines which were also imposed. In 1780 a plasterer pilloried in London with his coachman partner died during the onslaught of the crowd, and Edmund Burke was moved to protest in Parliament.73

In western Europe as a whole, the eighteenth century was a time of conflicting currents of thought about sodomy. In the Dutch Republic, a particularly vicious persecution took place in 1730 and 1731, when at least fifty-nine men were executed, twenty-one of them in one small village. Two men were burned to death for sodomy in Paris as late as 1750. In Pennsylvania, where the death penalty for this offence had been abolished in a flash of Quaker enlightenment in 1682, it was reimposed (for blacks in 1700, for all men in 1718) under English pressure.74 But in reaction to these barbarities there was now widespread criticism. The philosophers of the French Enlightenment considered the punishment of consenting adults to be a superstitious survival on a par with heresy and witchcraft trials. These included Voltaire, although he thought same-sex relations an outrage against nature, and Diderot, who was much more sympathetic to the bisexual aestheticism of ‘Socratic love’. Beccaria and Bentham both argued that sodomy was a crime without victims; in private, Bentham wrote several essays on the subject between 1774 and 1824, arguing for decriminalisation and commenting on the irrational nature of homophobia.75

The death penalty for sodomy was abolished as part of the programme of enlightened despotism in Russia, Austria, Prussia and Tuscany, and in the aftermath of the American Revolution in most of the then existing United States. In France, all penalties for consenting adults were abolished as part of the reform of the criminal law by the Constituent Assembly in 1791, at the height of the constitutional phase of the French Revolution. This was a period of revolutionary optimism among the bourgeoisie, in which Liberty was their watchword, and the revolution became for a time a ‘festival of the oppressed’ as outdated laws and practices were swept away. ‘Frenchmen!’ proclaimed the Marquis de Sade, ‘You are too enlightened not to know that a new government will necessitate a new way of living.’ There were contradictions in the bourgeois liberalism of this revolutionary epoch, for the family remained extremely important to the bourgeoisie, but the decriminalisation of same-sex relations was retained in the Napoleonic Code after the revolution was over, and was imitated in several European countries influenced by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests.76

Why then was punishment for sodomy stepped up in England when other countries were relaxing it’? Arthur Gilbert has shown how the peak of prosecutions and public hostility was reached during the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain was isolated and threatened with military defeat. He argues that sodomites were singled out as a traditional target for fears of disaster, and because in the western Christian tradition the anus was a symbol of evil. The threat of defeat by the French was seen as a threat of ‘a revolution in the ethical, moral and religious spheres’. He also points out the high level of executions for sodomy in the navy during the war, suggesting that the sodomite was singled out as ‘a kind of moral mutineer’. It was no accident that these naval executions began in 1797, the year of the great mutinies, rather than in 1793 when the war began.77

It is true that old fears were still alive in the eighteenth century. Sexual intercourse with animals was still regarded with horror, and natural disasters such as the Lisbon earthquake and the lesser London tremors of 1750 were attributed to the prevalence of ‘unnatural vice’. Sodomy was no more clearly defined than before: there were long legal wrangles over whether proof of penetration or emission or both were required, over whether a man who buggered a twelve-year-old girl could be hanged for it (he was hanged), and over another who had forced a boy to have oral sex (he was pardoned).78 But something more was involved at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth than a traditional fear that rose and fell with the general level of threats to national security. The point is that the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, during which prosecutions and executions for sodomy were stepped up, coincided with a crucial phase in the development of the industrial revolution in Britain. The wars accelerated developments in the textile, mining and metal industries which produced concentrations of industrial capital and a proletarian labour force working long hours, many of them crammed into overcrowded slums, deprived of the most basic facilities for privacy and decency. It is no accident that the years of frequent executions for sodomy, 1792-1836, coincide almost exactly with the period described by E.P. Thompson as The Making of the English Working Class. The disorder and revolution that were feared came from inside English society as much as from the ‘atheistical French’.

Catherine Hall has stated that as far as the Evangelical ‘Clapham Sect’ were concerned, ‘the debate on women, the family and the sexual division of labour was an integral part of the 1790s discussion about the organisation of society.’79 No other ruling class in Europe was so ready to listen to sermons on the dangers of sexual anarchy as the British because no other had such good reason to fear social breakdown and revolution. Whipping up popular hostility to sodomites was also a diversion for the masses: better they should mob sodomites than riot for reforms or against corrupt government. The men who went to the gallows and the pillory were indeed a symbolic sacrifice, but the dangers they symbolised were new ones. The old triad of heresy, witchcraft and sodomy had been replaced by the new one of sodomy, mutiny and anarchy.

Sexuality and industrialisation

From the 1790s to the 1840s, people of all classes in England were conscious of the disruption of working-class family life brought by the spread of factories and other large enterprises, the technical innovations which repeatedly transformed the age and sex structure of the workforce in particular industries, and the cycle of boom and slump which periodically threw large numbers into destitution.80 Some feared that the workforce might fail to reproduce itself in the areas where women worked in the factories and mines. Many more feared the disorder, the ungovernability of a working class no longer controlled by parental power or tied by family responsibilities, unconfined by traditional age and gender roles.

Unlike the old productive family households of the peasants, artisans and cottage workers, the specifically capitalist form of family is based on the separation of work from home: commodities are produced and wages earned in a workplace belonging to the capitalist, and ‘home life’ becomes a separate sphere. This change had been foreshadowed by the growth of large workshops and the increasing numbers of journeymen since the late seventeenth century, as mentioned above. But industrialisation in the early nineteenth century raised a trend to the level of a revolution, central and public enough to be seen and discussed. Industrial capitalism does not require the family household as the place of production, and it would appear at first sight that it requires workers simply as individual labour units without sex, age or personality. This is how it seemed to many observers in the early nineteenth century (not just Marx and Engels), because capitalism by its nature (especially when contrasted with domestic industry) invites such an analysis.

It became evident quite early on in the industrial revolution, however, that there are many reasons why capitalism does require the labour force to be men, women and children organised in family units. These range from the reproduction of the labour force itself to discipline and hierarchy within the factory, and from the taming of rebellious workers through ‘family responsibilities’ to the perpetuation of capitalist ideas of self-sufficiency and individualism. The new industrial employers also benefited from the fact that women’s and children’s wages were lower than men’s. Industrial capitalism needs the family, but it is a form of family detached from the productive roots that had defined it since the age of serfdom in western Europe.

In the mid-nineteenth century, sexuality was intimately linked to ruling and middle-class fears of social anarchy and revolution. There was a pronounced sexual emphasis in many of the sensational stories of the appalling conditions in factories, mines and slums, the speeches and pamphlets that demanded reform, and the illustrations and fictional representations that reinforced them. This was not, as is often suggested, a ‘displaced’ anxiety; it was a response to real changes in the world of early industrial society. Factory Commissioners regularly asked questions about the ‘unchastity’ of factory girls. Descriptions of slum conditions never failed to mention the overcrowded lodging houses where men and women shared rooms, and the ‘known prostitutes’ lurking on every corner. The idea of sex in the deep, dark mine in the areas where women worked underground before 1842 continued to fascinate liberal historians into the twentieth century, when Halevy could refer without apology to the ‘bestial and filthy desires’ of male for female miners. Teenage sexuality outraged reformers such as Shaftesbury, who revealed to Parliament that in Birmingham ‘sexual connection’ began at fourteen or fifteen.81

How did all this lead to the development of a new concept of homosexuality? I shall try to show how three related reactions to the changes in the family brought by industrialisation led in this direction. These were the association of male and female gender roles with the ‘separate spheres’ of work and home, the emergence of a new concept of ‘personal life’ and a science of sexuality, and (last but not least) repressive measures of control.

The idea that work was an ‘outside world’ to which men were particularly suited, while the home was a haven for women and children, had developed first among the bourgeoisie and professional classes of the eighteenth century. The wealth of these classes was no longer created in their own family households, and they had the resources to create a private world of domestic comfort where work was done by servants and the consumption of stylish luxuries became a way of life. Many of the ideas about gender later deployed in industrialisation, such as the notion that a woman is more ‘natural’ and a man more ‘civilised’, were already familiar among the philosophers of eighteenth-century France.82 Once again, this was a trend that became a general transformation only when industrialisation brought the separation of work from home to the masses as well as the elite.

From the late eighteenth century in England, the bourgeois ideology of the family was concerned with much wider issues. The Evangelicals consciously saw their campaign for the reform of family life as a bulwark against Jacobinism and social revolt. Their efforts were not confined to preaching to the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie: through cheap tracts, charity visiting and their own role as employers of servants, they sought to influence the family lives of the working class.83

In France, the biggest capitalist firms were making direct efforts to promote family life, orthodox sexuality and correct gender roles by the 1840s:

Paternalism involved extensive efforts to moralise the company’s labour force. Many firms published and distributed pamphlets that explained for workers the benefits of cleanliness, sobriety and family life. Many extended shop rules to prohibit indecent dress and habits, dirty talk, and dirty hooks. Some fired workers who married too early or had illegitimate children… Sedan employers sent women home before men to discourage dalliance and give wives more chance to care for their families.84

The new pattern of working-class family life was not imposed without opposition. The Utopian Socialists presented a challenge to the family as an institution, from Saint-Simonian ‘free love’ to Fourier’s vision of large, communal phalansteries replacing family life. With the Communist Manifesto and the revolutions of 1848, the challenge was directly political, as Marx and Engels proclaimed their belief in the abolition of the family as part of a socialist revolution, women played a notable part in the two revolutions in Paris, and a notoriously transvestite woman novelist held a post in the new French government.85

In Britain, the Owenites gained a significant following in the 1830s and 1840s. Debates on the abolition of marriage and illegitimacy, proposals for the replacement of family life by collective housekeeping, and arguments about women’s right to work and to be trade union members all flourished among Owenite workers. The Owenite style of meetings and social events set out deliberately to break down the barriers between women and men, and the movement produced a number of able women speakers and organisers.86

But alongside these beginnings of a socialist alternative, there was another response among the working class, which is very visible especially in the Chartist movement (of which many Owenites became part, but they were only a part): the defence of the working class family explicitly in terms of the gender roles of the man as breadwinner and the woman as housekeeper. Unlike the Owenites, the Chartists had separate organisations for women, and most of these Female Charter Associations spoke in the name of ‘wives, daughters, mothers and lovers’ and stressed women’s domestic role. They protested that the ‘order of nature’ was upset by the employment of women in factories and the unemployment among male handloom weavers in Lancashire, or threatened by the break-up of destitute families under the New Poor Law. Within the Chartist movement these ideas competed with the older view of working-class women as active economic partners and members of the labouring community as well as with Owenite ideas.87

With the decline of Owenism in the trade unions and the defeat of Chartism in the 1850s, the new pattern of family life and gender roles became firmly established among the ‘respectable’ working class. For the majority in modern industrial society the family is a necessity in the absence of a full-scale socialist transformation. The nineteenth century capitalist state provided no alternative for the working class, other than the hated ‘Poor Law Bastilles’, as the workhouses were called. Yet the idea of the male breadwinner and the dependent housewife often went against the facts of working-class life, for the number of women in paid work went on increasing throughout the nineteenth century and only a minority of working-class men ever earned enough to keep a family above subsistence level. But until the coming of the modern welfare state, the family was the only way in which working-class people who could not work – the old, the sick, the very young and the unemployed – could be supported by those who were earning.88 The very real material importance of the family in nineteenth-century capitalist society helped to marginalise and make things more difficult for those individuals who did not fit into the model roles required. The ideology of that society reinforced this by fixing the idea that the family was also the best way of satisfying the needs of ‘personal life’, in which sexuality came to feature more and more prominently.

The idea of personal life as an important part of an individual’s existence, separated from working life and public life, spread from the domestic ideology of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie to society as a whole in the nineteenth century for the reasons already outlined. As Eli Zaretsky has put it:

So long as the family was a productive unit based on private property, its members understood their domestic life and personal relations to be rooted in their mutual labour. Since the rise of industry, however, proletarianisation separated most people (or families) from the ownership of productive property. As a result, work and life were separated; proletarianisation split off the outer world of alienated labour from an inner world of personal feeling. Just as capitalist development gave rise to the idea of the family as a separate realm from the economy, soil created a separate sphere of personal life, seemingly divorced from the mode of production.

Zaretsky goes on to argue that this was in some ways a gain for the masses, since ‘personal relations and self-cultivation’ had always previously been reserved for the leisure classes. But it was also a great distortion, for personal life became a vast new area of life whose connection to the rest of society was hidden and obscure, in which the dominant note was subjectivity, ‘the sense of an individual alone, outside society with no firm sense of his or her own place in a rationally ordered scheme.’89

This is the other side of the coin from the alienation of which Marx wrote, the alienation of workers from the products of their own labour. Personal life is alienated from the equally human and vital activity of production, and seems to be autonomous when it is in reality subordinated to the needs of capitalist society, including the family and distinct gender roles. The consequence of this is that sexuality in capitalist society requires a new discourse, one which is (as Michel Foucault argued very effectively despite his very different theories as to why it should be) both an incitement to sexual activity and a means of control. It is essential that individuals should ‘feel free’ to get personal satisfaction from sex, but it is also necessary that this should be contained within the recognised norms of family and gender structure.

So medical ideas of sex in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries began to stress the importance of sexuality, but also its complications and dangers: the differences between male and female sexuality, the dangers of masturbation and ‘waste’ of sexual energy, and the existence of a whole cluster of previously unknown complaints such as nymphomania, satyriasis, sexual phthisis, and so on. The old habit of referring to forbidden sexuality as ‘sins not to be named among Christians’ was almost comically reversed in a torrent of strange new words.89 Homosexuality was one of these. The hostile model of homosexuality was developed by medical men concerned with the problem they defined as sexual ‘degeneracy’. Many in this field believed that homosexuality was either a kind of insanity or a congenital defect indicating hereditary weaknesses. They regarded it as pathological, and terms of disapproval such as ‘moral degeneracy’ kept creeping into the works even of those who claimed to describe it neutrally and scientifically. Most managed to regard it as both congenital and infectious by referring to the ‘latent’ condition, an inborn defect which could be triggered by bad company or unfortunate experiences. It is this kind of medical view that one gay writer has described as being ‘chiefly concerned with whether the disgusting breed of perverts could be physically identified for courts, and whether they should be held legally responsible for their acts.’90

There were, however, two models of homosexuality developing in the late nineteenth century. The first in point of time was the idea of the ‘Uranian’, or person born with mixed biological sex characteristics. developed by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs from the early 1860s and adopted by many people who recognised themselves in it. This biological model was for the next hundred years or so an important source of self-identification. It was adopted by writers sympathetic to the reform of legal and social attitudes such as Havelock Ellis and the German socialists Bernstein and Herzen, though they adopted the other new words ‘invert’ and ‘homosexual’ to describe it. Most present-day gays and lesbians reject this model, understandably since it makes them seem like freaks; but it played a large part in the homosexual rights movement and cannot historically be regarded simply as a form of self-oppression.91

Part of the new discourse of sexuality was to be a great extension of the concept itself, culminating in Freud’s assertion that the ‘sex drive’ is much wider and influences many more aspects of human behaviour than had been thought before, including art and literature as well as love and friendship. While Freud himself saw this as a liberating kind of knowledge, it was also capable of being used, and it has been widely used, to widen the definition of sexual behaviour between people of the same sex and stigmatise behaviour which had formerly been regarded as innocent or admirable. While this was most far-reaching in the case of women (as discussed below), it was also true of male ‘comradeship’, and by the early twentieth century considerable confusion could be found about the limits of acceptable behaviour by normal’ men.92 Although the legal repression of gays will be examined separately in the next section, it is important to realise that they were not the only target for legal control, and that in Britain one of the most important developments, the Labouchere Amendment of 1885, happened almost incidentally in the course of a much broader campaign to control sexuality.

Both the Contagious Diseases Acts (from 1864) and the opposition to them had a place in this movement. Ostensibly a series of measures against venereal disease, the Acts attempted to redefine working class women’s sexuality by labelling individual women as prostitutes and subjecting them to compulsory examination and treatment, while taking no action whatever against their male partners. They aroused widespread opposition among the working class because the law drew in women who cohabited temporarily with men, or who went on the streets casually to supplement the meagre wages a working-class woman could earn, and in operation could pull almost any working-class woman in for examination on one policeman’s word.93 Middle-class feminists also campaigned vigorously against the Acts, in alliance with working-class women and men. But the sexual attitudes of the leading campaigners were far from radical. Their objection to the double standard for men and women was that it allowed men freedom to exercise unrestrained ‘lust’, and they demanded that men should be subjected to the same standards as women, not that women should be as free as men then were. Many of them continued after the repeal of the Acts in 1886 to agitate in ‘Social Purity’ campaigns for the control of male lust, which they associated with violence and oppression.94

Meanwhile, the stunts and publicity campaigns of the newspaper editor W.T. Stead, who had written a series of articles on the ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ about the procurement of young girls, resulted in the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, whose main provisions were to raise the age of consent for girls to sixteen and to penalise procurement (the so-called ‘white slave trade’). Labouchere, a radical Member of Parliament, inserted into this act the famous and disastrous clause which made acts of ‘gross indecency’ between men a crime, though he claimed that what he intended was merely to penalise the procurement of boys in the same way as that of girls.95 Though campaigns such as Stead’s and reforms such as the 1885 Act claimed to be ‘rescuing’ working-class women and young people, in effect they also introduced new restrictions on those they were claiming to protect; Labouchere’s Amendment is only the most startling example of this. To say this is not to deny that prostitution in Victorian society was often degrading and exploitative, or that violence against women and the sexual abuse of children were problems. But the campaigns and publicity stunts of the late nineteenth century, and the legislation to which they gave rise, attempted to define out of existence such people as the unrepentant prostitute or single mother, the woman who had cohabited with more than one man, the consenting fourteen-and fifteen-year-old couples whose existence had horrified Shaftesbury, and the youth whose preferred sexual practice was picking up toffs in London’s West End.

It is not only wrong to suppose that the problems of sexual oppression can be eliminated by legislative action and state intervention in a capitalist society. It can also put other groups of people at risk from oppressive and injurious state action in ways that are considered unimportant, or have not even been envisaged, by the reformers who clamour for legislation.

Legal repression and homosexual rights

Without the criminalisation of homosexuality, modern gay consciousness would probably not have emerged in the way it has done. Germany and Britain are particularly important because in both these countries controversial new laws were introduced in the late nineteenth century. Yet a comparison with the USA shows that legal harassment could increase without any particular legislative landmark, old laws simply being used in new ways. The effect of new medical and legal attitudes in the late nineteenth century may have been, in practice, that gay people came to be punished for their inclinations rather than their behaviour. But the new laws in Germany and Britain marked less of a break with the past than is often supposed. Paragraph 175 of the Imperial German code specified ‘unnatural coupling between persons of the male sex, and between people and animals’, and the Nazis in fact held it to be too narrow since it implied coition. The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act in Britain referred to ‘any act of gross indecency with another male person’, but this could hardly be much broader than the range of offences included in practice in the definition of ‘attempted sodomy’ since the eighteenth century.97

But these and other laws were increasingly interpreted as applying to the new category of ‘homosexuals’, and it seems that all the major capitalist countries have used some form of legal harassment against gay men in the twentieth century. Even Japan, which had traditionally approved of sexual relations between male samurai, introduced restrictive legislation as part of its modernisation programme under the Meiji Restoration after 1868.98

In Germany, controversy was precipitated by the unification of the country under Prussian domination in 1869-71, when the Prussian legal code was imposed on several states which had previously decriminalised sodomy. A number of individuals, including Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and the socialist J.B. Schweitzer, had begun to protest at legal harassment in the early 1860s, but their cause gained a wider audience with the unification of Germany. Medical writers – among them Benkert and Von Westphal, who first used the terms ‘homosexuality’ and ‘sexual inversion’ respectively – protested that the problem involved was a matter for their profession rather than the law. Even medical writers who took a hostile view of homosexuality – for example Krafft-Ebbing, who thought ‘they should be put away for life, but not branded as criminals’ – argued against Paragraph 175. In 1897 Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Germany, which linked the defence of homosexuality by gay people themselves to the scientific investigation of medical theories and to the political campaign (supported throughout by the German Social Democratic Party) for the repeal of the law. About 1000 books and pamphlets on the subject appeared between 1898 and 1908. In 1919 Hirschfeld went on to set up the Institute for Sexual Science, and the Institute organised a number of international conferences until it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933.

The German movement for homosexual emancipation between the two World Wars came as near to being a mass movement as anything before the 1960s. But it was politically confused. Hirschfeld and the right-wing Social Democratic leadership of the movement rejected Bolshevism and revolution, although in practice the Russian revolutionary regime decriminalised homosexuality while they achieved only minor reforms in Germany. The fact that many of those interested in homosexual rights in interwar Germany were extremely right wing (three-quarters were said to be monarchists in 1918) was the excuse for political caution and moderation, while the alternative lifestyle of gay bars and clubs in the ‘Golden Twenties’ proved far more attractive than any kind of political agitation. As James Steakley has written:

A contradiction between personal and collective liberation emerged, for it was far easier to luxuriate in the concrete utopia of the urban sub-culture than to struggle for an emancipation which was apparently only formal and legalistic.100

If many German gays and lesbians did feel this in the 1920s, they were under the most tragic of illusions. The Nazi Party, despite the presence of known homosexuals in its early leadership and the attraction it held for a certain layer of right-wing gay men, was implacably opposed to same-sex relations and within months of coming to power in 1933 it had destroyed the movement and driven many of its activists into exile. In 1934, after the purge of Roehm (who was homosexual) and his allies from the Nazi Party, the German fascist regime launched a massive attack on gay people which led to 10,000 convictions a year and to a total of at least 10,000 and possibly several times that number (including lesbians though there was no law against them) being sent to concentration camps, where a high proportion of them died.101

The December 1934 guidelines on the law from the Nazi Ministry of Justice stated that no sexual act was necessary for conviction – the intention was enough. A pamphlet on the new law against homosexuals which was issued in 1935 described ‘simple contemplation of the desired object’ as a felony; this clearly presents a problem of proof, but the courts later decided that ‘a lewd glance’ was sufficient. But the logical consequence, which did in fact follow from 1936 onwards, was that the rules of factual evidence were abandoned, and psychological evidence of an individual’s inclinations became sufficient to secure conviction.102

In England, the death penalty for ‘buggery with man or beast’ had been abolished in 1861, but it was still punishable by penal servitude for life, while attempted sodomy and ‘indecent assault upon any male person’ were liable to up to ten years of the same.103 But more public attention was attracted by Labouchere’s amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. It did not include any new concept of homosexuality; indeed the word did not appear in print in English until twelve years later. The phrase used for sexual acts between men, ‘gross indecency’, was vague, but it was its very vagueness, coupled with the phrase ‘in public or in private’, that enabled the amendment to become such a scourge once the widening concept of homosexuality came to be seen as the justification for it after the event. The years following the passage of the amendment saw a number of prosecutions which hit the headlines and invited public comment, especially the Cleveland Street male brothel case in 1889 and the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895. In the Cleveland Street case, there was still rather more preoccupation with the vice and decadence of fashionable society than with the homosexual as a type of person.104

Yet by the time of the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895, a shift seems to have occurred. In the late 1880s (after marrying and having two children) Wilde had become involved in a series of love affairs with younger men and in the gay male subculture of his day. This was a lifestyle which linked aristocratic and university circles, committed to the ‘Cause’ of defending gay male sexuality, with the world of working-class pickups and male prostitutes. In private diaries and correspondence, both Wilde’s friends and his enemies were using a range of concepts still absent from printed literature and respectable discourse in England, including the adjective ‘homosexual’ and the abusive term ‘queers’.105

Wilde himself, at his trial, defended the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ (a phrase which had appeared in a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas, his lover) as a ‘deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect’ and asserted that ‘there is nothing unnatural about it’. Understandably in the circumstances, this famous and much admired speech was ambiguous, because it could be taken as denying any sexual element in his relationships with younger men. At his lowest point in prison, when Wilde was broken by hard labour and embittered by Douglas’s bad behaviour, he pleaded in a petition to the Home Secretary that

such offences are forms of sexual madness and are recognised as such not merely by modern pathological science but by much modern legislation, notably in France, Austria and Italy, where the laws affecting these misdemeanours have been repealed, on the ground that they are diseases to be cured by a physician, rather than crimes to be punished by a judge.

But from his release in 1897 until his death in 1900, Wilde wrote habitually of ‘Uranian love’, adopting Ulrichs’s term.106

The new ideas spread among the medical and legal professions, and by 1918 Lord Sumner could assert that sodomites were stamped with ‘the hall-mark of a specialised and extraordinary class as much as if they had carried on their bodies some physical peculiarities.107

By the early twentieth century there was in Britain a network of individuals, especially but not exclusively men, dedicated to homosexual emancipation. These included the socialist Edward Carpenter and the writer Havelock Ellis. During the interwar years, many of them were associated with the movement for sexual reform which linked up with Hirschfeld’s German organisation and the World League for Sexual Reform.108 it was only after the Second World War that a coherent movement for the reform of the law developed. The stimulus to the development of a reform movement seems to have been a fivefold increase in prosecutions between 1938 and 1952. The continued use of the sodomy laws alongside the wider gross indecency charge is shown by some figures for the 1950s: 1043 cases of sodomy and bestiality (1952), 3305 of indecent assault (1953), 2322 of gross indecency (1955).109 The early 1950s also saw an unprecedented outburst of media homophobia, centred on a series of trials and scandals. In 1957, however, the Wolfenden Committee recommended the decriminalisation of relations between consenting men over 21, and the Homosexual Law Reform Society was founded in 1958 to press for its implementation. This decriminalisation was achieved in 1967, but not as the result of a major upsurge in gay militancy or consciousness. The campaign for repeal had been moderate, apologetic and determinedly ‘non-political’, and the reform was part of the small wave of liberal-humanitarian reforms initiated by private members’ bills under the Labour Governments of 1964-70.110

In the USA, the use of a combination of old and new laws, specific and vague charges, was even more marked. The legal situation there is immensely complicated since each state has its own law code, and many cities have used public morality by-laws to harass people whose activities are not explicitly illegal. As late as 1958, laws were still being written which lumped together ‘carnal copulation with any beast, or … carnal knowledge of any man, against the order of nature’ (Connecticut), and in the early 1960s some states were increasing the maximum penalties while others were reducing them. Among the catch-all laws used against gay men and women far more frequently than any explicit law are Buffalo’s ‘loitering to commit an immoral act’ and New York City’s ‘I and D’ (being an idle and dissolute person). Licensing laws give wide scope for harassment: in New York in the 1950s, for example, lesbian bars were licensed on condition that the customers were only allowed to use the toilets one at a time.111

While the transition from older concepts of sodomy to new ones of homosexuality is therefore often hard to trace in the laws in the USA, in the 1940s and 1950s many states introduced Sexual Psychopath laws which enable the courts to order the incarceration of a person – ostensibly for treatment – on expert psychological evidence without the normal safeguards as to civil liberties. The ‘treatment’ provided could include electric shock ‘aversion therapy’ or lobotomy. In one mid-western city in the 1950s, 29 gay men were committed to asylums without trial following a child murder, purely on the grounds that they were homosexual.112

The biggest and most oppressive harassment of gay people in the United States was, however, the sacking of many thousands from public employment in the McCarthy era. In 1950, a Senate Committee reporting on why homosexuals should not be employed in the government service reported that ‘Indulgence in acts of sexual perversion weakens the moral fibre of the individual,’ that ‘one homosexual can pollute a government office,’ and that the danger was that ‘young and impressionable people might come under the influence of a pervert’. In 1953, Executive Order 10450 listed ‘sexual perversion’ as grounds for disbarment from government posts along with other Un-American Activities. This gave free rein to police harassment, as the FBI collected lists of bar customers for their reference files, and the post office snooped on mail. Though the danger of blackmail was often given as an excuse for these measures, some people who refused to submit to blackmailers and reported the attempt got sacked anyway because this revealed that they were gay.113

In France, the legal immunity of same-sex relations between consenting adults from 1791 did not mean a complete absence of legal harassment, and there were periodic raids on gay men’s meeting places and waves of prosecutions in 1845 and during the Second Empire (1852-70). There were calls for more repressive legislation in the 1880s, but the Chamber of Deputies decided that the law could not invade the citizen’s right to privacy unless the rights of others were involved.114

In the history of the gay response to oppression since the late nineteenth century, there is a distinction to be made between gay movements as such and the ‘homophile’ movements which aimed at educating public opinion and drawing in prominent non-gays in support of law reform or greater tolerance. Almost without exception, these last adhered to the ‘congenital’ explanation of homosexuality, in the belief that this argument (‘We can’t help it, so please stop persecuting us’) was the most persuasive.115 Up until the late 1960s, many organisations which were wholly or almost wholly gay also set great store by respectability and repudiating stereotypes such as the ‘butch’ and the ‘screaming queen’. In the United States, the period of the Cold War saw emerging gay organisations led by determined moderates who took the line that gays and lesbians could only ‘win acceptance’ by respectable, conventional behaviour. It is impossible to understand the importance of self-oppression as an issue in the later gay liberation movement without this historical background.

In Britain, for example, the Homosexual Law Reform Society publicised the views of ‘sympathetic’ clergymen such as the one who believed that ‘God has called homosexuals among others to chastity and to use their energies in other channels.’ In the USA, a Mattachine Society spokesman was reported by a reforming sociologist as saying that the Society was not concerned with ‘proselytising’ and that its advice to any young person who ‘has only misgivings’ about whether he or she is gay would be, ‘Go the other way if you can.’ Some members of the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis regarded it as a victory to persuade a butch woman to change into a skirt for a gay conference. Class prejudice, right wing politics and the real dangers of legal harassment were all responsible for these ‘self-oppressive’ variations on the theme of homosexual rights.116

The gay liberation movement that developed from the late 1960s was different. It began in the USA, where the rise of the Black Civil Rights movement, student activism and the upsurge of trade union militancy in the 1960s all contributed to a fundamental change in outlook. The voice of Franklin Kameny, one of the new generation of militant gay activists, can stand for the growing chorus:

I do not see the NAACP and CORE worrying about which chromosome and gene produced a black skin, or about the possibility of bleaching the Negro. I do not see any great interest on the part of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League in the possibility of solving the problems of anti-Semitism by converting Jews to Christians … I take the stand that not only is homosexuality not immoral, but that homosexual acts engaged in by consenting adults are moral, in a positive and good sense, and are right, good and desirable, both for the individual participants and for the society in which they live.117

Lesbianism: a different history?

Lesbian history cannot simply be written in tandem with gay men’s history, for several reasons. The first is the tendency, noted above, for relations between women to become invisible at an early stage in the history of class societies. This does not mean that sex between women did not happen. but it makes it very difficult to find out about. The second is that lesbian history is related much more directly to the history of women’s oppression and the rise of feminism, though not so directly that it should disappear into the general history of women or of feminism. The third reason is that the toleration in western society of physical relationships which were not thought of as sexual lasted much longer for women than for men in western society. It has sometimes been argued that because of this, and the absence almost everywhere of explicit criminalisation in modern times, lesbians are ‘less oppressed’ than gay men. Oppression is an impossible thing to quantify, and arguments about who is more oppressed are divisive and counter-productive. In terms of the history of capitalist society, the role of the family and the place of sexuality in the ideology of personal life, the oppression of lesbians is the counterpart of gay male oppression, but this perhaps needs saying distinctly and separately.

There are other issues in lesbian history which it is important for Marxists to be aware of and reply to. One is the identification of lesbianism with separatist feminism by historians such as Lillian Faderman, Martha Vicinus and Sheila Jeffreys.118 The role of single and professional women in the nineteenth-century movement for women’s rights, the hostility of the ‘social purity’ campaigners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to male sexuality, and the political lesbianism of sections of the women’s movement from the mid 1970s onwards are linked together to construct a separatist history of the women’s movement without the working class or even radical politics.

The problems with this approach are, firstly, that it is a very elitist history in which a small number of middle and upper-class women (often with patronising or contemptuous attitudes to their working-class ‘sisters’) make all the running; the second is that it tends to write sexuality out of lesbian history. It is now quite common to hear that ‘lesbianism is not really about sexuality’, that a lesbian is first and foremost a woman who rejects men, or that lesbians and gay men have nothing in common. Campaigns such as Positive Images have in some places become concerned with reforming the image of lesbianism, and lesbians whose personal style is considered ‘threatening’ are not made welcome in these sections of the movement. All these are quite reactionary tendencies, and have little to do with the experience of most lesbians today. We need an alternative history of lesbianism because we need to argue for revolutionary politics as an alternative to separatist feminism. It is nevertheless difficult to find the materials with which to construct such a history.

From the middle ages to the early twentieth century, ambivalent attitudes to sex between women persisted, according to which ‘unnatural’ acts were regarded with extreme horror but most of what we would nowadays regard as lesbian relationships were tolerated, ignored, or even encouraged.

From the thirteenth century onwards almost every theologian or legal expert who discussed sodomy thought it was a sin or crime that women could commit, whether or not they believed (with Aristotle) that women did not have ‘seed’ to waste as men did. The problems for all these experts (invariably men) were firstly that they did not know what this terrible sin might actually consist of, unless a ‘material instrument’ (i.e. a dildo) was involved; and secondly, that it seemed to be extremely rare, so that when a case did occur even the judges might be unsure of what the laws meant. Nevertheless, a handful of executions did take place from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, most of them involving the dreaded ‘material instrument’.119 At the same time, homoerotic relations between women flourished, from twelfth-century nuns to nineteenth-century schoolgirls, without condemnation and with much positive encouragement. Not only romantic friendship and the language of love, but kissing, cuddling and sleeping together were socially approved among women for centuries, even when much milder gestures of affection between men came to be frowned on. Such relationships were regarded as quite compatible with femininity, marriage and motherhood, and were given a boost in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain and North America by the promotion of the theory of women’s less sexual nature.

Even when unmarried women lived together, they were regarded as pure and honourable, especially when they were elite women like the Ladies of Llangollen, two Anglo-Irish gentlewomen who eloped in 1778 and lived together for about 50 years, praised and visited by many members of the social and literary elite. In 1811 Jane Pine and Marianne Woods, who ran a girls’ school in Edinburgh, sued the grandmother of an Anglo-Indian pupil who had suggested that they were up to no good in bed, and were defended by their judges as well as their lawyers against the very idea that such things could happen between British, Christian women.120 In both these cases, we have the ladies’ own word for it (for one of the Llangollen ladies also threatened to sue a London journalist for indecent suggestions) that their relationships were not sexual. To see the roots of lesbian history as lying mainly in such relationships is a distortion, because it implies a denial of women’s sexuality. To assert that the relationships really were sexual all along and were simply hidden because of society’s ignorance is equally a distortion. Both fail to take account of the fact that self-definitions have changed along with changing concepts of sexuality. Loving friendships are surely part of lesbian history, but we must look for the other, missing pieces.

One strand of lesbian history that involves more working-class women and is less acceptable to the mainstream feminist version is the history of women who ‘passed’ as men, doing men’s work and taking marriage and affairs with other women in their stride. Unlike male transvestites, women who disguised themselves as men were long regarded with approval (so long as they were few) because such a woman was after all trying to ‘raise herself’ to the superior position of a man, whereas a man in drag was ‘lowering’ himself. There are even stories of transvestite women saints in the early middle ages, though there is obviously no explicit sexuality in these stories. In the eighteenth century there were a number of female soldiers, sailors and pirates, who sometimes married other women, and some who settled down to run small businesses (often, it seems, a pub), with their ‘wives’. In the nineteenth century the economic incentives for a woman to don male disguise were very great, for a working-class woman could hardly support herself on a woman’s wages.121

Women were very rarely punished for transvestism or for sexual relations with their partners in such situations. How often sexual relations were involved we cannot, of course, know; but when a lesbian subculture began to appear in certain cities in the USA in the 1940s and 1950s, many women who were passing as men, working in male jobs and living with their wives in working-class communities, began to identify themselves as lesbians. Because the moderate leaders of the lesbian political organisation of the early 1960s, the Daughters of Bilitis, were in principle opposed to transvestism the reasons outlined above, the contribution of such women to the formation of a lesbian identity in the USA is often ignored.122

Another strand of lesbian history that is often ignored because of mainstream feminist disapproval is prostitution. There is plenty of evidence that prostitutes have in the past often made love to one another and to other women. Not all of this evidence is from voyeuristic male sources, though even if that were the case the frequency with which such descriptions occur in late nineteenth-century French literature would suggest that there, at least, they reflected something in real life. But there are also autobiographical accounts of lesbian relationships by late nineteenth-century French courtesans which support the impression given by male fiction that these were a familiar feature of sexual life in late nineteenth-century Paris. 123

It is often forgotten that almost the only way for a woman to exercise freedom of sexual choice and keep herself in the nineteenth century was to turn ‘professional’ (unless she was very rich), and that the prevailing tendency was to label any woman who had extramarital sex as a prostitute even before she became one. Becoming a prostitute was a common result of being a woman who recognised her own sexuality. It is not at all clear, for example, whether Almeda Sperry, the anarchist lover of Emma Goldmann, was what we would now consider a professional prostitute; but whatever she was she deserves, as Joan Nestle has said, to be part of the history of lesbianism just as much as the Ladies of Llangollen, if not more so, because she recognised the sexual nature of her own love for women, and wrote to Emma Goldmann:

It may be that some day I may lose these tendencies, but I do not know that I have any desire to lose them, as they are natural and not acquired. 124

Almost from the start, the various medical views of homosexuality included a formal recognition that the problem of ‘inversion’ was symmetrical, and if there could be homosexual men there could be lesbian women, too. But most writers insisted that it was rare. However, as a small and very elite lesbian culture began to emerge in late nineteenth-century Paris, steeped in the fashion of decadence and exoticism, women such as Renee Vivien and Natalie Barney began to be regarded as proof of the existence of lesbianism, but also of its essential weirdness.125 Explicit criminalisation of lesbianism was still rare. In France, Germany and Britain it was considered and rejected. In Britain, a proposal to extend the 1885 ‘gross indecency’ law to women was actually passed by the House of Commons in 1921, but rejected by the House of Lords. While the spectre of predatory lesbians breaking up middle-class marriages was effectively deployed in the Commons, the Lords were concerned to defend the innocent’ friendships of upper-class women and to avoid giving publicity to practices which they considered to be extremely rare.126

At first, it might seem that the idea that lesbianism is rare was an advantage (and it certainly was one as far as the 1921 Bill was concerned) but it did have the implication that when a lesbian was actually visible she was regarded as much more of a monster than a gay man. The protection of most relations between women as innocent friendships was rapidly coming to an end, as new ideas about sexuality spread. In the 1920s in Britain and North America a tone of homophobia set in which brought an end to homoeroticism in magazine and schoolgirl fiction and cast suspicion on women living together as couples.127

Official attitudes to lesbianism were shown all too clearly in 1928 when the novel The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall, was tried for obscenity. Hall was an upper-class lesbian of unimpeachably conservative politics – she was sympathetic to Italian fascism. But she wrote the novel with the explicit purpose of defending ‘inverts’ against an unjust society. It contained no sexually explicit details whatsoever, yet the journalist who called for its prosecution said that he ‘would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel,’ and the judge ruled it obscene because it was about an obscene subject.128

The backlash against lesbianism in the twentieth century was in part a product of the same pressures as the backlash against gay men produced by the construction of sexuality in capitalist society, though it seems to have taken longer to develop. It was also in part a reaction against the movement for women’s emancipation, which had brought notable gains in 1918 and 1919 with the extension of the franchise to women over thirty and Sexual Qualifications (Removal) Act banning formal discrimination in the professions. With the backlash, however, women who stepped out of the feminine role into work or politics (which it was difficult and often impossible to combine with marriage) were being castigated as ‘unnatural’.

It must be recognised that they were not much helped by the sexual emancipation movement in which even socialist feminists like Stella Browne stressed the dangers of sexual ‘frustration’ for women who abstained from heterosexual relations and could write such ambivalent passages as:

I repudiate all wish to depreciate or slight the love-life of the real homosexual; but it cannot be advisable to force the growth of that habit in heterosexual people. 129

Since one of the standard images of a lesbian relationship, as portrayed by Radclyffe Hall and others, was that of a ‘true invert’ with a ‘normal woman’, the prospect did not look bright for lesbians.

Although lesbians were involved in the homosexual emancipation movement in Germany from about 1900 onwards, it was not until after the Second World War that a sense of lesbian identity began to appear in the USA and (on a much smaller scale) in Britain. John D’Emilio has pointed to the importance of the experiences of the Second World War as ‘something of a nationwide coming out experience’ for many American gay people, as the normal patterns of life were disrupted and people found themselves in new environments, often single-sex ones such as the forces or new workplaces. This was probably even more significant for women than for men, since women’s lives had been more closely tied to family and kin, and to traditional women’s employment. A new backlash against lesbianism in the USA began with purges from the forces at the end of the war and continued into the era of McCarthyism. The success of the moderate lesbian organisation, the Daughters of Bilitis, which was founded in the early 1960s, has tended to obscure the history of the less respectable, working class lesbians of the ‘butch and femme’ tradition in that period in the United States, and such topics have hardly begun to be investigated in Britain and elsewhere.130

Both gay liberation and the women’s movement from the late 1960s brought about an increase in awareness of lesbianism and the involvement of many lesbians in politics. But few permanent gains seem to have been won, especially for the large numbers of lesbians untouched by either of these movements. Police harassment, physical violence and public vilification are never absent, and all have risen recently. Legal practice discriminates against lesbians with children in custody cases, and the state refuses to recognise their existence for pension and housing purposes. Most of all, lesbians are vulnerable to job discrimination, and it is fear of losing a livelihood that makes coming out at work such a difficult issue. Solidarity at work and trade union action can provide protection, but this strength is not won overnight.

There are no short-term or individual solutions to the problem of lesbian oppression and, as with the question of gay men’s liberation, we must locate these problems within a revolutionary strategy for bringing about permanent changes in society and sexuality.

Towards a socialist sexuality

This article has tried to show that same-sex relations are, like all human sexuality, socially constructed rather than being a set of ‘natural’ facts. Like puberty or marriage or childbirth, they happen differently and have different meanings in different societies, because all human relations are part of a wider society shaped by its mode of production, class structure and specific historical conditions. There is no one natural construction of sexuality, and even self-definitions like ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ (or father, mother, lover, prostitute) are relative to the society in which we live.

Major changes in society have been accompanied by major changes in sexual practices and ideas. In the west, the fall of ancient slave society and the industrial revolution have been particularly significant in overturning old ways and creating new ones. These two periods of change were also the most important in the formation of Western homophobia, which has to be explained as a series of reactions to new circumstances, not one continuous cultural phenomenon.

The family has always been a crucial institution for the integration of sexuality into class societies. But the position of the family in modern capitalist society, detached from production and redefined as the separate sphere of personal life, has given sexuality a new context and new meanings compared with all previous societies. This means that both gay consciousness and gay oppression as we know them are specific to modern capitalist society. It is not the case that same-sex relations or the punishment of individuals who had them were completely absent from previous societies. But that certain people should be defined by society and by themselves as different because of their sexual preference, and that they should be oppressed and punished for this difference, is a situation which has developed only since the industrial revolution.

The struggle against gay oppression is therefore a struggle to end capitalist society and its particular distortions of sexuality and gender. It is central to our argument that this can only be achieved by a socialist revolution carried out by the working class. But on what basis can we claim that socialism will offer a better prospect for sexual freedom without the oppression of gays and lesbians, or of women and children? There are two ways in which we can answer this. One is by showing that the reasons for sexual alienation and oppression under capitalism will disappear in a socialist society: the family as the principal form of personal life, the inequality of women, the maintenance of separate gender roles which are not required by modern technology, and the powerlessness of the vast majority who are now excluded from any say in the running of society.

The other answer is that the prospects for sexual liberation in a socialist society improve with every struggle against oppression in the here and now. Engels was wise to say that neither he nor anyone in his time could predict what forms of sexuality and personal relationships free women and men in a socialist society would choose, for when we catch glimpses of his or Marx’s personal prejudices (expressed exclusively in private correspondence) they were rather unenlightened on the gay question.131 We also would be wise not to impose our contemporary ideas on the future (for example, the frequently heard prediction that ‘everyone will be bisexual’, which to most exclusive gays and lesbians sounds like just another plan for their disappearance). But we can be quite sure that we now understand more about these questions than Marx or Engels did because of the struggles that have taken place since their deaths. Marxism originated, not in the isolated brains of two nineteenth-century German men, but in the meeting of radical ideas with working class struggles in the 1840s, and it only lives and grows by continuing to be part of real struggles and learning their lessons.

Today, gay liberation has become just as essential to the struggle for socialism as socialist revolution is for any meaningful sexual liberation.


I am extremely grateful to the comrades and friends who talked to me about this article and commented on the first draft of it. They made many helpful criticisms and suggestions: errors of fact or judgment remaining in it are, I am sure, all mine. Thanks especially to Mike Berlin, Ian Birchall, Lindsey German, Pete Green, Charlie Hore, Paul Furness, Mike Gonzalez, Noel Halifax, Chris Harman, Jonathan Neale, Kevin Ovenden, John Rees and Sherryl Yanowitz.

1. F Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State in Marx and Engels, Selected Works (Moscow, 1962), p.241.

2. K Marx, Early Texts (ed. D. McLellan, Oxford, 1971), p.139.

3. J Weeks, ‘Discourse, Desire and Sexual Deviance’, in K Plummer (ed.), The Making of the Modern Homosexual (London, 1981), p.82.

4. M McIntosh, ‘The Homosexual Role’, in Plummer, pp.30-49.

5. Weeks, Coming Out, pp.2-5.

6. L Crompton. ‘Gay Genocide’, in L Crew, The Gay Academic (Palm Springs, Ca, 1978); R Trumbach, ‘London’s Sodomites: Homosexual Behaviour and Western Culture in the Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Social History, 11 (1977-78), pp.1-33.

7. Trumbach, ‘London’s Sodomites’; J Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago, 1980).

8. Plummer, pp.44-49, 53-75, 76-111; J D’Emilio, ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’, in A Snitow, C Stansell and S Thompson (eds.), Powers of Desire (New York, 1983). pp. 100-113.

9. E Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance (New York, 1981), pp.33-194.

10. E Blackwood, ‘Sexuality and Gender in Certain Native American Tribes: the Case of Cross-Gender Females’, Signs 10 (1985), pp.27-42; J Katz, Gay American History (New York, 1976), pp.423-503.

11. V L Bullough, Sexual Variance in Society and History (Chicago, 1976), pp28. 31; F E Evans-Pritchard, The Azande: History and Political Institutions (Oxford, 1971), pp.199-200.

12. Trumbach, ‘London’s Sodomites’, pp.1-8. Trumbach’s suggestion that there are geographical zones distinguished by these different forms is interesting, but some breakdown of the information according to the class nature of different societies is also needed.

13. Bullough, Sexual Variance, pp.298-300.

14. V L Bullough, Sex, Society and History (New York. 1976), pp.29-33; Sexual Variance, pp.39-45, 52; Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London, 1955), pp.33-35.

15. Bullough, Sexual Variance. pp.58-67; Bailey, pp.31-33.

16. K Dover, Greek Homosexuality (London, 1978), pp.4-9, 111-134, and illustrations.

17. Plato, The Symposium (trans. W Hamilton, Harmondsworth, 1951), p.48.

18. Plato, The Symposium, p.50.

19. D Cohen, ‘Law, Society and Homosexuality in Classical Athens’, Past and Present, 117 (1987), pp.3-21.

20. Dover, pp.19-109; M Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, Volume Two of The History of Sexuality (London, 1986). pp.204-214.

21. Plato, Symposium, p.47; Foucault, Use of Pleasure, p.193; Bullough, Sexual Variance, p.103.

22. Dover, pp.23-28.

23. Dover, pp.52-59, 81-100.

24. Dover, pp.60-68, 103-109.

25. Dover, pp.185-196.

26. Foucault, Use of Pleasure, p.143.

27. Xenophon, Oecomomicus (Loeb Classics, 1923).

28. Xenophon, p.441; G E M De Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (London, 1983). pp.140-147, 229-237; M I Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (Harmondsworth, 1983), pp.67-92.

29. Bullough, Sexual Variation, pp.98-99.

30. Dover, p.31.

31. Bullough, Sexual Variation, pp.112-113.

32. K Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves (1978).

33. Boswell, p.78; P Veyne, ‘Homosexuality in Ancient Rome’, in P Aries and A Bejin (eds.), Western Sexuality: Practice and Precept in Past and Present Time (Oxford, 1985), pp.27-29.

34. Veyne, ‘Homosexuality in Ancient Rome’, p.31.

35. Dover, pp.171-184; Boswell, p.77. The term ‘lesbian’ was never used to mean specifically a woman who had sex with another in antiquity, though it could include this idea as it meant a woman of loose sexual conduct in general. Mytilene on Lesbos was one of Athens’s regular enemies, and the Athenians used ‘lesbian’ to suggest looseness of morals in the same way as ‘French pox’ and le vice anglais were used in more recent times.

36. Both Bailey and Boswell, in the works cited above, take this position.

37 Bailey, pp.1-37; see also M Grant, The History of Ancient Israel (London, 1984).

38. Bailey, pp.37-38; Boswell, pp.91-117. In explaining away Romans 1:26-27, Boswell falls into the trap of attributing modern notions of homosexual ‘nature’ to an ancient writer.

39. Boswell, pp.137-166.

4t). Boswell, pp. 147, 11-15.

41. Foucault, Use of Pleasure, pp.220-222; Bullough, Sexual Variance, pp.159-174.

42. Bailey, pp.67-69.

43. P Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (London. 1974), pp.82-103.

44. C Wickham, ‘The Other Transition: >From the Ancient World to Feudalism’, Past and Present, 103 (1984), pp.3-36; De Ste Croix, pp.237-259; Anderson. pp.128-142.

45. P Brown, The World of Late Antiquity (London, 1971).

46. Boswell, pp.170-180; Bailey, pp.67-81.

47. Boswell, pp.183-184.

48. Boswell, pp.202-206.

49. Boswell, pp.187-193; cf. J. Leclercq, Monks and Love in Twelfth-Century France (Oxford, 1979).

50. Boswell, pp.220-226.

51. Boswell, pp.210-216.

52. Boswell, pp.243-268.

53. Boswell, pp.381-392.

54. M Keen, The Pelican History of Medieval Europe (1969), pp.84-102; R I Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford, 1987); G Duby, Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth-century France (Baltimore, 1978).

55. Boswell, p.292; H Montgomery Hyde, The Other Love (London. 1971), pp.37-38.

56. M Goodich, The Unmentionable Vice. Homosexuality in the Later Medieval Period (Santa Barbara. Ca, 1979), pp.77-88; Boswell, pp.286-293.

57. L Crompton, ‘The Myth of Lesbian Impunity’ in S J Licata and R P Petersen (eds.): The Gay Past. A Collection of Historical Essays (New York, 1985), pp.16-17; Boswell, p.293; Goodich, p.85.

58. J O’Faolain and L Martines, Not in God’s Image: Women in History (London, 1973). pp.220-221.

59. J Klaits, Servants of Satan. The Age of the Witch Hunts (Bloomington, Ind, 1985), pp.48-85; G R Quaife, Godly Zeal and Furious Rage. The Witch in Early Modern Europe (London. 1987), pp.97-112; R Muchembled, La Sorcière au Village, (Paris. 1979). pp. I32-137; Lyndal Roper, ‘Mothers of Debauchery: Procuresses in Reformation Augsburg,’ German History, 6 (1988), pp.1-19.

60. K Thomas, Man and the Natural World (Harmondsworth. 1984). pp.39. 97-98, 118-119. 133-134; Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London. 1982). pp.13-32.

61. E W Monter. ‘Sodomy and Heresy in Early Modern Switzerland,’ Licata and Petersen, pp.47-49; Quaife, p.46.

62. Monter, ‘Sodomy and Heresy’, pp.41-55; Crompton, ‘Myth’. pp.16-17.

63. C Bingham, ‘Seventeenth-Century Attitudes Toward Deviant Sex’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1 (1970-71), pp.447-468; G Ruggiero, ‘Sexual Criminality in Early Renaissance Venice’, Journal of Social History, 6 (1974-5), p.23; B R Burg. ‘Ho Hum. Another Work of the Devil: Buggery and Sodomy in Early Stuart England’, Licata and Petersen, pp.69-78; A L Rowse: Homosexuals in History (London, 1977): this book is completely without source references, and is aptly described by Jeffrey Weeks as the ‘great queens of history’ approach; G Brucker, The Society of Early Renaissance Florence (New York, 1971), pp.201-206; C Bingham, James VI of Scotland (London, 1979), pp.50-51, 146-147, and James I of England (London, 1961). pp.80. 135, 160-161.

64. Bray. pp.13-80.

65. Bray, pp.81-114; Trumbach, ‘London’s Sodomites’. pp.15-18.

66. Bray, pp.113-114; Trumbach, p.19.

67. Bray, pp.81-114: Trumbach, ‘Sodomitical Subcultures, Sodomitical Roles’, in R P Maccubbin (ed). ’Tis Nature’s Fault: Unauthorised Sexuality during the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1987), p.118.

68. C Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (Harmondsworth. 1975), p.215; C B Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford, 1962), pp.137-142.

69. C Hill, The Century of Revolution (London, 1961), pp.204-208; C R Dobson, Masters and Journeymen. A Prehistory of Industrial Relations, 171 7-1800 (London, 1980).

70. I Bloch, Sexual Life in England (trans. W H Forstern, 1965), p.329, citing E Ward, History of the London Clubs (1709); L Crompton, Byron and Greek Love. Homophobia in Nineteenth Century England (London, 1985). pp.50-51.

71. Bloch, p.329. citing The Phoenix of Sodom (1813).

72. Bloch, pp.330-332. citing Satan’s Harvest Home (1749).

73. A N Gilbert, ‘Sexual Deviance and Disaster during the Napoleonic Wars’, Albion, 9 (1977). pp. 102-109; Crompton, Byron, pp.31-32; Bloch, pp.339-342 for a newspaper account of a pillorying.

74. Crompton, ‘Gay Genocide’, pp.71-78; A H Huussen, ‘Sodomy in the Dutch Republic during the Eighteenth Century’, in Maccubbin, Nature’s Fault, pp.169-178.

75. Crompton, Byron, pp. 17-53; J D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (London, 1983), p.14; M Delon, ‘The Priest, the Philosopher and Homosexuality in Enlightenment France’, in Maccubbin, Nature’s Fault, pp.122-131; Voltaire, Dictionnaire Philosophique (ed. J Benda and R Naves, Paris, 1961), pp.18-21. Voltaire thought there might he more excuse for such failings in hot climates, but ‘What appears as only a weakness in the young Alcibiades is a disgusting abomination in a Dutch sailor or a Muscovite barrow-boy.’

76. Crompton, Byron, pp.12-19; ‘Gay Genocide’, p.71; E Zaretsky, Capitalism, the Family and Material Life (London. 1977), p.85.

77. A N Gilbert, ‘Buggery and the British Navy’, Journal of Social History, 10 (1976-7), pp.72-98. ‘Conceptions of Sodomy in Western History’, Licata and Petersen. pp.57-78; and ‘Sexual Deviance’, pp. 102-109; A D Harvey. ‘Prosecution for Sodomy in England at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century’, Historical Journal, 21 (1978), pp.939-948.

78. Gilbert, ‘Buggery’, p.83; Crompton, Byron, p.19.

79. C Hall. ‘The Early Formation of Victorian Domestic Ideology’, in S Burman (ed), Fit Work for Women (London, 1979), p.22.

80. C Hall, ‘The Home Turned Upside Down? The Working-Class Family in Cotton Textiles, 1780-1850’, in E Whitelegg et al (eds.), The Changing Experience of Women (Open University, 1982), pp.17-25.

81. F Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (ed. W O Henderson and W H Chaloner, Oxford, 1958), pp.136, 167, 218. (Although hostile and pedantic, this edition is useful because it gives details of the source materials used by Engels); E Halevy, England in 1815 (London, 1961 edn.), p.263; A V John, By the Sweat of Their Brow. Women Workers at Victorian Coal Mines (London, 1980), pp.36-65; G Pearson, Hooligan. A History of Respectable Fears (London, 1983), pp.159-60.

82. J Rendall, The Origins of Modern Feminism (London, 1985), pp.7-32.

83. A Summers, ‘A Home from Home: Women’s Philanthropic Work in the Nineteenth Century’. in Burman. pp.33-63. The material in this essay shows that Hall’s assertion that the reformers directed their efforts only at the middle classes is not true.

84. P N Stearns, Paths to Authority. The Middle Class and the industrial Labor Force in France, 1820-1848 (Urbana, Ill. 1978). pp.92-93.

85. S Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution (London, 1972), pp.36-58; Rendall, Origins, pp.168-70, 291-5.

86. B Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem, Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1983), pp.57-216.

87. Taylor, Eve, pp.265-275. Contrast the reference to the ‘order of nature’ with Engels, Condition of the Working Class, p.164: ‘If the rule of the wife over the husband… is unnatural, then the former rule of the husband over the wife must also have been unnatural.’

88. J Lewis, Women in England, 1870-1950 (Brighton. 1984). pp.45-74; J Humphries, ‘Class Struggle and the Persistence of the Working Class Family’. Cambridge Journal of Economics, I (1977), pp.241.258.

89. M Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume One: An Introduction (Harmondsworth, 1981), p.43; Bullough, Sex, Society and History, pp.112-132. 161-185.

90. Weeks, Coming Out, pp.23-32. 26.

91. H C Kennedy, ‘The “Third Sex” Theory of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’, Licata and Petersen, pp. 103-111; E Bernstein and W Herzen, Bernstein on Homosexuality (British and Irish Communist Organisation, Belfast, 1977); Weeks, Coming Out, pp.33-44.

92. O Chauncey Jr., ‘Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War One Era’, Journal of Social History, 19 (1985-6), pp.189-211. This deals with the official US Navy enquiry into local ‘perversion’ at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1919, and the attempted prosecution of a local clergyman arising out of it; it contains many revealing instances of popular and official attitudes.

93. J R Walkowitz and Di Walkowitz, “We are not beasts of the field”: Prostitution and the Poor in Plymouth and Southampton under the Contagious Diseases Acts’, in M Hartman and L W Banner, Clio’s Consciousness Raised. New Perspectives on the History of Women (New York, 1974). pp.192-225.

94. J R Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society. Women, Class and the State (Cambridge, 1980); M P Ryan, ‘The Power of Women’s Networks’, in J L Newton, M P Ryan and J R Walkowitz (eds.): Sex and Class in Women’s History (London, 1983), pp.167-186; S Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies. Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930 (London. 1985), pp.6-85.

95. H Montgomery Hyde, The Cleveland Street Scandal (London, 1976), pp.46-50; Other Love, p.155.

96. Bernstein and Herzen, p.29: R Plant, The Pink Triangle. The Nazi War against Homosexuals (Edinburgh, 1987), pp.32. 110.

97. 48-49 Victoria c. 69. Clause 11.

98. Trumbach, ‘London’s Sodomites’, pp.6, 8.

99. Weeks, Coming Out, pp.26-7, 128-143; Plant, pp.31-32.

100. J D Steakley, The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany (Salem, NH. 1982), pp.78-81.

101. R Lautmann, ‘The Pink Triangle. The Persecution of Homosexual Males in Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany’, Licata and Petersen, pp. 141-160; Steakley, Homosexual Emancipation Movement, pp.103-121.

102. Plant, pp.109-117.

103. 24-25 Victoria, c. 100, Clauses 61-63. This was the Offences Against the Person Act, and these crimes were neatly sandwiched in between abortion and bomb-making!

104. H Montgomery Hyde, The Cleveland Street Scandal (London, 1976).

105. R Ellman, Oscar Wilde (Harmondsworth, 1988), pp.364, 402; Jeffrey Weeks, ‘Inverts, Perverts and Mary-Annes: Male Prostitution and the Regulation of Homosexuality in England in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries’, Licata and Petersen. pp.113-124.

106. Ellman, Oscar Wilde, pp.435. 449. 536; Hyde, Other Love, p.15!.

107. Weeks, Coming Out, p.14.

108. Weeks, Coming Out, pp.57-83. 95-143.

109. Weeks, Coming Out, pp. 158-9; Hyde, Other Love, p.221.

110. Weeks, Coming Out, pp. 156-182.

111. E M Schur, Crimes Without Victims. Deviant Behavior and Public Policy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965), pp.77-82; Joan Nestle, A Restricted Country (London, 1988), pp.37-39.

112. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, pp.17. 5(1-51.

113. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, pp.40-53; Laud Humphreys, Out of the Closets. The Sociology of Homosexual Liberation (Englewood Cliffs. NJ. 1972), pp17-23.

114. T Zeldin, France, 1848-1945: Ambition and Love (Oxford, 1979), pp.313-314; C van Casselaer, Lot’s Wife: Lesbian Paris, 1890-1914 (Liverpool, 1986), p.13.

115. M McIntosh, ‘The Homosexual Role’, pp.44-45.

116. Weeks, Coming Out, p.170;

117. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics. p.153.

118. L Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men. Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (London, 1982); Jeffreys, The Spinster and her Enemies; M Vicinus, Independent Women (London, 1983).

119. Crompton, ‘Myth of Lesbian Impunity’, pp.13-25: B Eriksson, ‘A Lesbian Execution in Germany, 1721: The Trial Records’, Licata and Petersen, pp.27-40.

120. Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men, pp.65-230: N F Cott, ‘Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology’, Signs, 4 (1978), pp.219-236.

121. Faderman, pp.47-61; Eriksson, as above.

122. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, pp.99-1(X); Nestle, pp.180-184.

123. Nestle, Restricted Country, pp.157-177

124. Nestle, Restricted Country, pp.165-166. A somewhat different account of the relationship is given by Alice Wexier, Emma Goldman, An Intimate Life (London, 1984), pp.182-183.

125. Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men, pp.357-373; Jean-Pierre Jacques, Les malheurs de Sapho (Paris, 1981); Van Casselaer, Lot’s Wife.

126. Hyde, Other Love, pp.176-l82; Jeffreys, The Spinster, pp.113-115. The class-bound nature of the debate in the Lords is shown by opponents’ concern for women who would pay large amounts of money to blackmailers, and the comment of one that if 20 women occupied a house with 20 bedrooms, there would always he some (innocent) sharing; in the Commons, a Colonel Wedgwood patronisingly explained that Labour Party members would not understand what was intended in the clause.

127. Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men, pp.239-253; Jeffreys, The Spinster. pp. 128-193; Vicinus, Independent Women, pp.288-292.

I21. S Ruehl, ‘Inverts and Experts. Radcliffe Hall and the Lesbian Identity’, in R Brunt and C Rowan (eds.), Feminism, Culture and Politics (London, 1982), p.15-36; Faderman, pp.320-323.

129. Jeffreys, The Spinster, pp.115-121. It is not necessary to accept Jeffreys’s somewhat paranoid analysis to recognise that there was a problem for lesbians here.

130. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, pp.23-39, 92-125; Nestle, pp.108, 116-117.

131. See Plant, The Pink Triangle, pp.37-38 on this delicate subject. It would be wrong to evade this point, since from time to time the occasional ‘Marxist’ homophobe raises Marx and Engels’s private remarks (which would be unacceptable even in private from a Marxist today, for the reason given above) as ‘the right line’. Such rubbish cannot be combated without some knowledge of the facts.