The Queer History of the United States: Part 5

Episode · 2 years ago

The Queer History of the United States: Part 5


The origin of the term homosexual, Berlin at the turn of the century, Oscar Wilde’s forbidden love, and massive glorious New York City drag balls.  Be sure to follow Eric on IG and John on Twitter! Your host is Levi Chambers, co-founder of Gayety. Follow the show and keep up with the conversation @Pride. Want more great shows from Straw Hut Media? Check out or website at Your producers are Levi Chambers, Maggie Boles, Ryan Tillotson and Edited by Sebastian Alcala Have an interesting LGBTQ+ story to share? We might feature U! Email us at *This podcast is not affiliated with Pride Media. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit

Straw media. High Pride listeners, we hope you're home and safe during this crazy time, if you're not home because you work in healthcare, a grocery store or any other industry that's still out and about. Thank you, thank you, thank you. We appreciate you. Last week we learned that James Buchanan may have been gay, but we also decided that we don't really want to claim him because he was kind of garbage. Today we're forging ahead into part five of our series on the Queer history of the United States. The civil war is over. It's the late eighteen hundreds. We're going to go all the way until just before the stonewall riots in one thousand eight hundred and sixty nine. That's about a hundred years to cover, so buckle in and get ready for me to misspronounce a lot of words. I'm sorry for that in advance. I'M LEA by chambers and this is pride. Dr Eric Servinni is back in the studio and he's here to start us off. Today we'll be talking about how the idea of being a homosexual or a gay person or a queer person came to be. Who I like this. This is like the bird of labels. MMM, got it. Birth of an identity. Birth of an identity. That's a moving that does sound good, Huh. It'd be like a really deep voice for the trailer. The birth of an identity. Yes, that kind of sounds like it should be at the planetarium. So, listeners, here we go. Pride presents part one, the birth of an identity. Up until this time, until the end of the nineteen century, people generally considered homosexuality to be a problem of behavior. Right, it was actually an action. So yes, maybe you were a sodom white, but that only meant that you were guilty of a crime. But as we move deeper into the Victorian era, physicians, scientists and philosophers are trying to find ways to label behaviors and see if they're inborn or learned, if they're naturally occurring variations or products of society. And so they're actually trying to categorize some of these conditions and basically take away that power from the church and say this isn't a matter of sin, this is actually a matter of a medical condition. A pre eminent medical doctor and forensic medical scientist of the time was a Frenchman named Augusta Ambrose tard you. He wrote about topics like forensic toxicology, child abuse and sexuality, and he says, Oh, well, they have these characteristics, so they may have these physical appearances of wearing makeup, flushy clothes, being unclean. He looks for her deformation of an anus. Right, there were these physical attributes that were signs of what he considered to be pederastic right, that this kind of tradition continuing from from ancient Greek Times. And the word homosexual wasn't even used until one thousand eight hundred and sixty nine. The first known public use of the term homosexual in print is in an one thousand eighteen and sixty nine German pamphlet written by an Austrian born Hungarian journalist, memoirst and human rights campaigner, Carl Maria Kurt Benny. Published anonymously. The pamphlet advocated for the repeal of Prussia's sodomy laws. Already you have people resisting right and because there were these laws, it triggered people to say, well, actually, these, the victims of these laws,...

...actually represent a category. Right, in that category is a homosexual. For the first time, the scientific and philosophical communities are entertaining the idea that sexuality is not as simple as they had believed and that homosexuality might even be something natural or, as lady Gott might say, they were born this way. And so you have one guy, Carl Ulrics, so he defined homosexual as a third sex right, which was a women's soul trapped in a man's body. Then you have Magnus Hirschfeld from from Germany. He was actually an activist and sexologist in Germany, and he said, well, it's a little bit more complex than that. So you have, instead of just physical characteristics, we also have to look at their organs, right, so, because of course there are people who may have been intersects. Then you have sexual instincts, right, how they behave, and then moral behavior. Hirshfield is probably best known for his theory on sexual intermediaries, which stated that there were possibly infinite types of naturally occurring sexual variations found across the human population. In one thousand eight hundred and ninety nine, Magnus Hirshfield began publishing the Yearbook of Intermediate Sexual Types, the first journal in the world to deal with sexual variance. It continued to be published regularly until one thousand nineteen and twenty three. Both ul REX and Hirshfield agree sexuality is inborn. Because it's something that's inborn, then to persecute people right, to throw them in jail, is doesn't make sense right. We should be helping these people instead, and he ends up being a pretty powerful activist figure later in the beginning of the twenty century. In fact, Berlin was sort of the birthplace of the gay rights movement, with Ul rex as essentially the first gay activist. Before World War One and the subsequent rise of the Nazi party, Berlin was moving toward a very liberal type of society. In the S, a police commissioner stopped prosecuting gay bars and even led tours of the growing scene. In one thousand eight hundred and ninety six, the first gay magazine, Dare Igna, or the self owning, began publication. The following year, Magnus Hirshfield founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which was, in a sense, the first gay rights organization. At the time, however, attention was focused primarily on homosexuality in men rather than in women. It's either something that's just marginally significant. They don't really believe it existed at all. It was believed at the time that without male seamen, a woman quint a chief satisfaction. So relationships between women, especially sexual ones, just didn't make sense. It wasn't logical. So that's why all the literature in debate at the time was going centered on men. Sex between women wasn't even explicitly outlawed in Germany at the time. Still, lesbians were no more free to live openly, and attempts to join the mail centered gay rights movement with women's rights movements were around, though unsuccessful. There was the theater and music critic Theo Ona Sprungeli, who, in one thousand nine hundred and four spoke to hers Fields Organization about homosexuality and the Women's movement. Under the name Anna ruling. She proposed that the gay rights and feminist movements should aid each other reciprocally, because both groups struggled for the same things freedom, equality and selfdetermination. Unfortunately, after she gave her historic speech, she never spoke or wrote again on the subject. Instead, she ended up concealing her past as Germany became more radically conservative, and almost nothing is known about her later life. Around this time, people all over the world. We're moving...

...into much more scientific ways of thinking. In one thousand eight hundred and fifty nine, Charles Darwin published his origin of species, calling into question religious concepts of creation that had earlier been universally accepted as truth. After that many more physicians and scientists question more aspects of life and incomes the founder of psychoanalysis, segment Freud. He is extremely important because he rejected this idea of homosexuality being a disease and it being inborn. So he understood it more as an emotional, developmental rather than hereditary process. So, according to Freud, we're all born with bisexual potential, but then over time we're expected to develop this normal, you know, header sexual orientation, as long as nothing goes wrong. But if that process is stopped, if it's arrested, then we yet homosexuality. And even though Freud disagrees with ulrics and Hirshfield about the inborn quality of same sex attraction, he still relatively sympathetic towards people who are gay. And in fact there is a really famous letter the mother of someone, of a young man who she was worried about was gay or a homosexual, and so wrote to Freud and said, what do I do? I'm so worried. He writes back and says I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. So, as you can see, that word is is becoming more common. I'm most impressed by the fact that you do not mention this term yourself and your information about him. May I question you why you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degregation. It cannot be classified as an illness. We consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vincri etc. It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too. If you do not believe me, read the books of Haylock Ellis, who is another sexologist from the end of the nineteen century. As time goes by, Freud's theories about sexuality become more and more popular, not only about homosexuality but about all kinds of aspects of the human psyche. He comes up with the oudable, complex dream interpretation, the D ego and Superego, Melancholia, all kinds of stuff. But his ideas about sexuality and how homosexuality came to be raised a new problem, and that was that if homosexuality was a matter of the mind, then it meant that you could be fixed and you could be prevented from being gay. So and also, if you were homosexual, perhaps you could even be cured. So, even though he wasn't really preoccupied himself with these facts, a lot of his colleagues and the people who adopted the tenets of what he was arguing did run with that, and so that's where you get now this idea of, you know, maybe conversion therapy, or even parents will say, Oh, if there was anything I could have done to prevent this from happening, to prevent my son or daughter or child from being a homosexual. That is a continuation of this idea that really was new at the beginning of the twenty century, that to be a homosexual is something that you could actually prevent. After the break Oscar Wilde and urgeoning gay communities in Europe and the US, welcome back before the...

...break we talked a lot about the origin of the term homosexual. Now will look at some of the men who are at the forefront of these discussions. During this time, one of the most notable early gay figures was playwright Oscar Wilde. To help us unpack the life of Oscar Wilde, we call the literature professor at Fresno State University in Central California. So my name is John Bynan. I am in a professor of English at Fresno State, California State University Fresno, and teaching the English Department. I am not necessarily an expert in lgbtq history. That I do teach lesbian gay literature, of course. I developed about nineteen years ago and has been on the books ever since. At Fresno State. Dr John Bynne teaches courses in restoration and eighteen century British literature and culture, plus Queer Theory and Lesbian and gay literature. He Co edited Lesbian Dames Sap is m in the long eighteen century and has published essays on Lady Mary Wortley, Montague, William Beckford, Daniel Dafoe and memoirs of a woman of Pleasure, among other eighteen century writers, John Teaches Oscar wild really key figures both in terms of Victorian literature and in terms of the history of sexuality. Born in eighteen fifty four in Ireland, wild came from a relatively eccentric family. He's probably best known for his plays and the novel the picture of Dorian Gray. He had a wife and two children, but he had other interests. He had been interested in sort of varieties of kinds of homeoauticism, some that stamas from the Greek notions of homosexuality. From that were rooted in the estheticist movement, which was basically a movement in the late nineteen century to the nineteen century that focused on art and sort of upholding art for art stake. He was a proponent of the esthetic movement, which suggested that art and literature should focus on beauty rather than trying to communicate a moral or political message. He dressed fulambuoyantly, wearing colorful velvets and silks and keeping his hair long, and he valued classical standards of beauty and desire when it came to the male body. Think the statue of David a very sexy statue, if I do say so myself. He was. He was already been connected, even before his trial, with a series of individuals who are part of, I guess you could call them, a sort of a queer underground in London, and through that community he met a man named Lord Alfred Douglass. It was a younger British poet, aristocrat. Here's Eric again. He was sixteen years younger. And Douglas's father found out about it and was so upset about the relationship that he wanted to expose wild, who's this older man who, you know, of course, was corrupting his son. See, Douglas's father was the Marquess of Queensberry, a Scottish nobleman, and he was pissed that not only was his son engaging and what he thought was inappropriate behavior with another man, but also they weren't even trying to be discreet about it. The marquess confronted wild about it, but he denied there was anything going on. The two feuded for about a year, during which time Oscar Wilde wrote his famous play the importance of being earnest. A few days after the play opened, the Marquess left his card for wild. It said for Oscar Wilde, posing Sodom die. He misspelled the word idiot, and so again he's using this word which kind of carried over and had more moral and biblical connotations.

Then then what was currently in the medical field. Against the advice of everyone, wild sued for defamation, but the problem was there was actually a lot of evidence to support the accusation. During the trial you have hotel meads and housekeeper testifying that there have been young men in his bed. They had found stains on his sheets, pretty clear what was going on. The MARQUESS had hired private investigators and was able to get several male sex workers to testify against wild. They even read some especially homoerotic scenes from wild's novel. In the end he was charged with twenty five counts of gross indecency and though his first trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict, he was retried three weeks later and found guilty. Both he and his lover, Douglass, were sentenced to two years hard labor, the maximum sentence allowed for the crime. Here's John Again, and the judge actually famously says that that is totally inadequate for a case such as this. The worst case I've ever tried and and so that that was a significant moment in sort of consolidating, I guess, hatred around the practices of some sex desire between them. After serving his time, Oscar wild moved to Paris. As a result of his time in prison, he was in poor health and was known to wander the streets drunk. Two years later he passed away of meningitis and was buried just outside Paris in a least Pauper's grave. It wasn't for another nine years, once his debts were paid off, that he was moved and reinterred at his final resting place, the famous ped Le Chaise Cemetery. But with's so important about his case is that wild made this idea of feminascy right and immorality and luxury that became synonymous with sexual inversion. Or if you were a sodomite or homosexual, then you were all the things that society said were bad about Oscar Wilde. One contemporary of Oscar Wilde was an English poet, philosopher and activist named Edward Carpenter who, despite living in England through the uproar caused by the Oscar wild trial, managed to maintain a relationship with his partner, George Merrill John Says Carpenter's works were interesting because they combined ideas of homosexuality and socialism, sort of thinking about the ways in which same sex love between men can be sort of liberatory and sort of moving us out of particular, you know, sort of conditions of oppressive lacks, as they happen to be in you know, I guess maybe the mix stages of the early states of capitalism at the time that he's writing, and that's going to be reflected, reflected later in the Gay Liberation Movement. And there were more writers in both the US and in Europe who were beginning to explore same sex erotic desire in their writing, though discreetly. Well witmen, for example, is writing the grass. In fact, what women in Oscar wild meat, when Oscar wild goes to you at the US as a tour and and what women work is, you know, sort of widely understood now to be sort of rife with homootic content. But yeah, at the time that you're Stein is writing, you know that's go further into the twentieth century, but definitely a sort of codery of writers in Paris, a lot of them expats are getting together in Solon's and sharing their work. And and again there's, you know, those ways in which these folks are, either not always overtly, but sort of more and more explicitly beginning to reveal the homeotic kind of desires or representations that they see intent on trying... portray for their writing. Before World War II, Paris and Berlin were practically gay world capitals and attracted writers and artists of all kinds. Paris offered myriad gay bars and Frances sodomy laws had been removed during the revolutionary period. Berlin had twenty two thousand known male sex workers in nineteen twenty nine and also attracted writers and artists like Christopher Isherwood, whose book published in Nineteen Forty Five Berlin stories inspired the musical cabaret. And don't forget that Berlin was also the place that Ulrix and Hirshfield, who we talked about earlier, lived and worked. But Way, this is a series about the queer history of the US, isn't it? WHAT ABOUT NEW YORK? For really long time, really up until the S, historians always said well before World War II, yes, maybe there was this idea of being homosexual, but there wasn't really a gay culture, not until World War II or afterwards. And George Schauncey found what he called an extensive, organized and highly visible gay world in New York before the war, going all the way to the beginning of the century, especially in the S and early S. George Chauncy, a professor of History at Columbia University, is best known as the author of Gay New York, gender, urban culture and the making of the gay male world, ninety to nineteen forty. And he found records, especially in these organizations that were built to kind of maintain the morality of the city. One of them was called the Society for the Suppression of Vice, where they kept very detailed records of, you know, trying to prevent homosexuality or sexual deviance in in the S and S. and what chauncy found was in the working class world there were very vibrant subcultures, because working classmen tended to be more tolerant than the middle class right. So you know, during the time of prohibition, when when alcohol and liquor were banned, there was a very, very diverse sexual underworld that took place in some of these working class neighborhood it's in New York City and what he found were sometimes men had these public identities so that they could, as he said, participate in the gay world without losing the privileges of the Strait. So maybe you would be a middle class man who was married and had a perfectly normal life, maybe on the you know, upper west side or something, and then would go down to the bowery and go to the saloons and have a completely different persona that at the same time, Eric says, there was an idea not just of a homosexual but of a certain type of homosexual that people dubbed a fairy. So you may have heard that word before. Oh He's a fairy or something like that. And yes, it was pejorative. It wasn't seen as a good word, but a lot of people understood themselves as a fairy, especially in some of these working class neighborhoods like the bowery. But what's more is that they weren't regarded as a threat of any kind because, well, if you're going into a bar and you see a fairy, maybe someone who was wearing makeup or had, you know, some effeminate dress that told you, as a man that you were normal right because they existed, and so it was this really interesting kind of dynamic that that chauncy found. Chauncy found evidence of all kinds of gay subcultures, including sexual activity and parks, bath houses, Cafeterias and rooming houses,...

...and this is all the beginning of the twenty century. And one of my favorite things, of course, are drag balls that were just absolutely immense, especially in Harlem. One of them was called a Hamilton Lodge Ball. Some people called it the faggots ball. These drag balls had been held in Hamilton Lodge and Harlem since one thousand eighteen sixty nine, and as knowledge of the balls spread throughout the gay community, they became a safe place for gay men to get together. Even though they were popular both inside and outside the Lgbtq community, drag balls were considered illegal and a moral by mainstream society. The balls were periodically investigated by a moral reform organization and in one thousand nine hundred and sixteen the Committee released a report describing the scenes they had witnessed. They described a place filled with phenomenal male perverts in expensive frocks and wigs, looking like women, which honestly sounds like a a pretty sweet party. So literally, since this idea of being a homosexual existed and it grew and grew in popularity until the S, and then it peaked in the early s and reached eightzero attendees in one thousand nine hundred and thirty seven. And this is for a giant drag ball. And so one reason we don't know about it is because, well, since it was happening in Harlem with the White Press didn't really pay attention, but the black press did and it wasn't really buried like people would talk about it. But then when prohibition was repealed in nineteen thirty three, suddenly the government was back in the bars regulating everything. So you have, especially in New York, the rise of the State Liquor Authority, where you if you were a bar, you had to prove that you weren't disorderly and if you had gay people in your bar right, if you had gay men holding hands or kissing or, you know, even being presumed to be gay, then the state could shut you down for running a disorderly bar. So legitimate bars, and this happens all the way through the twenty century in places like New York, legitimate bars couldn't be gay. So what happened? Well, if you want it to have a gay bar, then it needed to be illegitimate, which meant it was often run by the Mafia. And we won't get into this yet, but one of those bars that were run by the mafia was the stone walllet. Next week, in the finale of our six part series on the queer history of the United States, we'll talk about the stonewall riots of one thousand nine hundred and sixty nine and the beginning of the Gay Pride Movement. Pride is a production of Straw hut media. If you like the show, leave us a rating and a review on Apple, podcast, spotify or wherever you're tuning in from. Share us with your friends, subscribe and follow us on Instagram, facebook and twitter at pride. You can follow me at leave chambers and you can find Dr Eric Gervini at Eric Sear v and I special thanks to Dr John By nine from Fresno State University. You can find out more about him at Fresno State Dot Edu and you can follow him on twitter at John by nine. That's beey non. Please stay safe and healthy out there, listeners, keep social distancing and listening to podcasts. Stay home if you can, wash your hands, drink plenty of water and call your loved ones. Bow Mic drop. Get it... really please don't drop the microphone. Don't do that, though, please don't do that.

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