Skip to main content

Homosexuality and Lesbianism

HOMOSEXUALITY AND LESBIANISM

Randolph Trumbach

Throughout the centuries since 1300 sexual relations between males have been defined by the official cultures of the church and the state as immoral and illegal. From the arrests, trials, and punishment of men who engaged in this behavior it is possible to sketch a history of male homosexual relations. More trials were held in southern than in northern Europe before 1700, and more trials were held in the north than in the south thereafter. Consequently more is known about Italy in the later Middle Ages than about England, France, or the Netherlands, and more is known about these three northern countries than about southern Europe in the subsequent centuries. Nonetheless, some signposts are visible. The nature of sexual relations between males changed profoundly around 1700 as the result of a major shift in all sexual relations, whether heterosexual or homosexual, and significant but lesser changes occurred after 1850 and 1950.

The history of sexual relations between women, by contrast, is much harder to reconstruct. In some places the behavior was illegal, and in others it was not. But the archives have yielded only about a dozen cases before 1500. By the eighteenth century a short history is possible, written from the literary representations of desire between women. But not until the nineteenth century did the diaries and letters of leisured women extensively document actual relationships. After World War II oral histories reconstruct a public sexual culture for women. It is of course likely that significant differences existed throughout these centuries between the sexual behavior of women and men if for no other reason than the domination that men exercised over all of women's activities. But evidence suggests that the significant changes in sexual behavior between men after 1700, 1850, and 1950 had parallels in the behavior between women, since at these points in time the entire Western sexual system, heterosexual and homosexual, changed.

AN AGE-STRUCTURED SYSTEM, 1300–1700

In the years from 1300 to 1700 sexual relations between European males were structured by differences in age. This meant that men past the age of puberty who could grow full beards took sexually active roles with adolescent boys who had entered puberty. Since for reasons of diet and physiology puberty then began later than it did in the twentieth century, boys between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two were anally penetrated by men who were in their mid- to late twenties and sometimes older. This was not, however, the behavior of a minority of 4 or 5 percent of all males, as homosexual behavior was in Western countries in 2000. Instead it is likely that all males experienced conscious desire for other males and that most of them acted on this desire. But these males also desired women. Some of them went to prostitutes, and most of them eventually married women and had children. Among the minority who never married, some were primarily interested in boys, but most were probably restrained from marrying by economic factors that were part of a distinctive western European demographic regime. That demographic regime disappeared over the course of the eighteenth century as marriage became universal except among the small minority of exclusively homosexual men.

More importantly sexual desire in men after 1700 was divided between an overwhelming majority who were exclusively heterosexual and a homosexual minority of less than 5 percent. This can be difficult for Westerners to understand, because in the late nineteenth century a supposedly scientific psychology analyzed the sexual divisions observed in Western societies as moral or biological constants that must exist in all human societies. This psychology invented the terms "homosexual" and "heterosexual" to describe these divisions, unaware that they had only arisen in the first generation after 1700.

Westerners after 1700 had difficulty understanding any sexual system other than their own. This was true even when they read the evidence for earlier Western societies. Despite the great prestige of the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome in Western culture, the literary evidence for their sexual systems, in which men desired both boys and women, was ignored, denounced, or misinterpreted by educated men, who read it as a standard part of their educations. The literary evidence of the Renaissance, whether from Italy or England, was similarly misread in the mistaken belief that Christianity, because it denounced and punished sodomy, had profoundly changed the behavior of European men from what it had been in the ancient pagan Mediterranean. Observing cultures other than their own, in many of which men desired both boys and women, Europeans similarly either ignored the evidence of their own eyes or denounced it as the peculiar degeneracy of inferior races. They understood only Western behavior because that was presumed to be the biological and moral norm. The homosexual minorities of their own societies were categorized as biological and moral deviants, and all homosexual behavior from any time or place was similarly classified.

A comparative perspective. The age-structured system of sexual relations between European males that prevailed between 1300 and 1700 is better understood when compared with similar systems from other cultures and contrasted with gender-structured systems of homosexual behavior. In the Mediterranean world the prevailing systems for sexual relations between males were structured by differences in age. Among the ancient Greeks adult male citizens who had grown their beards courted beardless adolescent boys who were their social equals. It brought great prestige to a beautiful boy like Alcibiades to be desired by many men. But ideally a boy was faithful to one lover, who became his guide. The sexual component of the relationship ended when the boy grew his beard, and his lover married a woman. Boys had to be careful that they were not publicly stigmatized as either passive or mercenary. A free boy who allowed his favors to be bought lost his rights of citizenship, but foreign boys who were slaves or prostitutes were legally bought by their owners or patrons. The transition from passive boy to active man was crucial, and the minority of adult men who continued to be passive were held in contempt even if they married women.

The Roman system was similar yet profoundly different in that relations with free boys were forbidden. Only foreign adolescent slaves or prostitutes were legal companions for men. The Roman material also documents more fully two different kinds of adult passive men. The cinaedi married women and remained part of ordinary social life but were held in contempt. The galli, by contrast, were given a grudging respect. They left their families and became members of itinerant bands who served a goddess. They danced, begged, sometimes castrated themselves, and were often prostitutes. Consequently men had four different sexual roles in their relations with each other: active man, passive boy, cinaedus, and gallus. The cinaedus and the gallus came into existence when a passive boy failed to make the transition to the active role. Passive men from the lower social strata became galli. Those who were not prepared to abandon their families and rank became cinaedi, the most difficult role of all. But all four roles were parts of a single system in which differences in age ordinarily justified and even gave prestige to some kinds of sexual relations between males. In both Greece and Rome the law and religion therefore took for granted that all men would desire sexual relations with both women and boys.

This age-structured system of four roles (one active, three passive) survived into the world of the Islamic Mediterranean. In the twentieth century in Turkey, for instance, were active men, passive boys, ibne, and köçek. The ibne was the passive man who stayed in society and even married. The köçek joined a transvestite band of entertainers and often castrated himself. The köçek was admired, and the ibne was held in contempt. Similar systems of four roles with different terms for each role existed in Morocco, Iraq, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and northern India. One hijra, the northern Indian equivalent of the Turkish köçek and the ancient gallus, explained that when men could not easily find a woman or a boy, they went to a hijra. It is important to notice that, though Islamic religion and law condemn relations between males, adult men are held in honor by their peers when they penetrate a boy, an ibne, or a köçek. Two systems of sexual morality, the official and the unofficial, therefore coexisted, but the unofficial actually described what men did. As late as 1963, 44 percent of Arab men in advanced psychology classes at the American University in Beirut admitted to having sexual relations with males. The similarity between these Islamic systems and those of ancient Greece and Rome is striking. It raises the question of whether or not the Christian societies that existed between the Roman and the Islamic worlds were any different in this regard, and it outlines the patterns of sexual relations between males that are documented in southern Europe or the northern Christian Mediterranean from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries.

Sexual relations between males structured by differences in age is one of two predominant worldwide systems. In the other system relations between males are structured by the presence of a minority third gender role of biological males who have been socialized to combine aspects of the behavior of the two dominant male and female roles of the majority in their societies. This system appeared less frequently than the other, but it has been observed among most of the native peoples of North America, the islands of the Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa. In age-structured systems all males as adolescents passed through a period of passivity, but most became active once they grew beards. Only two decided minorities remained passive as men. In gender-structured systems most men never experienced sexual passivity. Both as adolescents and as adults they penetrated a small passive minority. This minority from childhood had been socialized into a role somewhere between those of most men and women. Their bodies were strong like men, so they were notable workers, but they did not fight as warriors. Instead they dressed, spoke, and moved as women. In their passive sexual roles with the male majority, they might play the role of prostitute, lover, or wife. They can seem to have a superficial similarity to the two kinds of passive males found in age-structured systems. But unlike the cinaedus or the ibne, they did not marry women, and unlike the gallus or the köçek, they did not join liminal groups that served as alternative families. No one expected that they would grow up to be active men, and their sexual partners did not pass through a period of sexual passivity. It is important to understand the differences between these two systems because the major transition in sexual relations between Western males that began around 1700 can be usefully conceptualized as a transformation from a system structured by age to one structured by gender.

These two systems have so far been described only in terms of relations between males because it is primarily those that are described in the historical and anthropological sources. But the two systems also existed among women. Some Native American women became warriors and took wives. The women of Sparta and Lesbos probably took girls as their lovers, and the women of modern Mombasa certainly did. But the age-structured systems of the Islamic world also produced the sworn virgins of Iraq or the Balkans who became men and probably gave up all sexual relations. They neatly parallel the men who became ibne or köçek. But the women who became masculine were given high status. This was true whether they were the women warriors produced by a gender-structured system or the sworn virgins of a society structured by differences in age. It will therefore be appropriate to see whether these distinctions can be used to understand the history of sexual relations between Western women.

Renaissance Florence. Florence in the fifteenth century provides the most detailed picture of sexual desire between males in the Europe of the late Middle Ages. In the second and third generations of that century at least 15,000 Florentine males were accused of sodomy, and over 2,400 were convicted by the principal magistracy charged with overseeing sodomy. From this Michael Rocke estimated that at least two-thirds of all Florentine males were implicated by the time they reached the age of forty, and these figures do not cover all the magistracies. This strongly suggests that almost all males had sexual relations with other males at some point in their lives and did so repeatedly. The importance of this finding cannot be stressed too much. The most perspicacious readings of the ancient Greek and Roman sources have demonstrated a similar world, and a number of anthropologists who studied societies outside of the West in the twentieth century found the same. But these readings and observations have been challenged or ignored by those convinced that homosexual behavior was limited to a small deviant minority.

Sodomy was nonetheless illegal in Florence. Preachers like Bernardino of Siena regularly denounced it, but Bernardino also accepted that it was widespread. He even said that mothers were proud that their attractive adolescent sons caught men's eyes and deliberately sent them into the streets dressed in the most alluring clothes. The Florentines apparently lived out their sexual lives under two different moralities, a Christian one that disapproved of sodomy and a masculinist and patriarchal one that promoted it. Other facets of the sexual life of Christian Europe exhibited such a contradiction. Christians brought before the Inquisition believed that simple fornication between unmarried men and women was no sin, and married couples divorced each other even though the church held that marriage was indissoluble. Christians also resorted to magic instead of using the channels of grace provided by the Church. These contradictory moralities existed together in the minds of individuals, and at some moments and in some roles one morality prevailed over another in the life of an individual. The presence in all males of sexual desire for other males have to be teased from literary sources. It can be demonstrated statistically.

This must mean that the distinction between a homosexual minority and a heterosexual majority cannot have existed in Florence. If this distinction did not exist in a single European society, it is extremely unlikely to have existed in any of them. Certainly all modern Western societies are organized sexually by the same distinction between homosexuals and heterosexuals. It is true that this distinction became dominant in different Western societies at different moments after 1700, but it is apparent, when Florence is compared with either the ancient pagan or the later Islamic Mediterranean, that the sodomy of Florence was nothing new. It was simply more open and therefore better documented.

The question arises whether or not sodomy became more open in the course of the fifteenth century. There had certainly been relatively few cases in the fourteenth century when the penalties had been far more severe. As the penalties were moderated into a series of graduated fines, which were often not paid, the number of denunciations increased. Many Florentines therefore thought that sodomy was wrong, but they did not think it was so wrong as to merit severe punishment. This was the compromise between the two moralities by which many Florentines lived. But in their adolescence and young manhood, most Florentine males lived entirely according to the masculinist morality and not the Christian one. When Niccolò Machiavelli worried about his son's intimacy with a boy, Francesco Vittori told him: "Since we are verging on old age, we might be severe and overly scrupulous, and we do not remember what we do as adolescents. So Lodovico has a boy with him, with whom he amuses himself, jests, takes walks, growls in his ear, goes to bed together. What then? Even in these things perhaps there is nothing bad."

The sodomy most Florentine males practiced was strictly organized by differences in age. From the time boys entered puberty at fifteen, delayed for physiological reasons, until their beards began to grow at nineteen or twenty, they were anally penetrated by older men. These men were usually unmarried and in their late twenties. Between nineteen and twenty-three came a transitional phase, when a young man could be both active and passive. He was always active with someone younger and passive with someone older. Adolescent boys occasionally took turns being active and passive with each other, but young adult men never allowed themselves to be passive with their adolescents. Older men sometimes fellated their adolescent partners instead of penetrating them. Most men stopped pursuing boys once they married, in their thirties. A few adult men (12 percent) never married, and some had boys throughout their lives. Some men in their twenties had sex both with female prostitutes and with boys. A very few adult men allowed themselves to be penetrated. They presumably failed to make the transition from passive boy to active man. No adult transvestite men appear in the fifteenth-century records, but the evidence shows such men in the sixteenth century. They certainly appear in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century records for Spain and Portugal. All of the four positions typical of age-structured systems in the Mediterranean world therefore existed in Renaissance Florence: the active man, the passive boy, the passive man who tries otherwise to live a conventional life, and the transvestite passive man. But as in all such systems, most activity was between men and adolescents. This was not simply a preference for younger partners of the kind found among the homosexual minority of men after 1700. It was instead a desire for the smooth, small, lightly muscled bodies of boys, and it was a desire that was always destroyed, whether in Greece, Rome, Islam, or Christian Europe, by the growth of hair on the thighs and the face.

This world of men and boys could be both highly promiscuous and lovingly faithful. In 1480 sixteen-year-old Andrea was sodomized by forty-two different men in the course of a year, and on average boys, when they were interrogated, confessed to eleven partners. Adult men were as active. A baker admitted having twenty-four boys over seven years, and a butcher admitted having thirty-four boys over twelve years. Sometimes, about one in ten, a boy was voluntarily sodomized by as many as eight men in turn at a time, which occasionally degenerated into gang rape. Some boys were prostitutes. A network of prominent citizens in 1467 sponsored a brothel of boys that a blacksmith ran. Some boys worked for a procurer, or a ring of four boys together worked the taverns, gambling tables, and the houses of female prostitutes, picking up 120 men between them. Boys who were not prostitutes were often given gifts of money at each sexual encounter, which no doubt helped to maintain their honor. Men were often contemptuous of the boys they sodomized, describing them as women, prostitutes, or wives, and this no doubt was part of the source of their sexual excitement. It also explains why some fathers were not anxious that their sons be known as passive. It was acceptable to fathers for their sons to sodomize other men's sons, however. These ambiguities persistently appear in age-structured systems, whether in ancient Greece or the modern Islamic world. Nonetheless, at least a sixth of the men and boys interrogated formed a loving sexual bond that lasted from one to six years. A weaver who worked with his boy and nightly slept with him was said to see "no other god but him." A dyer and an apothecary swore on the gospel book as it lay on the altar that they would be faithful to each other, which would have made a legally binding marriage between a man and a woman.

The rest of Europe. Patterns similar to Florence's turn up throughout southern Europe. Other parts of Italy prosecuted fewer than Florence since the penalties were usually more severe. Venice had known places where men picked up boys. Group sex and gang rape occurred as well as long-lasting love affairs. Occasionally an adult man was sexually passive, and a few men were transvestites. The entire age-structured Mediterranean system was present. The same was probably true of Rome, or so the evidence from Michelangelo Caravaggio's life suggests. But it is instructive to consider the disagreements among his biographers. Some see only the female prostitutes with whom he associated and whom he used as models in his paintings. Others see only the apprentices and adolescent servants with whom he lived and slept and whom he depicted clothed or nude in his paintings. It is clearly difficult to see the women and the boys as inhabitants of a single sexual milieu.

In Spain and Portugal the Inquisition records document similar patterns. In most cases sodomy occurred between men in their twenties and boys between fifteen and nineteen with the men active and the boys passive. These boys were often dressed and painted like women. Florentine boys do not seem to have done this, though at least one of the Roman boys in a painting by Caravaggio was mistaken for a woman. The Iberian material also presents more clearly cases of adult transvestite men, who constantly dressed as women, used women's names, and in some cases even constructed artificial vaginas to conceal their penes. But typically in the Mediterranean pederastical system such men were a decided minority.

Information about northern Europe is much sparser because that area had fewer trials. Basel, for instance, had only eight trials in the first fifty years of the fifteenth century. The penalties were severe. Four were exiled, and three were burned at the stake. In 1475 a chaplain at the cathedral confessed to having sodomized several times a choirboy who lived in his house. The boy claimed that the priest had persuaded him by saying, "If everybody who committed this act was burnt at the stake, not even fifty men would survive in Basel." When read in the light of the southern European materials, these fragments reveal a world of widespread sexual acts between men and adolescents with a great deal of implicit tolerance and few cases brought to trial because the penalties were too severe.

The Reformation in northern Europe apparently made no difference. In Geneva in 1610 a man under torture for high treason and murder confessed to having sexual relations with twenty other males and thereby revealed the existence of a world that usually went undisturbed. England has been studied most extensively. The fragmentary evidence comes in three kinds, including a few trials for sodomy, biographical anecdotes about gentlemen and kings, and plays and poems. Literary scholars who study the third category sometimes claim to find evidence for egalitarian sexual relations between two adult men in some plays from early in the century, but these are certainly misreadings. Those who study the Restoration plays agree that the sodomy in them is structured by differences in age. Every case of sodomy brought to court concerned relations between men and adolescents. Even the most hostile anecdotes about King James I and his lovers took for granted that the king was dominant with younger men. Robert Carr became the king's favorite when he was twenty and "smooth-faced" and fell from favor when he grew his beard, lost his looks, and then married. In England, possibly because of a physiological regime different from that in the south, a young man's passivity could last till the age of twenty-five.

Court factions regularly vied with each other to present the king with a favorite of their choosing. They apparently took for granted that it lay within the power of any handsome young man to satisfy the king's desire, presuming evidently a universal capacity in this regard. The comments on James's behavior could be either condemnatory or noncommittal, establishing in Protestant England the continued presence of two opposing moralities of sodomy. During the years of his marriage, when James evidently slept with his wife because of the cycle of her pregnancies, no evidence indicates that he had male favorites. The favorites came only after he ended sexual relations with his wife. No one thought the king was an effeminate, passive sodomite interested only in men or boys, because such mollies did not appear in England until a hundred years later. The real difficulty with the English material is that the two kinds of passive adult men found in the Mediterranean evidence have not shown up except for the case of John Rykener. He called himself "Eleanor" and was found in women's clothes having sex with another man in a London street on a night in 1394. He worked regularly as a prostitute but also had sex with women. The seventeenth-century populace could conceive of men who were both active and passive and labeled them hermaphrodites, but no actual example has come into view.

Sexual behavior between women. The pattern of sexual behavior between women before 1700 is harder to establish than that of men. If they were structured by differences in age, primarily the small number of adult, masculine transvestite women who penetrated other women with an artificial phallus made it into the legal sources, not the majority of older women who had sex with younger ones. It is as though the sources for men described only the exceptional cases of the two kinds of adult passive men and ignored most of the acts between adolescents and men. Similarly in the twentieth century anthropologists mentioned in passing that many adult women in the villages of Iraq had sex with younger women but then devoted their detailed studies to the exceptional transvestite virgin. In 1560 the Aragonese Inquisition received denunciations of several women for sexual relations with each other enacted "without any instrument." The courts were told not to prosecute because lascivious behavior among women who had not used an artificial phallus was not sodomy. But two Spanish nuns who had used dildos were burned in the sixteenth century. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England women dressed as men, married women, and used artificial penes. Sometimes their wives seem to have been unaware that their husbands were not biological men. In some places these female husbands were punished once they were discovered. Their wives sometimes left them but occasionally stayed in the marriages. Female husbands were part of a larger group of women who for varying lengths of time dressed and lived as men. Some of these women became transvestites as a means of getting better work or while searching for an absent male lover or husband. It is not clear whether those who married women and used a phallus began to dress as men primarily for sexual reasons.

Differences in age seemingly were not an important part of these marriages between women. The literary sources that represent affairs between women indicate that older women took younger ones as lovers without dressing as men or using an artificial penis. Eighteenth-century English erotic novels by Delarivier Manley and John Cleland present such age-structured relations, as does the Italian libertine literature of the previous two centuries. From the arrests of a dozen women in Amsterdam for having relations with each other, it is apparent that as late as the 1790s many of these relationships were partly structured by differences in age. Bartha Schurman, who was thirty-one, murdered Catharina de Haan because she was jealous of her involvement with twenty-three-year-old Bets Wiebes. Maria Smit (forty-six) was observed by neighbors as she made love to Anna Schreuder (seventeen). Gresia Debber, who was twenty-four, was involved with three others, one twenty-seven, close to her own age, but two much older, thirty-seven and forty-six. Two mistresses seduced their maids, who were probably younger women. Christina Knip, forty-two years old, raped a fourteen-year-old girl. Knip used a dildo, but none of the other women did. Some of these women were married, some widows, some single; none was a transvestite. Except for a case in 1750 involving two women (fifty and sixty years old), these prosecutions are the only ones for sexual relations between women during two centuries in Amsterdam. It is not clear why they were prosecuted, but it is likely that they represent the nature of most relations between women in traditional Europe more closely than do the 119 cases of women who lived as men and sometimes married women in the Netherlands in the same period.

A GENDER-STRUCTURED SYSTEM, AFTER 1700

This age-structured system in Europe began to disappear over the course of the eighteenth century, first for men and then for women. It was replaced by a system that structured same-sex relations by gender differences and divided the world into a homosexual minority and a heterosexual majority. In the eighteenth century the change seems limited to northwestern Europe (England, France, and the Netherlands). It reached central Europe by the middle of the nineteenth century, but it did not appear in southern and eastern Europe until the early twentieth century. When it first appeared around 1700, it was probably part of the major societal shift that produced the dominant modern culture of the next three centuries. This likelihood is confirmed by the experience of Japanese society, which between 1910 and 1950 moved similarly from an age-structured to a gendered system that divided the world into a homosexual minority and a heterosexual majority. The beginning of and slow growth of equality between men and women probably account for the change. Certainly in traditional societies, like those of North America, in which same-sex relations were structured by the presence of a third-gender minority, women had relatively higher standing than they did in the age-structured societies of the Mediterranean or East Asia. In neither kind of traditional society was the sexual world divided into a homosexual minority and a heterosexual majority. The modern sexual system was therefore in some respects radically different from all preceding systems.

Mollies. In the thirty years after 1700 it is possible to identify in English society a new kind of sodomite called, in the slang of the streets, a "molly." A molly was an effeminate adult man who desired to have sex only with men or boys. His speech and gait were similar to a woman's, his clothes tended to be elegant, and he occasionally dressed as a woman for a ball. Among his fellow mollies he was often known by a woman's name. Some men, like the Princess Seraphina, always dressed as women, people referred to them using female pronouns, and they lived by prostitution. All mollies differed from the effeminate men of both traditional systems. Their role was closest to the North American berdaches. But whereas it was legitimate for the berdache to be penetrated by the men and boys from the majority, in the modern system the molly was supposed to be strictly avoided by the men and boys from the majority. The molly did desire such men, sometimes as their only objects, but the men who yielded were concerned to hide this carefully since any contact with a molly could be used to put them into that despised category. Mollies also and perhaps mainly had sex with each other, whereas the berdaches strictly avoided each other.

Mollies also differed from the two types of passive men in age-structured systems because in their cases sexual acts between males no longer centered upon men with boys. It is true that adult mollies sometimes pursued boys and that for a while in the early eighteenth century some men continued to desire both women and boys. It was also the case that throughout the next three centuries some men in total institutions like prisons or ships at sea satisfied themselves with the boys who were present. But it was no longer acceptable for a boy to be passive. Boys talked among themselves about mollies with constant horrified fascination, but a boy approached by such a man tended to panic. Masturbation was severely discouraged with threats of mental and physical debility because it led males to a fascination with their penes instead of with women's bodies.

The appearance of the molly was accompanied by the development in the majority of men of a new sexual role that allowed them to desire only women. Men's desire for adolescent males, which had existed as far back as one can go in the history of the Mediterranean, were now taboo. Instead men determinedly pursued the populations of streetwalking female prostitutes, who filled the principal thoroughfares of most Western cities for the next 250 years. They seduced unmarried women with such callous vigor that within a hundred years illegitimacy climbed to unprecedented levels. In the end every sexual act was threatened by the venereal diseases men contracted from prostitutes and passed on to their wives and children. Whore-mongering no longer injured a man's reputation. Instead it was crucial not to be known as a molly. Blackmailers could terrify a timid man by swearing to charge him with sodomy, since the charge once made was difficult to disprove. But no term distinguished this male majority. They were simply men and not mollies.

Mollies met each other walking in the streets or strolling in the shopping arcades, where it was possible to linger unobtrusively. They met as they turned against a wall to make water, and they met strolling in the parks. In these places they mingled with female prostitutes and with the men who were the prostitutes' customers, and they picked up some of those men. The intermingling of the worlds of prostitution and sodomy lasted for 250 years, until prostitutes more or less disappeared from the streets in the late twentieth century, when premarital sex became common among young respectable women. The molly like the prostitute was promiscuous, and mollies copied the manners of prostitutes. The term "molly," like other subsequent terms, including queer, punk, gay, faggot, fairy, and fruit, was first used for female prostitutes.

The molly and the prostitute in the course of the eighteenth century were the deviant minorities who defined the roles of the respectable majority of men and women. But sentiment and domesticity made women into mothers and destroyed the old presumption that, in Alexander Pope's phrase, every woman was at heart a rake. The male majority's loyalty was contested between the prostitute, with whom they could demonstrate their exclusive interest in women, and the wives, who were the mothers of their children and the source of domestic comfort. Mollies as men experienced a similar tension between libertinism and domesticity. For the next 250 years they could not legally marry each other or have children, though some mollies married women and had children. In the relative privacy of their molly houses, to which only they had access unless a traitorous molly admitted the legal authorities, they invented rituals that longingly mocked the rituals of marriage and domesticity. Sometimes they conducted marriages with one partner dressed as a bride and with bridesmen and women in attendance. The room in which they engaged in group sex might be called the chapel, the sex called marrying, and a sexual partner called a husband. A man might go into labor and be delivered by a midwife of a wooden doll, his child might be baptized, and his male gossips might visit to drink caudle as a woman's friends waited on her in the real world.

In that real world a molly's life was happiest if he could hide his effeminacy, putting it on and off as he entered and left the molly house. It was sometimes claimed that mollies worked in the trades that dressed women and cared for their hair, but these were simply the men who could not easily hide their effeminacy. Mollies worked in the full range of occupations, and they lived everywhere in town. Men from the middle and upper classes had the most to lose if they were identified as mollies and sometimes tried to hide their effeminacy in an elegant estheticism. But women gossiped about them and their effeminate gestures behind their backs, and men excluded them from political office. If they misjudged and made a pass at the wrong man and were arrested, their families were likely to disown them, and their only option was to flee into exile abroad.

The molly was an English phenomenon, but the life of the new effeminate sodomite remained something like this through the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries in England, France, and the Netherlands. In eighteenth-century Paris the displacement of the traditional libertine who pursued boys by the new effeminate sodomite can be traced in the police records, with the first predominating early in the century and only the latter present by the 1780s. The legal reforms that came in France with the Revolution did not criminalize sodomy. This sometimes has been mistaken for a new regime of toleration, but the police in both France and the Netherlands simply arrested men for public indecency in the nineteenth century and probably in greater numbers than they had in the previous century. In the 1870s the Parisian police kept a register of sodomites from which a social world rather like that of the eighteenth century can be reconstructed. Of course some changes occurred. Bourgeois propriety no longer allowed men to urinate openly in the street, so the public urinal became one of the main venues for finding a sexual partner and remained so throughout Europe until the 1950s. The young policemen and the telegraph boys in their uniforms joined the soldiers in the streets as objects of men's desire. In the Dutch material from the middle of the eighteenth century men said they were born with their desires and knew they were different from most men. Both the Dutch and the French sources document more readily than the English the male lovers who lived together as couples with varying degrees of fidelity.

Sapphists. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to live as a couple and not move in a public world of meeting places once a new masculinized "sapphist" or "tommy" who was exclusively interested in women appeared in the later eighteenth century. In this respect sapphists had more in common with the majority of women than they did with sodomites, who like other men were likely to pursue sex in public places. The lives of sapphists also differed because the female prostitute, not the sapphist, delimited the respectability of the majority of women, whereas most men measured themselves against the sodomite. Nonetheless, the gender identities of the sapphist and the sodomite were similarly constructed in that they both combined selected aspects of the gendered behavior of the women and men of the majority. The masculinized sapphist emerged one or two generations after the appearance around 1700 of the effeminate sodomite. She initially appeared among gentlewomen, whereas the poor produced their sodomites from the very first. Why these differences existed is unclear.

To understand the novelty of the sapphist it is necessary to distinguish her from the woman who dressed as a man, married women, and used an artificial penis. These passing women had been the deviants in a system in which most acts between women were structured by differences in age. In that respect they had been similar to the two deviant kinds of adult passive men when most acts between males had occurred between men and adolescents. The sapphist did not wish to pass as a man. She wished to be openly ambiguous, but she hoped that her ambiguity would be stimulating to women's eyes and not to men's. She wore a woman's dress but walked with a man's gait. Seeing Anne Lister in the street, two female prostitutes in the early nineteenth century approached her and touched her breasts to reassure themselves that she was not a transvestite man. Transvestite men in the street were likely to be sodomites engaged in prostitution. In her diary Lister unambiguously established the sexual practices of sapphist women in the way that sodomy trials do for those of men. Her similarities with late-eighteenth-century women like Mrs. Damer, about whom contemporaries gossiped because she wore a dress but with men's boots, help explain the transformation in sexual identity that these women represented. Lister demonstrated that relations between women in the early nineteenth century were sometimes genital. These relations were not all romantic and platonic. The late-nineteenth-century discussion about such women did not create them. It merely described them no doubt with the intention of morbidifying them.

Lister was a landed gentlewoman who eventually suffered some degree of ostracism because of her perceived tastes, even if the hostility was nothing like the internal exile that the rich young man William Beckford endured because of a scandal over a boy who grew into an effeminate sodomite. Those parts of Lister's diary that detail her sexual feelings and relations with women were written in a secret code. She eventually dressed in black to avoid criticism that she was not fashionably feminine, and she adopted inconspicuous elements of men's clothes, like braces to hold up her drawers. She disliked masculine manners in women, but her own deep-toned voice frightened other women. She spoke flirtatiously with women the way a man would. Her lover called her "Fred" and "husband." She fantasized that she took a young woman into a shed on a moor and had sex with her using a penis. At thirty she stopped menstruating, and she grew mustaches. Her contemporaries began to ostracize her, and her lover, who liked what happened in bed between them, became embarrassed to be seen with her. But Lister told her friend that she considered her feelings "natural to me inasmuch as they were not taught, not fictitious, but instinctive." She read the ancient Romans to understand her own relations, but she found the women in Juvenal artificial because they did not form marriages with other women as did the English sapphists, whom she began to recognize and meet in her thirties.

Lister flirted with many feminine women and had sexual relations with most of the sisters in one family. The most important was Marianne Lawton, who had married a man. This marriage Lister dismissed as mere "legal prostitution." The two women, vowing marriage to each other in bed after a night of lovemaking, agreed to take the sacrament together as a pledge (an old way of making a clandestine marriage between a man and a woman) but to avoid any other ceremony as long as Lawton's husband was alive. When this relationship broke up, Lister went to Paris to recover. She described the sex with women there more explicitly than the "kisses" she wrote about with Lawton. Some people supposed that women who had sex with women had enlarged clitorides for penetration, but Lister explained to one woman that her body was not hermaphroditic, that no one had corrupted her, and that her feelings were "the effect of the mind." Lister would not allow this woman to reciprocally touch her clitoris or put her finger into her vagina, though she had done this to the woman. That, she said, would be "womanizing me too much." Her male identity allowed her to give pleasure but not to receive it directly. Eventually Lister, when she was forty-one, began a romance with an Englishwoman ten years younger than she, and they lived in a marriage until Lister's death.

It is not clear that Lister's feminine partners had the same kind of sapphist identity that she did. Such women may have moved easily in and out of the world of conventional sex with men. It has been suggested that these feminine women did not have a lesbian identity until after the 1950s, when the majority of women took on a heterosexual identity by masturbating in increasing numbers and having sex with men they did not mean to marry, behaving as the majority of men had since 1700. Lister's peers turn up elsewhere in Europe in the nineteenth century. The French painter Rosa Bonheur dressed in trousers or the riding habit, a masculine jacket and a feminine skirt, that sapphists often used and lived in marriage with two women in succession. These gentlewomen moved in private networks, however. At the end of the nineteenth century a public sapphist world first appeared in bohemian Montmartre. In literary discussions these women were often portrayed as prostitutes, and some prostitutes, like Thérèse V. in the 1890s, did prefer women. But the working-class sapphist remains hard to find.

Discussions of homosexuality. In the second half of the nineteenth century the lives of homosexual men and women became the focus of an increasingly intense public discussion. Michel Foucault and his followers have claimed that this discussion produced the modern homosexual identity. It is certainly true that the terms "homosexual" and "heterosexual" were coined in the late nineteenth century. As J. A. Symonds put it in A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891), "the accomplished languages of Europe in the nineteenth century supply no terms for this persistent feature of human psychology, without importing some implication of disgust, disgrace, vituperation." The words "sodomite" and "sapphist," "molly" and "tommy," could not be used in respectable conversation. These roles, contrary to Symonds, had not always existed, but by the late nineteenth century they were two hundred years old. What therefore needs explanation is why in the 1850s doctors, like Claude François Michéa and Johann Ludwig Casper, who had observed effeminate sodomites from the subcultures of their day, and in the 1860s homosexual jurists and literary men, like Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and Károly Mária Kertbeny, who invented the term "homosexual," drawing on the widespread conviction of sodomites and sapphists that their feelings were inborn, offered a biological origin for the existence of the homosexual minority that came into existence in the generation after 1700.

From the middle of the eighteenth century educated Europeans like Thomas Canon tried to justify modern sodomy by comparing it with ancient pederasty, and they continued to do so into the twentieth century. But a perspicacious reader like Lister could see the difference between herself and the Roman women. Biology may have offered a more modern and convincing basis for Ulrichs and Kertbeny to argue that the state should not punish innate behavior. This was certainly the basis of the first homosexual rights movement that Magnus Hirschfeld launched in 1897, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. For Ulrichs and Hirschfeld the homosexual was an effeminate man, a third biological sex, an individual with a woman's soul in a man's body. The association of effeminacy seemed to some men deeply discreditable. Consequently in Germany, France, and England groups like the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen and (community of self-owners) and individuals like André Gide promoted an alternative vision of a masculine homosexuality between men and adolescents. By the 1920s Germany had a homosexual rights movement with thousands of members. The dominant role of German thinkers and activists in all these developments remains unexplained, and when in the early nineteenth century the modern homosexual role and an accompanying subculture became identifiable in German society has not been established. It is also not apparent why after 1850 bourgeois homosexual men throughout Europe were moved to publicly justify their behavior in this way. It is certain, however, that the discussion was used against them once the idea of a third sex was presented as a perversion by Richard von Krafft-Ebing (in 1886) and other psychiatrists.

The patterns of homosexuality in the twentieth century and their relationships to the lives of the heterosexual majority are unclear. It is not apparent, for instance, when the modern pattern of gendered behavior, with its division of a homosexual minority and a heterosexual majority, displaced traditional age-structured systems in eastern or southern Europe or in North and South America. In Russia as late as 1860, when the modern system had been fully established for some time in western and central Europe, men were still attracted to both boys and women. But by 1900 something like a homosexual subculture accompanied presumably by a heterosexual majority existed in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Modern homosexual life was established in North American cities by the 1820s. The difficulty is in understanding the lack of evidence for it in the eighteenth century when the patterns of heterosexuality that accompanied it in England were clearly present in colonial society. The history of Italy, which provides the best evidence for the traditional system, has not been studied since eighteenth century. The legal discussions in Spain between the 1930s and the 1950s make it likely that those were the years of transition for Hispanic societies. Jurists and psychologists in Argentina, Mexico, or Cuba in the early twentieth century used the categories produced in the European discussions at the end of the nineteenth century to describe the sexual encounters between males in the culture of their streets and prisons, unaware that their system of adult men who penetrated boys and passive transvestite men differed profoundly from the homosexuals of their European sources.

In Western and Central Europe from the 1930s to the 1950s homosexuals became a focus of the disputes between fascists, socialists, and communists, each group blaming the others for sexual perversion. The German homosexual emancipation movement was smashed by the Nazis, and thousands of homosexual men were sent to concentration camps. Joseph Stalin conducted his own purges. In Western Europe and the United States homosexuals were labeled security risks during the cold war. But the gains of the earlier German movement were not entirely lost. Danish psychiatrists, one of whom had even joined Hirschfeld's committee, employed the German argument that homosexuality was congenital to justify the decriminalization of homosexual relations between consenting adults as early as 1930. On the other hand, France, which for two centuries had no penal legislation, passed laws in 1942 and 1960 that established a higher legal age for homosexual than for heterosexual acts and stiffer penalties for public indecency when it was homosexual. But by the 1960s most of Europe had decriminalized acts between consenting adults. This granting of respectability to the adult homosexual was often accompanied by two related strategies. Transvestite homosexuals were recategorized as transsexuals and encouraged to undergo surgical transformations of their genitals, and relations between adult homosexuals and adolescent youths or young men in the armed forces were severely policed. In England, for instance, 10 percent of the prosecutions in 1900 were for relations with boys under sixteen, but by the 1950s those were 75 percent of all cases. Having shed its pederasts and transsexuals, a more homogeneous homosexual minority stood poised to enter the brave new world ushered in by the next wave of the homosexual rights movement that arrived from the United States after the Stonewall riot of 1969.

After 1969 homosexual men and lesbian women throughout Europe advocated a move from the private legalization of their consenting relations to a more public acceptance of their right to form legal unions and raise families. From Scandinavia to France and even Spain this was accomplished in an amazingly short period of thirty years. So vast a transformation needs a correspondingly large cause, and changes in the heterosexual identities of the majority of women and men are the likeliest explanation. Most women after 1950 acquired heterosexual identities. Their rates of masturbation nearly matched those of men, and with widely available birth control, they engaged in ever-increasing numbers in intercourse without marriage. These new heterosexual women were firmly demarcated from the feminine partners of lesbian women. At the same moment the sexuality of heterosexual men became domesticated. They ceased to go to prostitutes in any significant numbers, and their sexual contacts with homosexual men also declined. These men and women did not necessarily marry each other. Births outside of marriage and the number of couples living without marriage increased. As a result toleration grew for a homosexual minority that was firmly separated from the heterosexual majority.

See also other articles in this section.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bergmann, Emilie L., and Paul Julian Smith, eds. ¿Entiendes? Queer Readings, Hispanic Writings. Durham, N.C., 1995.

Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London, 1982.

Carrasco, Rafael. Inquisición y represión sexual en Valencia: Historia de los sodomitas,1565–1785. Barcelona, Spain, 1985.

Dekker, Rudolf M., and Lotte C. van de Pol. The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe. Basingstoke, U.K., 1989.

Donoghue, Emma. Passions between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668–1801. London, 1993.

Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge, Mass., 1978.

Duberman, Martin Baumly, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr., eds. Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New York, 1989.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love betweenWomen, from the Renaissance to the Present. New York, 1981.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, 1980.

Fout, John C., ed. Forbidden History: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe. Chicago, 1992.

Fradenburg, Louise, and Carla Freccero, eds. Premodern Sexualities. New York, 1995.

Gerard, Kent, and Gert Hekma, eds. The Pursuit of Sodomy: Male Homosexuality inRenaissance and Enlightenment Europe. New York, 1989.

Greenberg, David F. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago, 1988.

Herdt, Gilbert, ed. Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. New York, 1994.

Higgins, Patrick. Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain. London, 1996.

Higgs, David, ed. Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories since 1600. New York, 1999.

Kennedy, Hubert. Ulrichs. Boston, 1988.

Langdon, Helen. Caravaggio: A Life. London, 1998.

Lever, Maurice. Les bûchers de Sodome: Histoire des "infâmes." Paris, 1985.

Licata, Salvatore J., and Robert P. Petersen, eds. Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality. New York, 1981.

Lister, Anne. Female Fortune: Land, Gender, and Authority. Edited by Jill Liddington. New York, 1998.

Lister, Anne. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791–1840. Edited by Helena Whitbread. New York, 1992.

Lister, Anne. No Priest but Love: Excerpts from the Diaries of Anne Lister, 1824–1826. Edited by Helena Whitbread. Washington Square, N.Y., 1992.

Maccubbin, Robert Purks, ed. 'Tis Nature's Fault: Unauthorized Sexuality during theEnlightenment. New York, 1987.

Merrick, Jeffrey, and Bryant T. Ragan Jr., eds. Homosexuality in Modern France. New York, 1996.

Murray, Stephen O., and Will Roscoe, eds. Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York, 1997.

Norton, Rictor. Mother Clap's Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700–1830. London, 1992.

Norton, Rictor. The Myth of the Modern Homosexual: Queer History and the Search for Cultural Unity. London, 1997.

Pflugfelder, Gregory M. Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in JapaneseDiscourse, 1600–1950. Berkeley, Calif., 1999.

Porter, Kevin, and Jeffrey Weeks, eds. Between the Acts: Lives of Homosexual Men,1885–1967. New York, 1991.

Robb, Peter. M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. New York, 2000.

Rocke, Michael. Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. New York, 1996.

Rosen, Wilhelm von. Månens Kulør: Studier i dansk bøssehistorie 1628–1912. 2 vols. Copenhagen, Denmark, 1993.

Ruggiero, Guido. The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in RenaissanceVenice. New York, 1985.

Schmitt, Arno, and Jehoeda Sofer, eds. Sexuality and Eroticism among Males inMoslem Societies. Binghamton, N.Y., 1992.

Smith, Bruce R. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago, 1991.

Trumbach, Randolph. "London's Sodomites: Homosexual Behavior and Western Culture in the Eighteenth Century." Journal of Social History 11 (1977): 1–33.

Trumbach, Randolph. Sex and the Gender Revolution. Vol. 1: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London. Chicago, 1998.

Weeks, Jeffrey. Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. London, 1997.

Williams, Craig A. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. New York, 1999.

Young, Michael B. King James and the History of Homosexuality. New York, 2000.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Homosexuality and Lesbianism." Encyclopedia of European Social History. . Encyclopedia.com. 4 Aug. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Homosexuality and Lesbianism." Encyclopedia of European Social History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 4, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/homosexuality-and-lesbianism

"Homosexuality and Lesbianism." Encyclopedia of European Social History. . Retrieved August 04, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/homosexuality-and-lesbianism

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.