The Puritans and Restoration
What with the boys in dresses acting out Greek and Roman dramas, it’s no surprise that the theatres drew the ire of the Puritans. These were extremist Protestants wanting to “purify” the Anglican church of all Catholic rituals, and move it to a Christianity based solely on the Bible. They grew more and more hostile to the king over the years, and finally staged a revolution that toppled the monarchy in 1649. The fundamentalist dictatorship that followed closed all the theatres, and cracked down on “vice.” Needless to say, “vice” included homosexuality.
When Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell died, his son was chased off the throne and England invited its exiled kings back. Charles II re-opened the theatres, and allowed women to work the stage for the first time in history.
This move didn’t make English theatre any less queer, however. Aphra Behn, the first great woman playwright of England, wrote erotic love poetry about both men and women when she wasn’t staging risqué bits of theatre. She also surrounded herself with many of the best-known bisexual figures of the Restoration, and wrote a lot of fiction around sex and the sex scandals of her age. Somehow, she still found the time to work as a spy for the English king under the code name of Astrea.
John Wilmot, the notorious Earl of Rochester, wrote raunchy poems about the (bi)sexual adventures of himself and his friends at court. In one poem he declares that he doesn’t need women because “There’s a sweet, soft page [male servant] of mine/Does the trick of forty wenches.” Thanks to his poetry and his wild life, Rochester became the embodiment of the libertine – the very symbol of the wild, adventurous, hyper-sexual lord.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere of celebration after the Puritan were thrown out of power did not last long. A conservative backlash drove out the king who protected these libertines, in what was called the Glorious Revolution.
Unfortunately, the Restoration had had an unpleasant side effect – the very visible bisexuality of figures like Behn and Rochester spelt trouble for sexual minorities, because England could no longer convince itself that homosexuality never happened there. When the backlash came, it targeted “sodomites” like never before in Britain.
This visibility had been heightened by another phenomenon: London’s gay community was getting larger and more obvious. Ned Ward, who wrote a History of London Clubs in 1709, was the first to tell us the name these men gave to themselves: “There are a particular gang of sodomitical wretches in this town, who call themselves Mollies.”
The “Mollies” had an entire culture, with ways of dress and speech, slang words all their own, and secret meeting places that came to be called “Molly houses.” These drew the attention of an organization called the Society for the Reformation of Manners, which made it one of its major goals to hunt them down.
The publications of this Society put an increasingly bright spotlight onto the “Mollies,” and the great silence that had engulfed English culture was broken. The myth that there was no homosexuality in Britain was replaced with another myth – that homosexuality had been successfully imported from Europe, had recently taken root, and must be exterminated before it could spread.
In the wake of the Revolution that had ousted one king and brought in the Protestant champion (and closeted bisexual) William of Orange, the Society used the religious fervour to whip up a movement against everyone from prostitutes to merchants who kept their stores open on Sunday.
Yet their favourite targets were “the Mollies” — the homosexuals and bisexuals. Every time they secured a conviction for any moral crime, the name of their victim was added to a list, which they published annually in “black letter” font. This came to be known as the “blacklist,” which is the origin of the word.
The Society for the Reformation of Manners would entrap homosexuals by sending decoys out into queer neighbourhoods. By 1707, the organization claimed to have been responsible for 100 arrests, though no one knows if the figure is accurate. That same year, a satire put the number at 40, but claimed the group had driven three men to suicide.
A raid by constables on Molly House run by a woman named Mother Clap in 1726 carried away 40 men for sodomy in a single night. The popular press urged all forms of torture for the victims of these raids, in addition to a death penalty.
These atrocities hit their peak by the early 1800s. From 1806 to 1835, a minimum of 60 men were hanged in England for sodomy. A great many others were attacked and even killed while locked in the pillory, where angry mobs could beat them and throw things at them. Only in 1835, when serious legal reforms began, did the violence start to die down.
The law even turned its eye to woman who had sex with women for the first time. A number of high-profile cases of “female husbands” – women who passed themselves off as men so that they could marry women – aroused indignation among the moral crusaders.
Yet there was no law in England against female homosexuality, as there was in France – these marriages were simply dissolved. If the wife of one of these “female husbands” said she had been tricked, the accused could be charged with fraud however – a Mary Hamilton, a.k.a. George Hamilton, was publicly whipped for having “tricked” her wife into marriage.
However, then as now, the claim that two people could share the marriage bed and not know one another’s sex aroused scepticism in courts. And not all the wives used this excuse — at least one wife I’ve heard of testified in favour of her “female husband,” protecting her from prosecution.
The Unenlightened Enlightenment
The Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham – probably the only person in England publicly arguing for the decriminalization of male homosexuality in the early 1800s – described with disgust his experience meeting a judge who had just sentenced two men to death for “sodomy.” According to Bentham, “Delight and exultation glistened in his [the judge’s] countenance; his looks called for applause and congratulations at the hands of the surrounding audience [for the death sentences he’d handed down].”
Bentham tried publish a book arguing for the legalization of homosexuality, but no publisher dared touch them. They were only reached print in the 20th century.
Bentham, however, was practically alone among European thinkers. Even atheists, agnostics, and deists who’d rejected every other aspect of Christian sin found excuses to join in the mass-hysteria around homosexuality.
The philosopher Voltaire argued that homosexuality was dangerous because it could lead to an end to reproduction and thus the extermination of the human race. English historian Edward Gibbon, meanwhile, argued that it led to weakness – “effeminacy”– and that this in turn sapped a nation’s strength and will to work and to fight. This, he argued, was one of the reasons Rome had fallen. This myth that persists today, and in some quarters it’s still believed that sexual indulgence and homosexuality cause societies to crumble, though serious historians of Rome have long since given up on the theory.
Thus the Enlightenment found ways to transfer old prejudices from the Christian era to the modern age. Homosexuality destroyed nations, they said, weakening them at their core, destroying their willpower and eradicating their population. In the background was the old Christian superstition that fire would rain on cities that permitted homosexuality. It was now given a quasi-scientific veneer.
It was in the depths of this ugly, homophobic state of mind that Britain inherited New France in 1760. But before we turn to the situation of “sodomites” in Canada itself, we’re going to take a little detour by way of New England.
Sources: There’s a lot of material, and my sources are many and varied for all three instalments on England. The best among these are Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization, Aldrich and Witherspoon’s Who’s Who in Gay & Lesbian History, John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, and Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: A History. The introductions to the current Pelican series on Shakespeare – the ones edited by Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller – were also incredibly useful.