Homosexuality, Male, History of

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Homosexuality, Male, History of

Approaching male-male sexual activity from a historical vantage point means to posit a historically conditioned realm of human experience frequently regarded as unchangeable or biologically determined. A history of homosexuality first emerged in the context of the nineteenth-century science of sex known as sexology. Medico-forensic experts catalogued known historical figures in order to shore up the newly coined description homosexual. Early gay writers and activists in Germany, England, as well as elsewhere, heralded gay worthies as forebearers to the gay communities they envisioned. From these beginnings, the history of male homosexuality has metamorphosed into one of the most sophisticated areas of historical research.

As a field, the study of sexuality in history emerged in the 1970s in a dialogue with the so-called sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, and political emancipation movements of various, particularly sexual, minorities. Its persuasive force and intellectual rigor owes much to the pioneering French historian-philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) who in 1976 launched a series of examinations into the nexus of sexuality, knowledge, and power. In Foucault's wake, the fundamental insight into the historicity and constructedness of sexual selves, sexual systems, and sexual ideologies has taken hold in a number of academic disciplines. Assumptions about the universal applicability of modern sexual taxonomies therefore appear themselves as a historical outcome of scientific knowledge production in the West since the Enlightenment.

Persistently, histories of homosexuality have revolved around one turning point, the mid-nineteenth century coinage homosexual, first attested in German between 1868 and 1869. The term's advent has been said to mark the birth of a new social-sexual type—a man whose erotic desires were deeply inscribed into his physis or psyche. Whereas the proto-homosexual merely acted, to paraphrase Foucault's thesis in The History of Sexuality: the homosexual's essence was shaped by these same acts. In this modern sexual ideology, variable sex acts became an indicator of an abstract category, a particular sexuality or sexual orientation. Nineteenth-century theorists of male-male love fleshed out an erotics of difference, suggesting that Urnings, to use Karl Heinrich Ulrichs's (1825–1895) term, fell in love with men who did not share their erotic cathexis or were of a different class. In the twentieth-century West, homosexual relations were increasingly imagined as pairing equals, men of comparable age and similar traits.

Some scholars have called into question whether the arrival of a discourse on homosexuality in psychiatry, medicine, and criminology signalled the advent of a new sociosexual persona. Randolph Trumbach, for instance, argues that the appearance of the homosexual preceded his naming: The so-called mollies of early eighteenth century London were men who desired men exclusively. Unlike the erotically omnivorous male rogue who pursued both males and females, they gathered with other men in certain inns, the so-called molly-houses, and adopted a style of comportment coded as female. According to Trumbach, metropolitan subcultures in Europe gave rise to a bifurcated sexual system in which homosexual men were seen as fundamentally different from heterosexual men. There is indeed mounting evidence that, during the Enlightenment, eroticism was tied to notions of subjecthood. These findings point to the fact that the emergence of modern homosexuality was a long-term process. David Halperin (2002) has recently shown how the term homosexuality itself served as a receptacle for a number of premodern discourses. In fact, medical-psychiatric experts never could claim exclusive authority to speak on homosexual matters in modernity. Rather, sexology competed and converged with other—legal, religious, and ethical—discourses. As late as the early twentieth century, sexual actors and legal experts in Switzerland, the United States, and elsewhere proved at times unable to adequately deploy terms such as homosexuality or homosexual.

The powerful workings of homosexuality as a medico-scientific concept are particularly evident outside of European modernity. When nations such as Iran or Japan mobilized their societies to adapt to the hegemonic standards provided by Western science and societies, lawmakers, scientists, and intellectuals launched reforms of sexual systems that traditionally had been permissive with regard to homoeroticism, seeking to eradicate same-sex sexual cultures now deemed anachronistic. Histories of homoeroticism, be it in modern or premodern societies, in the West or outside, therefore need to move beyond the privileged place held by the term homosexual and take into account the pluralities of terms, codes, and idioms denoting homoeroticism—a multitude of words and registers that points to the many manifestations of homosexual behavior.

In many premodern societies and cultures, homoeroticism was accepted, at least as long as male-male sex acts were predicated on social difference: Adult men were expected to have sex with partners inferior in social status and age, whether they were women, slaves, or young males, before the onset of adulthood. In Melanesia, elders within a community initiate boys to manhood via oral insemination as part of a coming-of-age ritual. In many societies, the partner's social or generational status determined the requisite behavior during sexual activity. In classical Athens, sexual restraint was the prescribed response for a youth who had become the object of a citizen's erotic attention; showing signs of arousal would have constituted a breach of an etiquette that claimed homoeroticism as an educational force within the city republic. When Roman emperors flaunted their desire to be penetrated, these rulers with claims to divine lineages transgressed cultural norms, much to the dismay of ancient commentators and chroniclers. As a rule, superior social status translated into penetration. In many such societies, preferring the erotic companionship of males to that of females signalled manliness. In premodern Japan, samurais engaged in the celebrated erotic love of warriors for younger warriors or boy attendants; during the Tokugawa period, merchants and other social groups emulated these idealized relationships in a society where male prositution was widespread. Across the world, the all-male milieus of certain religious institutions, court circles, or schools fostered sexual cultures in which the beauty of adolescents became a token of male sociability. Even in societies such as Renaissance Florence or the Ottoman Empire, where same-sex sexual acts conflicted with religious or other norms, homoerotic cultures flourished.

Importantly, however, before the onset of modern times, male homoerotic activity did not necessarily preclude sexual attachments to females. A marriage contract from Roman Egypt, for instance, specifies that the husband ought not to cohabit with a male lover—indicating that doing so was not uncommon or out of the question for a married man. The question of whether the love of women or the love of adolescents was preferable—a topic discussed in Latin, Arab, and Japanese literature—was therefore largely considered a matter of personal taste or inclination. Sexual ideology, with its rigid division of sexual roles, was not necessarily congruent with sexual practice, however. The records of early modern sodomy trials suggest that same-sex sexual activity occurred in a variety of social settings, including those between men of a similar age or class. Yet sexual cultures predicated on generational and social differences also shaped the structures of desire.

Histories of homoeroticism have been primarily concerned with sexual activity, its structural patterns, and its social forms. By contrast, the historically contingent structures of feeling around same-sex eroticism have only recently entered into the purview of a history of sexuality. Pursuing this project of a history of emotions means to disregard Sigmund Freud's (1856–1939) warning, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), that emotions hardly constitute the matter of historical analysis—a caveat Freud himself does not seem to have heeded. Male-male friendships in particular offer a lens for delving into the close bonds men shared with other men. Since, unlike homosexual bonds, homosocial ties were not subject to regulations, male friends have left archives replete with written documentation and material monuments—portraits and gifts among them. After all, men socialized primarily with men in many societies and political or other authority often rested in the hands of circles of men. The emotional worlds of friends are best approached through a spectrum of emotions of which erotic desire is potentially a part, despite the anxieties that attached themselves to the distinction of the male sodomite and the male friend in a society such as Elizabethan England.

The history of friendship offers a promising line of investigation, not least because the love of friends lends itself to global comparisons. The favorite was an emotional phenomenon as well as a stock figure of political polemics in court societies throughout the world. What is more, the discourse of friendship intersected with the discourse of love. The exchange of formulas and ideas worked in both directions. Importantly, same-sex friends provided models for male-female lovers or spouses. In select cases, epistles of friendship or diaries permit the researcher to look behind the veil of privacy and differentiate between different types of friends, including those who were physically intimate with one another. With the onset of modernity, normative heterosociality increasingly superseded homosocial bonds as the locus of emotional fulfillment. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographic portraits of male couples in various tender poses demonstrate, however, that special friendships among men might have existed for longer than social historians and historians of the family have assumed. Not accidentally, the term friend functioned as a code word for a gay partner among homosexual men and women in the twentieth century.

The questions of how, why, and when the modern homosexual code emerged raises a set of problems that warrant further analysis in future research. Among other phenomena, urbanization, the rise of a capitalist consumer culture, and the advent of civil society have been adduced as explanatory frameworks for the profound restructuring of sexual systems at the threshold of modernity. The tight link between modes of production and modes of reproduction characteristic of agrarian or preindustrial societies loosened in modern times. The rise of the wage economy weakened familial interdependence and strengthened individual independence. Large cities harbored social and sexual spaces that were rarely subjected to community or familial control; here, gay men were able to build their own communities around a shared interest in same-sex eroticism. Fixed social hierarchies, the condition for a homoeroticism predicated on difference, were on the wane; civil society reordered social relations, levelling social, legal, and political distinctions in its wake. European modernity gave rise to the notion of an, at first exclusively, male citizenry. Yet the slow emergence of homosexuals was itself a motor of social transformations, and not merely reflective of larger social shifts. Significantly, the so-called invention of homosexuality in the nineteenth century preceded that of heterosexuality.

These interlocking changes empowered sexual subjects in the West to demand public recognition. In 1867, Ulrichs addressed a national gathering of German jurists, demanding that homosexuality be decriminalized: "This class of persons," he stated, "is exposed to an undeserved legal persecution for no other reason than that … nature has planted in them a sexual nature that is the opposite of that which is general usual" (Kennedy 1988, p. 108). Starting in the middle of the twentieth century, rights of gay men have been recognized in various forms. After revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, Switzerland, and Sweden were among the first countries to abolish criminal penalties for consensual sexual relations between men (though in the case of the Soviet Union, penalties were reintroduced under Joseph Stalin [1879–1953]). Penal reform and liberalization have been steadily on the rise, particularly in Western societies. In 1992, the World Health Organization struck homosexuality from its list of diseases.

The path toward legal, political, and social recognition of gay men has neither been progressive nor uncontested. The United States, after the 1940s, had seen the rise of a sexual laissez-faire mentality in the wake of an unprecedented mass uprooting of men for the war effort with the emergence of the so-called homophile movement after 1945, the climate tightened significantly when a red scare oscillated with a gay scare during the so-called McCarthy era. Yet with the onset of the 1960s, obscenity laws and censorship were on the wane in most Western societies. While negative attitudes toward homosexuality persisted in many places, unequivocal portrayals of gay men in literature, the visual arts, and film became much more common. These representations established a sphere of communication in which being gay was and is publicly negotiated—a forum whose importance may be said to parallel that of the political sphere.

Inspired by the civil rights and the women's movement, the 1970s saw the emergence of sexual minorities as political groups and an unprecedented efflorescence of gay organizations, groups, and businesses. The fact that acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) first spread among gay men provided further stimuli for gay communities to come out politically. Yet gay politics and claims to sexual citizenry triggered new forms of antigay politics as well. Attitudes toward homosexuality have since become lines of demarcation in global confrontations over the path of religious congregations. This development does not simply pit Western against non-Western societies. The South African constitution of 1996 was the first such document to protect citizens from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. More recently, marital rights for same-sex couples have become the major legal, social, and cultural battleground for gay rights.

see also Boswell, John; Closets; Coming Out; Gay; Heterosexuality; Homoaffectivity, Concept; Homoeroticism, Female/Male, Concept; Homosexuality, Contemporary: I. Overview; Homosexuality, Defined; Lesbianism; Literature: IV. Gay, Creative; Middle Ages.


Aldrich, Robert, ed. 2006. Gay Life and Culture: A World History. London: Thames and Hudson.

Bray, Alan. 2003. The Friend. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

El-Rouayheb, Khaled. 2005. Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500–1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Random.

Greenberg, David F. 1988. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Halperin, David. 2002. How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kennedy, Hubert. 1988. Ulrichs: The Life and Works of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Boston: Alyson.

Pflugfelder, Gregory M. 1999. Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600–1950. Berkeley: University of California Press.

                                                  Helmut Puff