My post on Bigotry has faced a number of criticisms in the comments section. One of those criticisms, which I want to address first, is that my post made it sound as if there was an organized selective breeding program of slaves going on during the Antebellum South. As Russ Manley of the blog “Blue Truck, Red State” wrote, “It’s important, though, not to give people the impression there was any organized program going on – all depended on the individual whims of slave owners, and antebellum accounts are full of complaints about the “lazy darkies” who had to be watched and prodded every minute to get their work done.” I certainly didn’t mean it to sound that way, and one of the reasons that I love to have you guys comment is so that I can clear up misunderstandings in my posts. I do that with my students as a way to get discussion going in the classroom. As long as civility reigns, I very much appreciate comments and criticisms.
Furthermore, there was also much debate about religion being the main cause of homophobia and bigotry. I admit, that it is part of the equation, but not the only reason. When we choose one reason for homophobia then we are missing the larger picture. Homophobia, or the hatred of same-sex intercourse, has been around much longer than Christianity of Judaism. More than likely, it has been part of societies since the beginning of man. Therefore, there are many parts to this equation.
In another criticism, Lonnie left the the following comment on my post about “Bigotry“:
I think John D’Emilio and Sherry Wolf give a much better account of the origins of gay oppression:
Since it was suggested, I read the two articles. I found Wolf’s article to be particularly hard to stomach, but I read it anyway. Both of these authors present a Marxist historiographical approach to the question of the origins of gay oppression. In its most basic form, the Marxist historical tradition blames all of the problems of the world on capitalism and class struggles. However, I have always found it deeply flawed. For one, if you look at the sources used by Marxist historians, you will quickly find that more of those sources are from other Marxist historians. They so narrow down their sources, until they ignore the larger historical picture, even though they claim to be looking at the larger historical picture. In my opinion, this effectively removes their objectivity which is at the heart of true history. They ignore those sources that contradict their point of view. You cannot be an effective historian and dismiss the sources you do not agree with, you must take them into account. History has many schools of historiography (the study of the history and methodology of the discipline of history), and Marxist interpretation is only one of them.
Before I continue, I want to say this, John D’Emilio is one of the greatest LGBT historians. His books Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 and Intimate Matters:A History of Sexuality in America are two of the seminal books on LGBT American History. The article suggested above by D’Emilio, and I do hope that each of you will go check these links out for yourself and not just take my opinion, was written while he was still a graduate student, which does not diminish his writing in the least, but his tone has changed since those early days in the 1980s when it was written. Still, the two books above are well worth reading if you want a greater understanding of LGBT history in America.
Now that I have stated why I disagree strongly with Marxist interpretations, I want to address some of the semi-valid points in their arguments. First of all, homosexual identity as it is seen today was nearly non-existent before the twentieth century; however, that does not mean that just because we did not have the word for it, that it did not exist. I think it most certainly did, though it was quite rare and was not always practiced in the same way, it still existed. The love between persons of the same sex existed before the advent of capitalism, which did not emerge until the end of mercantilism in the late 19th century. D’Emilio and Wolf try to state the difference between homosexual behavior and homosexual identity. Do you really think that no one before 1900 realized that they had an attraction to someone of the same sex and that they were not attracted to someone of the opposite sex? Do you think that we become homosexual because family structure has broken down? The answer to these questions is no. The history of Florence, Italy during the Renaissance shows that homosexuality/sodomy was not illegal during that time period. Some men married because they felt the need to procreate, but other did not. They had homosexual relationships. Also, the Inquisition records of the Catholic Church in Brazil during the 17th-19th centuries has numerous documented cases of homosexual persecution. This was not a phenomenon of capitalism. Brazil only had a brief history of capitalism in the early twentieth century that was quashed by Getúlio Vargas and his corporatism from 1930-1954 and then largely under the control of the military until 1985. Likewise, Spain who continually persecuted homosexuals under Francisco Franco from c. 1936 to 1975, was not a capitalist country but was a hybrid of corporatism, fascism, and dictatorship. Even in the late 19th century in America, there was talk of so-called “Boston Marriages,” a term is said to have been in use in New England in the decades spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe two women living together, independent of financial support from a man. The term was believed to be first coined by Henry James in The Bostonians. Since 2000, many mentions of “Boston marriage” cite as examples the same few literary figures, in particular the Maine local color novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields her late life companion, the widow of the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. There is often an assumption that in the era when the term was in use, it denoted a lesbian relationship. However, there is no documentary proof that any particular “Boston marriage” included sexual relations, but there has been a great deal of speculation, some of which comes from what we know or the private life of Willa Cather.
Furthermore, these authors argue that same-sex segregation during World War II brought about modern day homosexuality. First of all, World War II is not the first time that large numbers of men and women have been separated from their families. This has happened in all major modern wars. In Europe, this had happened in the First World War, and to a lesser extent in America. So I don’t think that you can pinpoint WWII as the starting point. It had all happened before. Wolf does not address that millions of men in Europe served in World War I, and that millions of women left their homes and family to either work in the military or in factories during World War I. Because it is convenient for her argument, she dismisses the history of Europe when it is inconvenient, and then turns around and uses it when it is convenient and the same history in America in turn is inconvenient. In addition, both authors cite WWII as the beginning of homosexual persecution in the military and that it has continued largely uninterrupted until the modern day. The problem is that it was largely ignored during Vietnam, when men identified as homosexual to not be drafted, most of those men truly were homosexual, however, they were forced to serve in the military anyway. The ban on homosexuals was largely ignored by the draft board and military during the Vietnam War. Likewise, today, when America is fighting two wars, and there is an increasing need for soldiers in the war against Terrorism, they have repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It is not a coincidence in my opinion.
I have three more points that I want to make. Both authors claim that sexual liberation, that is sex for enjoyment not for procreation, is capitalist invention/byproduct. I cannot buy that explanation. First of all, communism and socialism pushed for the ideas of free love, long before the flower children of the 1960s. The sexual revolution was made much more visible because of birth control, but people have been having sex for reasons other than procreation since man first had an erection. We are the only species who we know for sure have sex for enjoyment. It is not a modern phenomenon.
I also want to point out that Wolf argues that the family has not always existed in human history. If she would look at the anthropological studies, archeological studies, and historical studies of mankind, she would realize that it has always existed. From the earliest humans, the family structure has been the governing structure. The idea of the family or clan is the first political structure in any society. As the family grows larger, the head of the family becomes the head of the clan. From there, stronger clans take over weaker clans and form chiefdoms, which eventually grow into kingdoms and empires. The family structure has always been the basis of human society. Even as gay men and women today, we are not abandoning the family, we want families of our own. We want marriage, and we want children (at least I do, and so do many others.)
The last point that I want to make is that urbanization has led to gay communities more so than capitalism. Urbanization has more to do with the industrial revolution than it does the rise of capitalism. As fewer people were needed to work a farm, due in large part of the end of slavery and the mechanization of the farm, that excess labor moved to the cities to find work. Most did not abandon the families, and a large family often lived together in a household trying to make a living wage. However, the urbanization of America began before capitalism, and thus I feel that it is not the cause of the breakdown of the family, nor is it the cause of class warfare. Class warfare has existed long before capitalism, and therefore, capitalism cannot be the blame for all the evil of the world.
Wolf is not totally wrong in all that she writes. In fact she (surprising to me) got this part of history correct:
In Paris and Berlin, medical and legal experts in the 1870s examined a new kind of “degenerate” to determine whether or not these people should be held responsible for their actions. The word “homosexuality”was first coined by a Hungarian physician named Karl Maria Benkert in 1869. Homosexuality evolved in scientific circles from a “sin against nature” to a mental illness. The first popular study of homosexuality, Sexual Inversion by Havelock Ellis in 1897, put forward the idea that homosexuality was a congenital illness not to be punished, but treated. Nineteenth-century sexologists developed ideas about homosexuality as a form of mental insanity. One famous theory held that gayness was the result of “urning”–the female mind was trapped in a male body (or vice versa). Another theory widely disseminated referred to homosexuals as a third sex.
I do want to make one final point before I end this post. Both D’Emilio and Wolf argue that there is not basis for being “born gay.” This is a recent argument that I have actually come across several times in the last few weeks from LGBT activists and scholars. Most of the recent attention to arguments against a biological component to homosexuality is because of the Lady Gaga song, “Born This Way,” to which some in the LGBT community are now starting to argue against. This is a topic for a future post, so I won’t go into much detail right now. I merely wanted to mention this as part of the discussion.
I may have rambled a bit in this post, but I wanted to talk a bit about historical interpretation. I hope that you will read those two articles cited above and give me your take on them. I do not believe that either author presented a convincing argument for the beginnings of gay oppression. In fact, from my reading of the articles, it seems to me that both vaguely lay the blame on capitalism, but do a poor job of giving evidence to this claim. Do you think that I am completely off base or are they completely off base or are all of us a somewhat right and somewhat wrong? I want to know what you think. I personally think that the origins of gay oppression is a many faceted problem and cannot be explained in a simple historical method. We have to look at all parts of the picture and not ignore those parts that we find inconvenient.