Same-Sex Love

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For much of the early nineteenth century, same-sex love in America was neither secretive nor subject to social oppression. Indeed what now appear to be surprisingly explicit examples of affection between members of the same sex were often understood, in this earlier period, as legitimate and socially acceptable alternatives to traditional heterosexual unions. Hence Calvin Stowe, husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), could describe to his famous wife without guilt or shame the solace he found in another man's company during an extended separation from her: "When I get desperate, & cannot stand it any longer, I get dear, good kind hearted Br[other] Stagg to come and sleep with me, and he puts his arms round me & hugs me to my hearts' content" (Hedrick, p. 180).

If such manifestations of same-sex affection (and physical contact) seem unambiguously homoerotic to modern sensibilities, this is due, in part, to changing social and historical definitions of same-sex desire. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, modern conceptions of homosexuality and homoeroticism did not exist. Indeed many social historians note that "homosexuality," as a scientific term, did not emerge until roughly 1869. Before that time, homosexual acts were not associated with distinct "types" of people, and thus it is only a comparatively recent cultural tendency to link specific sexual practices with specific social identities. In this view it is historically inaccurate to assume that gay and lesbian men and women existed in the same way in all eras and in all cultures. simply did not have the same social meaning as it does in contemporary society. As a result to speak of homosexual people and practices before the term "homosexual" was even invented may misrepresent the nature of same-sex love in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

To understand desire as historically relative presents both opportunities and difficulties for scholars of gay and lesbian studies. On the one hand, if it cannot be assumed that same-sex love has existed in the same way in all societies, neither can it be assumed that the appropriate social response to such affection is fear, disgust, or violence—reactions that are often promulgated as "natural" in modern culture. On the other hand, the quest for historical precision may bring with it the risk of losing the comforts of generational continuity. To note that same-sex love has meant different things at different times can prove frustrating to those seeking an identifiable tradition of homosexual desire. Adding to this historical challenge is the basic problem of evidence. Unlike the children produced through heterosexual unions, there exists no comparable physical proof of homosexual relations.

Nevertheless, it might reasonably be presumed that the existence of heterosexual relationships points also to the likelihood of same-sex eroticism, even if contemporary definitions of homosexuality do not translate easily into earlier historical periods. In this regard literature provides one way to identify the presence of same-sex love before the category "homosexual" emerged in the late nineteenth century. One should pay close attention, for example, to those works (and authors) that reject traditionally heterosexual concerns, such as marriage or romantic love between men and women. Through such absences, these texts may well signal the presence of a proto-homosexual sensibility. While thus acknowledging the need for historical relativism, one might identify in these earlier texts some of the issues and themes that prefigure contemporary understandings of homoerotic desire.


The potential for same-sex love in the early nineteenth century was encouraged by the social organization of American culture itself. During this era, men and women were understood as possessing fundamentally different social capabilities due to differences in biology. Men were seen as logical and rational, ideally suited to the public world of business and commerce. Women, by contrast, were seen as emotional and maternal, naturally adapted to the private, domestic world of the home. Nineteenth-century society thus tended to be divided into separate, gender-specific social spheres. As a result of these divisions, intense attachments often developed between members of the same sex, forging what social historians have termed "romantic friendships." While the possibility of eroticism within these relationships certainly existed, they were thought to be essentially nonsexual, particularly because American culture's interest in identifying (and policing) homosexuality developed only in the latter years of the century. Calvin Stowe's remarks to his wife about his intimate physical contact with Brother Stagg therefore would have raised very few eyebrows.

Women were seen in antebellum America as inherently pure beings; as a result their relationships with other women were believed to be naturally asexual. Intimate, affectionate connections between women were thus socially acceptable facets of everyday life in the early nineteenth century. Such relationships were often encouraged as preferable substitutes to the unwanted advances of men with dubious romantic motives. With the full support of their culture, then, many women formed lifelong, committed partnerships with other women. Often termed "Boston marriages," these relationships were seen as culturally legitimate alternatives to heterosexual marriage and remained so until an increased interest in identifying lesbian "perversion" cast female-female unions as newly suspect at the dawn of the twentieth century. For much of the nineteenth century, however, women could express their affection for each other with great openness and with very little fear of social retribution.

The historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has described romantic relationships between women as part of what she terms the "female world of love and ritual," the specifically female social groups that developed in response to the gender-segregated culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From birth through schooling and into adulthood, women of the era often experienced their closest emotional bonds with other women. Whether these attachments also included erotic physical contact is not known. On the one hand, historians are careful to note that modern understandings of lesbian sexuality are quite different from the same-sex connections women formed in the early nineteenth century. On the other hand, it seems reasonable to presume that sex between women could occur within such passionate relationships. As historians of women's history have argued, the cultural supposition that women in antebellum America were asexual simply because their era defined them as such should not be accepted at face value.

Identifying same-sex eroticism in literature written by women at this time is thus a complex matter. In countless letters, diaries, short stories, poems, and novels, women detailed their affection and love for each other with unusual candor. But what appears overtly homoerotic from a modern perspective would not have been understood as such in earlier eras. Even those works produced in the late nineteenth century that depict intense female-female relationships, such as Louisa May Alcott's Work: A Story of Experience (1873) and Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), were not seen as "lesbian" texts at the time of their respective publications. Consequently one must approach literature about female same-sex romantic friendships with careful consideration of the cultural context in which these works were produced.

Such concerns, for example, inform contemporary study of the work of Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), one of the most important poets of the nineteenth century. Although she never married, critics frequently have pointed to Dickinson's strong relationships with men (such as her father, her brother, and her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson) as evidence of her heterosexuality. Scholarship, however, has increasingly focused on Dickinson's relationship with her sister-inlaw Susan ("Sue") Gilbert Dickinson (1830–1913), the person with whom the poet shared what appears to be her most intense emotional bond. While it is not known whether Dickinson and Sue's friendship was sexual, the fact that early editions of Dickinson's work minimized this relationship speaks, perhaps, to an intimacy that transgressed even the nineteenth century's usual tolerance of female-female bonding.

In her poems and letters, Dickinson details fantasies of kissing, caressing, and holding Sue; she describes Sue as her "absent Lover" and refers to herself as "Susan's Idolator [who] keeps a Shrine for Susan." While the extent to which Sue reciprocated this affection is not known, it is clear that she served for Dickinson as one of her primary sources of poetic inspiration. Dickinson repeatedly links her literary gifts with Sue's influence and often utilizes similar imagery to comment both on her writing and her love for Sue. One letter to Sue, for example, begins:

Dear Sue,
taught me—poverty!
Myself, a "Millionaire"
In little—wealths—as
Girls can boast—
Till broad as "Buenos Ayre"—

(Dickinson, Open Me Carefully, p. 105)

This letter forms the basis for a later poem:

Your Riches—taught me—Poverty. 
Myself—a Millionaire
In little Wealths, as Girls could boast
Till broad as Buenos Ayre—
You drifted your Dominions—
A Different Peru—
And I esteemed all Poverty
For Life's Estate with you—

(Dickinson, Complete Poems, p. 140)

As the letter and the poem it inspired demonstrate, important facets of Dickinson's writing have their roots in her relationship with Sue Gilbert. While remaining sensitive to the anachronisms inherent in defining this bond as "lesbian," it is possible to identify the centrality of same-sex love to much of Dickinson's poetic genius. In this way her writing helps modern-day readers both to appreciate the nature of women's relationships with other women in this era and to recognize how such relationships form an essential part of the American literary tradition.


Like their female counterparts, many of the nineteenth century's most well-known male authors also experienced the personal significance of same-sex romantic friendships. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), for example, the leading proponent of the transcendentalist movement in America, had been attracted to a fellow classmate at Harvard University in the 1820s, an experience that scholars see as formative to some of his subsequent writing. In his essay "On Friendship" (1841), for instance, Emerson notes a "select and sacred relation" between friends "which is a kind of absolute, and which even leaves the language of love suspicious and common, so much is this purer, and nothing is so much divine" (p. 118). While not overtly homoerotic, these comments nonetheless describe the vital importance of same-sex attachments, even naming them as superior to heterosexual unions.

Emerson's friend and fellow transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) expressed a similar appreciation for intimate connections between men. In a passage from his masterpiece, Walden (1854), for example, Thoreau records the arrival of a woodchopper at his cabin, a man described as both effortlessly masculine and aesthetically refined. This visitor brings to the cabin a keen interest in the ancient Greeks, and at his request Thoreau translates from Homer's Iliad a scene in which the great warrior Achilles rebukes his bosom friend Patroclus for weeping on the battlefield. The choice of passage is not neutral. In recounting this conversation between male companions who are also lovers, Thoreau tacitly reminds his readers that not all male-male relations are strictly platonic. Achilles's bond to Patroclus (and Thoreau's implicit connection to his unnamed visitor) demonstrates that even within the conventionally masculine worlds of ancient soldiers and contemporary woodchoppers, tender compassion between men is not only possible but also personally enriching.

Important examples of female romantic friendships are the letters Emily Dickinson wrote to her most intimate friend, and sister-in-law, Sue Gilbert. One letter reads in part:

Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to? . . . I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you—that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast—

Dickinson, Open Me Carefully, p. 36.

The erotic potential of male romantic friendship in the nineteenth century finds its fullest expression in the work of Walt Whitman (1819–1892). More than any other author of the period, Whitman gave voice to the range of emotional possibilities within men's relationships with other men. To define these attachments, Whitman used the term "adhesiveness" and clearly distinguished them from the bonds that formed between men and women (which he called "amativeness"). Like Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman saw romantic friendships between men as personally transformative and spiritually moving. Unlike that of his transcendental colleagues, however, Whitman's work often concentrates explicitly on the physical attributes of the male body, describing in detail the sensual satisfaction to be gained from an appreciation of "Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests," and young men swimming who "float on their backs, their white bellies swell to the sun" (p. 42). For Whitman, attachments between men exist not only in the spiritual realm of transcendental friendship but also in the earthy, corporeal pleasures of the flesh.

His most famous work, "Song of Myself," one portion of the extensively revised Leaves of Grass (1855), celebrates this understanding. Whitman sees all aspects of the individual as divine, and hence he glories in his descriptions of the self as "disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . eating drinking and breeding" (p. 56). This sequence of poems details a growing self-awareness of the body as sacred, and Whitman particularly notes the powers his own body contains:

I believe in the flesh and the appetites, 
Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles, and each part
and tag of me is a miracle
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I
touch or am touched from;
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.

(P. 57)

In describing the magnificence of his body and its desires, the poet implicitly asks that his readers recognize (and appreciate) similar traits in themselves and in those around them. Whitman thus shows his readers how a celebration of the self can (and should) substitute for shame and self-loathing, and he demonstrates, further, how such self-acceptance permits love to grow between men. In so doing "Song of Myself" offers a powerful alternative message to those social scripts that would either demonize same-sex love or force it into hiding.

The transformative power of "adhesive love," according to Whitman, ultimately does more than provide personal gratification; it also has the potential to restore the nation to its democratic potential by correcting the cultural tendency toward materialism and selfish egoism. Thus in Democratic Vistas (1871), his trenchant critique of American society, Whitman describes the role same-sex love between men will play in the future prosperity of the United States: "Intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man—which, hard to define, underlies the lessons and ideals of the profound saviours of every land and age," offers "the most substantial hope and safety of the future of these States" (p. 369).

Here, as in "Song of Myself," Whitman defines love between men in explicitly positive terms. By emphasizing the political ramifications of same-sex desire, and by depicting such desire as socially beneficial, Whitman anticipates (and effectively contradicts) many of the objections society makes to gay and lesbian relationships. Same-sex love, in Whitman's view, does not threaten the moral fabric of the United States; on the contrary, it is precisely through this love that American society will be delivered from its moral decay. Through such characterizations of male-male relationships, Whitman's writing has served as a beacon for innumerable gay readers, inspiring American poets, such as Hart Crane and Allen Ginsberg, and several generations of men searching for affirmation of their relationships with other men.

Walt Whitman's relationship with Peter Doyle, a streetcar conductor in Washington, D.C., offers one instance of same-sex love between men in the nineteenth century. Years after their first encounter, Doyle described the moment he met Whitman.

He was the only passenger, it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk with him. Anyway, I went into the car. We were familiar at once—I put my hand on his knee—we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip—in fact went all the way back with me.

D'Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, p. 128.


One of the primary lessons to be learned from literary examples of same-sex love is that cultural responses to such affection have varied tremendously over time. Because homosexuality, as a category, emerged only in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the emotions (and sexual activities) identified in the twenty-first century as gay and lesbian were merely part of the general social fabric in this earlier era. Nineteenth-century culture did not observe a strict one-to-one correlation between specific sexual activities and specific social identities, and it is in this respect, ironically, that antebellum America might be seen as more accepting of sexual difference than is present-day American culture. Consequently such an understanding may spur a reconsideration of presumptions about the moral repressiveness of the nineteenth century and of contemporary responses to same-sex desire.

The following example serves as a case in point. The historian C. A. Tripp's research on Abraham Lincoln (1814–1865) suggests that the president's relationships with other men—most notably with his close friend, Joshua Speed (1814–1882)—went beyond the boundaries of mere friendship. The pair shared a bed for several years, and Speed himself noted that "no two men were ever so intimate" (Tripp, p. xx). Because their union predated the term "homosexual," however, to identify Lincoln and Speed as gay misrepresents the specific cultural context in which their relationship developed. Like Emily Dickinson and Sue Gilbert, Lincoln and Speed formed an attachment entirely within the bounds prescribed (and even encouraged) by antebellum society. Consequently the pair's relationship, while intense, would not have been thought improper within the mores of nineteenth-century culture.

Lincoln's apparent comfort with same-sex intimacy serves as an important reminder of the historical lessons to be learned from antebellum culture. Relationships that would likely be seen in the early twenty-first century as unambiguously homoerotic (and thus subject to social critique) existed in the nineteenth century as legitimate alternatives to more traditional heterosexual unions. In this respect the examples of Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, and Thoreau demonstrate that cultural reactions to same-sex love are neither inevitable nor unchanging. The historical perspective offered by the nineteenth century may thus reveal as much about American culture's future as it does about its past.

See alsoFriendship; "Hawthorne and His Mosses"; New York; Sexuality and the Body; "Song of Myself"; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, 1961.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958.

Dickinson, Emily. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. Ashfield, Mass.: Paris, 1998.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Collected Works of Ralph WaldoEmerson. Vol. 2. Edited by Alfred R. Ferguson and Jean Ferguson Carr. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.

Whitman, Walt. The Portable Walt Whitman. Edited by Mark Van Doren. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Secondary Works

Bennett, Paula. My Life, a Loaded Gun: Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters:A History of Sexuality in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: RomanticFriendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, AnIntroduction. 1978. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980.

Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. Love Stories: Sex between Men beforeHomosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision andCorporeality in Leaves of Grass. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Tripp, C. A. The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. Edited by Lewis Gannett. New York: Free Press, 2005.

Michael Borgstrom