Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Gays in 19th Century America

In the middle of the 19th century, medical writers attempted to establish ways to identify male homosexuality, which was considered a significant social problem. Medical literature increasingly portrayed homosexuals as effeminate and degenerate. A general belief among social purity campaigners, on the other hand, was that male homosexuality was a product of the same unrestrained male lust they were trying to curb. Homosexuality was portrayed as a jaded appetite of lustful men. Society had a duty “to enforce the law and protect the children of respectable parents….from being made the victims of the unnatural lusts of full grown men.”

By 1890, private male homosexual acts were explicitly and severely legislated against. Laws were much more all encompassing than before. There was no provision made in the laws for women committing similar offences, however. Two overtly lesbian women in a relationship would be referred to as “companions.” The fact that they might enjoy sex with one another remained unmentionable.

In 1897, the British psychologist Henry Havelock Ellis published his study Sexual Inversion which concluded that homosexuality was neither a disease nor a crime. The book was declared obscene and the bookseller imprisoned. Victorian Britain was a society dominated by an evangelical religion that demanded that strict rules of behavior be followed. Victorian America mirrored the sentiment.

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