Saturday, August 18, 2012

Gays in Colonial America

Following Biblical teachings, a sexual act that involved two human beings “of the same sex” was defined as a crime in colonial America. Legal codes focused much more specifically on male sex than did clerical pronouncements. Although a capital crime, standards of proof were high making conviction difficult even if juries were so inclined, which they seldom were in capital cases. Colonial newspapers published accounts about the arrests results from the anti-sodomy campaigns begun in the early decades of the eighteenth century as part of London’s “Reformation of Manners” movement. Newspapers also reported on the anti-sodomy campaigns in the Netherlands, where as many as two hundred and fifty men were prosecuted and some two dozen executed. On only two known occasions did women appear before New England courts on charges of “unclean” behavior with each other. In 1642 Eliza Johnson was whipped and fined by an Essex County quarterly court for unnatural “practices betwixt her and another maid.” Two other women from Yarmouth, Massachusetts were prosecuted for “leude behaviour each with other upon a bed.” A New Haven law of 1655 included sex between women as a capital offense. The law did not specify how sex between women was to be defined or proven.

Many New Englanders were committed to informal moral stewardship through surveillance of their neighbors. The layout of New England’s towns and villages facilitated “watchfulness”. Families generally owned a dwelling in town and a plot of land outside removed from the houses. Houses were built around the meetinghouse and close to one another. Farming lots were long, narrow strips which allowed town folk to work side by side. The god fearing had no need for privacy, only sinners had something to hide. The regime of constant neighborly surveillance led to a constant flow of information about people’s behavior that sometimes led to formal proceedings for a whole range of sexual behavior.

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