Enemies of the State? Homosexuality in the Nineteenth Century

Journal cover for Anarchist Studies 13The definitive version of this review article was published in Anarchist Studies 13:1, 2005, pp.90-95.

Download: Enemies of the state? Homosexuality in the nineteenth century, complete with footnotes, is available to download in Word format for personal use. Please contact me or the editors of Anarchist Studies if you want to re-publish it.

Key Words: anarchists, cultural geography, gay liberation, homosexuals, London, modernity, nineteenth century, queer spaces

Key Names: Edward Carpenter, Matt Cook, George Ives, Legitimation League, Graham Robb, Oscar Wilde

Enemies of the State? Homosexuality in the Nineteenth Century

Graham Robb, 2003. Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century. London: Picador.
Matt Cook, 2003. London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Two days after the attack on the World Trade Centre, leading USA Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell denounced ‘the pagans and the abortionists, the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians… I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen”.’ To their enemies, feminists and homosexuals share with anarchists the desire — and the potential — to undermine the foundations of society, to create chaos. In the late nineteenth century, fears of ‘sexual anarchy’, the overthrow of existing gender and sexual power structures, were intertwined with anxieties about the growth of anarchism.

There were bombings in Paris, Barcelona and London, and 1895 saw the widely publicised prosecution of Oscar Wilde for homosexuality. ‘The unbridled licentiousness of your literary decadent has its counterpart in the violence of the political anarchist’, wrote one contemporary. Scientists and social commentators drew on new anthropological theories to depict homosexuals and anarchists alike as exemplars of degeneration: biological as well as political harbingers of social destruction. Though these ideas were presented as modern reason replacing outmoded superstition, their apocalyptic rhetoric echoed the religious fire-and-brimstone tradition now continued by Falwell and his fellow fundamentalists.

Publishers and booksellers willing to take on anarchist literature were often already involved with material on the fringes of legality. (Conrad’s fictional shopkeeper Mr. Verloc in ‘The Secret Agent’, furtively dealing in both pornography and anarchism, is entirely realistic in this respect.) The new disciplines of sexology and anthropology overlapped and intertwined with pornography, and any discussion of sexual matters could be deemed pornographic.

In 1898, the sexual radical George Bedborough was arrested and convicted on obscenity charges after carelessly selling a copy of Havelock Ellis’s ‘Sexual Inversion’, one of the first English-language studies of homosexuality, to a policeman. The charges against Bedborough also involved copies of ‘The Adult: a Journal of Sex’, which he edited. This was the journal of the Legitimation League, an organisation campaigning for free love and the rights of children born outside marriage. The League’s honorary president was anarchist-feminist Lillian Harman, and the membership included many anarchists. It also included an infiltrator from Scotland Yard, Detective John Sweeney — who recalls in his memoirs that the authorities believed an attack on marriage laws to be just the preliminary to an attack on all laws. The prosecution, he says, was a deliberate attempt to destroy at a blow the triple threats of free love, homosexual propaganda and anarchism.

Sharing the unwanted attentions of religious fanatics, the police and scientists, doesn’t necessarily mean that homosexuals and anarchists saw themselves as having anything in common. Then, as now, anarchists could be as prejudiced as anyone else when it came to homosexuality, and most homosexuals showed little interest in overthrowing the social order. But the increasing visibility of both groups was linked to the wider social upheavals of the fin de siècle. Between 1890 and 1914, more than a thousand books on homosexuality were published.

A hundred years later, there is a similar flourishing of interest, and the two books under review make valuable contributions to the steadily growing field of gay history. At the risk of sounding like the parody reviewer in ‘Field and Stream’ who complained about having to wade through the extraneous material in ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in order to fish out details of practical gamekeeping, I suggest that anarchist researchers can find useful and thought-provoking material here.

Book cover for Strangers by Graham RobbIn ‘Strangers’, Graham Robb sets out to map the ‘lost world’ of homosexual love in Europe and [North] America in the nineteenth century. He wants to challenge the preconceptions and prejudices of those ignorant of gay lives and histories, as well as those historians who, he says, paint a melodramatic account of largely invented oppression and largely fictitious liberation. ‘Evidence of ordinariness tends to be neglected because it lacks dramatic interest.’ But, he argues, extreme examples are not representative, and ‘theories, then and now, can make the gay past seem much poorer and more dismal than it was.’

For many historians, the key events in the development of modern gay male identities were the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act which extended the laws against male homosexuality, and Wilde’s subsequent prosecution. Robb and Cook concur in part that these episodes had relatively little impact on the way most gay men lived their lives. According to Robb’s analysis of the statistics, once the rise in population is taken into account there was no significant increase in the rates of prosecution or conviction for homosexual offences in England and Wales until well into the twentieth century. (After sexual acts between consenting adult men in private were legalised in the UK in 1967, rates of prosecution actually went up).

Meanwhile in France, where homosexual acts were legally tolerated, police simply used other laws to persecute homosexuals. But policing, persecution and publicity could produce solidarity and a sense of connection as often as it produced fear and silence. Whatever the law, Robb argues that most homosexuals carried on with their lives and met with a surprising degree of toleration or even acceptance. They ‘lived under a cloud, but it seldom rained.’ The commonest forms of persecution were silence and the social pressures which led to shame and concealment: ‘Loveless marriages caused more lasting grief than laws.’

Robb also rejects that fundamentalist version of Foucault which says that ‘homosexuals’ did not exist before late nineteenth century sexologists invented the term. Arguing that this is a fantasy about academic power, he claims that homosexuals played a significant part in constructing the medical discourses which supposedly constructed them. The boundaries of acceptable sexual behaviour — or even what constitutes sexual behaviour — may shift over time, but the very existence of boundaries indicates a continuing heterosexual/homosexual division.

Apart from this minor skirmish with Foucauldians, Robb does not directly address recent historiographical debates. Indeed he is dismissive of theorising in general, pointing out that theories do not bring about equality. Though some nineteenth century proponents of medical and biological explanations of homosexuality had progressive and humane intentions and saw themselves as pathbreakers for human rights, in fact they inhabited ‘an intellectual swampland’, their theories hopeless byways leading nowhere. However, sexology, along with scandal sheets and the notorious ‘French novels’ (a byword in England for sexual impropriety), enabled readers to realise that they were not alone, and to devise stories which made sense of their lives.

Although ‘Strangers’ rejects the standard account of progress towards (relative) sexual liberation, it is nevertheless structured as a movement from darkness to light. What characterises gay communities, Robb says, is not so much their coherence, but ‘their ability to survive in the diffuse manner of resistance groups or nomads.’ In a powerful and engrossing final section he puts forward a convincing argument for a vital gay presence in art, literature, religion, and what he calls the art of living. Homosexuality is not something separate from mainstream culture, but part of it; in the words of the later gay liberation slogan, ‘We Are Everywhere.’

Finishing with a bravura analysis of the emergence of the modern detective novel, Robb suggests that by the turn of the century homosexuals could be seen in a shamanic role, or as a kind of existential avant-garde, skilled in masks, codes, disguises, interpretation, allusion, deception: detectives of the modern. I wonder what Detective Sweeney would have said to that.

Robb writes accessibly, with great style and wit, though in a book aimed at a general audience, he too often sacrifices developed argument in favour of a smart remark, producing more sparkle than illumination. He uses the term ‘nineteenth century’ extremely loosely, and his examples jump about between countries and decades in juxtapositions sometimes helpful, sometimes just anachronistic. I was pleased that he begins with a promise to discuss lesbians as well as gay men since they are part of the same story. However, the material he actually includes on lesbians is disappointingly thin, most of it based on a relatively narrow selection of secondary sources.

Book cover for London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914, by Matt CookMatt Cook avoids this problem in his book by concentrating exclusively on men. Although both authors discuss the importance of friendship networks in providing support as well as fostering an emergent gay politics, they ignore the many everyday friendships and alliances between lesbians and gay men. At the same time, feminists from a variety of perspectives were raising new questions about sexuality and sexual identity. And on a more general level, it is impossible to grasp how homosexuality in the nineteenth century was seen as a threat to family, nation and empire without considering the contemporary debates about femininity as well as masculinity.

Both books show how the anonymity and opportunities offered by the growth of the cities enabled individual transformations and the development of gay communities. In his highly focussed study, drawing on the insights of cultural geography, Cook uses a fascinating selection of diaries, letters, novels, and other contemporary accounts to map out London’s sites of homoerotic encounter. The book is structured thematically around different representations of the relationship between homosexuality and the city — from journalists who wrote of Soho as ‘a fertile breeding bed of crime and anarchy’ with its foreigners, prostitutes and blackmailers, to Edward Carpenter’s lyrical account of finding love and democracy in the noisy crowds.

Cook argues that the Decadents, for whom the city was a place of excitement, intensity, danger and pleasure, and the neo-Hellenists, who emphasised healthy bodies, new virtues and social renewal, were significant in formulating urban gay identities and politics: an analysis which would gain from an acknowledgement of the part played in both circles by lesbians.

Some of the characters he discusses are important figures in anarchist history, for example author and agitator Edward Carpenter, who lived and wrote more or less openly as a gay man, and Oscar Wilde, who gave practical as well as ideological support to socialist, anarchist and feminist causes as well as writing the much loved and reprinted ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’. Although Cook discusses how Wilde’s various identities were able to emerge in different parts of the city, he misses out this overtly political identity.

A less familiar character is George Ives, who in the early 1890s founded the Order of the Chaerona, a somewhat secretive and elitist precursor of Gay Liberation, which Cook believes to be the first such group in Britain. Ives, a champion of the cross-class and transnational potential of homosexual organisation, became increasingly interested in socialism and anarchism, cruising ‘The People’ as he rode round London on his bike.

One of the places highlighted by Cook as a site where space could be reconfigured according to different visions of desire, comradeship and sexual interaction, is Hyde Park. Here Wilde’s Dorian Gray explored forbidden sensation, soldiers from the nearby barracks solicited sex for pleasure as well as for pay, while Carpenter thought of it as a place where desire could go hand in hand with democracy. Ives wanted Hyde Park to be publicly designated as a ‘spoonitorium’; it would be unlocked, secluded, open to lovers at all times — an (outdoor) prefiguration of the nineteen-fifties Situationist vision of ‘rooms more conducive to dreams than any drug, and houses where one cannot help but love.’

Political demonstrations in Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square could well be added to Cook’s tour (or détournement) of stations and skating rinks, pubs and cafés, bookshops and the British Museum: those alternatives to domestic and familial space which allowed gay men to discover themselves in discovering one another.

Such tales resonate with my own experiences as a teenager who came to London from a stiflingly conservative small provincial town. My first anarchist meeting was in a smoky basement room in Soho; there I glimpsed a life that could be different from the one laid out for me. A few years later and just a couple of streets away, I made my first visit to the Women’s Liberation Workshop, located upstairs from a newsagent selling sex magazines. Soho was still, as it was in the nineteenth century, a location where all kinds of dissidents and outsiders could meet.

Cook’s careful, stimulating analysis suggests parallel directions for an anarchist cultural geography that would investigate those spaces which make anarchist identities and activism possible. It would also look at how marginal groups — deliberate or inadvertent enemies of the state — may, sometimes at least, come together in what fin de siècle lesbian writer Vernon Lee called ‘the queer comradeship of outlawed thought.’

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