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A gay old time

Homosexuality wasn’t invented yesterday


In France they were known as “chestnut gatherers”; Brits called them “lavender aunts.” The names evoke an insouciant time when the diluted champagne flowed and gay men and women could live relatively harassment-free lives. And yet the law tells a different story: Sodomy was punishable by death in England until 1861; 46 people were executed in England alone between 1810 and 1835.

In his provocative new book, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award, Graham Robb argues that such persecution was in fact the exception, that homosexual life in Europe in the 19th century was, if not openly thriving, then at least vibrant. To build this case, Robb combs through criminal records, letters, diaries, newspapers and literature to find a “vanished civilization.” In doing so, he takes on French philosopher Michel Foucault, who famously theorized in 1976’s The History of Sexuality that until Victorian doctors came up with the category of homosexual, no one identified him- or herself as such.

The book builds its case slowly and meticulously. Robb credits doctors who studied homosexuality as a medical phenomenon with providing gays a sense of community, a place to tell their stories. When their case studies were published, such doctors unwittingly became publicists for a way of life that had been practiced largely in isolation. In this way, “a society of strangers”—hence the book’s title—”was informed of its own existence by its prosecutors.”

Robb persistently tries to emphasize this silver lining of sorts, but the downside of physicians’ diagnoses hardly seems worth the trouble. Many doctors believed that men and women could masturbate themselves into “sexual inversion,” as it was then called. The criteria for identifying gays seem even more haphazard. For some reason, the ability to urinate in a straight line (for men) was considered a telltale sign. One doctor devised a rather ingenious test. “Throw an object at the lap of a sitting homosexual,” said the Berlin doctor Magnus Hirschfeld in 1913, “and he will automatically open his legs to catch it.”

And as long as homosexuality was a condition, there could be a cure. In defense of homosexuality, doctors compared it to color-blindness and congenital deformities such as hare lips and club feet. Thus the homosexual became “a walking laboratory.” There were mild treatments, such as a New York doctor’s prescription of “cold baths with outdoor exercise and the study of mathematics.” Others prescribed prostitutes. When Oscar Wilde left prison, a friend convinced him to visit one to develop “a more wholesome taste.” He emerged unconvinced. “‘It was like chewing cold mutton!’” Wilde muttered.

And yet, Robb asserts, there were places where gay life was actively lived, and where cruising gay men could meet each other: the docks in Barcelona, the Champs-Elysees in Paris, Broadway and Central Park in New York, almost anywhere in Naples. In big cities, encoding homosexual behavior was not just a necessity but a sport as well. “Visiting cards with photo-portraits were exchanged like cigarette cards,” Robb writes, and the selectivity and secret quality of this life bred a closeness that made the world seem small. There was even a kind of Gay Grand Tour, which stretched from London to Amsterdam, Paris and Berneval, anticipating the party circuits of the 21st century.

One obvious flaw to Strangers is that it focuses almost exclusively on the upper echelons of society, a problem Robb ascribes to the historical record. It is also unfortunate, if similarly attributable, that Strangers is tilted more toward gay male life than lesbian life. To read Strangers is to hear a lot about Tchaikovsky, Andre Gide, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Marcel Proust and John Maynard Keynes, men of elevated intellect or station, or both, who had access to large networks of similarly privileged people.

One could hardly pick a better literary sleuth to peek into these lives than Robb. His biographies of Rimbaud, Hugo and Balzac are notable for their combination of research and page-turning readability. By comparison, Strangers is a starchier book and requires a scholarly sensibility of its readers. Every page overflows with statistics and literary citations. To enjoy it fully, one must appreciate the thoroughness with which Robb is covering his bases, tracking the development of both medical and psychological arguments that were eventually disproved—and deemed discriminatory—in the 20th century.

Often enough, though, Robb digs up some juicy tidbit that makes Strangers worth the trouble. In the later sections, where he delves into the lives of one figure after another, the author turns up a diary by Walt Whitman in which the great bard recorded his nightly conquests. It’s an exciting record of gay life flourishing—in the flesh and, through Whitman’s pen, on the page—when such things typically weren’t recorded. “Saturday night Mike Ellis,” Whitman wrote, “wandering at the corner of Lexington av. & 32d St.—took him home to 150 37th street—4th story back room—bitter cold night.”

With its graphs and appendixes, its 20-some-page list of sources cited, Strangers will satisfy scholars. It’s details like Whitman’s nightly conquests, however, in which the message born out by the statistics comes clear: Gay life was alive and well in the 19th century. It almost makes one want to sound, as the poet himself might say, a barbaric yawp of belated celebration.

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