Archive for February, 2008

Changing Views on Homosexuality in the West

By the mid-1800s, most of Europe had stopped executing “sodomites.” The United Kingdom and Canada were among the last to end the death penalty, but finally followed suit in the 1860s.

In 1868, Europe got its first gay-rights activist. Homosexual sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs began publishing pamphlets under an assumed name, advocating the abolition of sodomy laws.

An ally of his was a heterosexual journalist and human-rights campaigner named Károly Mária Kertbeny, whose gay best friend had committed suicide after having been blackmailed. Kertbeny coined the term “homosexual” as an alternative to the bigoted phrases used up to that point. This joined a number of other phrases invented in the 1860s as non-insulting names for homosexuals – “the third sex,” “inverts,” “similisexuals,” and “urnings.”

In short, there were reasons to hope that things would get rapidly better. The spirit of the times was that of the Enlightenment: a questioning of the assumptions of the past, a declaration of the equality of all members of the human race, and a claim to individual freedom. It was the core belief of the Enlightenment that reason and science would fix all human problems, and that human beings were perfectible.

There was just one problem: very few Enlightenment thinkers were willing to take up the homosexual’s cause. Men like Jeremy Bentham, Ulrichs, and Kertbeny were the exceptions. Most saw us as a problem to be corrected through the proper application of science.

Of Sodomites and Homosexuals

Before we can tackle the prejudices of another age, we’re going to have to tackle the prejudices of this one.

Anyone who’s studied LGBT history seriously will have come across the name Michel Foucault pretty rapidly. Foucault was a French philosopher who is famous, among other things, for having studied the history of sexuality, and particularly that of homosexuality.

Foucault, his followers say, was of the belief that identity and sexuality were created by language and culture. He believed, they say, that exclusive homosexuality and exclusive heterosexuality were invented when medical science discovered these concepts – that until then, no one considered themselves gay or straight, there was no gay community nor culture. His famous phrase that, “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species,” has become the rallying cry of this perspective in academia.

(“Temporary aberration” is always the phrase used by Foucault’s disciples, though this is a bad translation of the original. The word translated as “temporary aberration” — relaps — means “relapsed heretic” or “lapsed Catholic.” Thus it’s someone who returns to their original state, not someone who takes on a new, temporary one. This suggests that Foucault may have been misinterpreted somewhat.)

Now, LGBT history done since Foucault has done pretty much nothing but erode that view – exclusive homosexuality and heterosexuality were both known in Classical Greece and Rome, and in many places outside the West, and their origins (divine, inborn, or environment) have been debated by philosophers and medical theorists at least as far back as The Symposium of Plato some two and a half millennia ago. An anonymous work once believed to be Aristotle – an important thinker right up until modern times – suggested that some homosexually passive men were born that way. A medieval monk named Arnald of Verniolle said at his trial that God had made him gay.

There is also linguistic and literary evidence of gay communities going back at least to the 1600s, and at least one eminent historian – John Boswell – argues there’s evidence of gay communities in the 1000 s AD in Europe. Communities of exclusively homosexual men seem to appear in any city of sufficient size anywhere in the world at any point in history, regardless of other cultural considerations.

Yet in spite of all this, the theory that homosexuality is a modern invention that replaced a natural bisexuality has proven remarkably resilient, largely for ideological reasons. Worse, the theories have become increasingly distorted with each generation. Foucault’s own nuances have disappeared, and now periods like 17th-century France – when state-sanctioned burnings of homosexuals had greatly increased – are more and more being portrayed as bisexual Edens spoilt by the arrival of medical science.

Still, Foucault’s theories are not entirely without merit. While they very poorly frame the worldviews of gay men and lesbians at the time, they do accurately capture a shift in the views of the persecuting groups. The era’s defenders of morality lost interest in bisexuality, marginalizing it during this period, and psychiatry became absolutely obsessed with exclusive homosexuality or “inversion.”


The idea that an understanding of nature could teach people to be better human beings is an old one in the West. During the Age of Reason, the idea came back with renewed vigour – Francis Bacon, father of the scientific method, argued that human being should take their cues from nature. Philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau built government systems by imagining what human beings would’ve been like in nature – and coming to exactly opposite conclusions.

With the Enlightenment, these ideas went mainstream, and reason, science, and knowledge replaced religion as central idea of the West. Not surprisingly, science quickly turned its attention to human society and the human mind. Throughout the 1800s, the so-called “social sciences” were invented in their modern forms – economics, sociology, political science, and (most important for us) psychology.

It’s difficult not to be suspicious of the whole discipline of psychology when you’ve studied its history. That history is littered with the corpses of very strange theories, held to with quasi-religious fervour by a few psychologists who assert their authority and expertise over the common run of humanity who might question them. Each generation of new psychological theories wipes away the previous ones, and raises themselves up as modern gods.

This is especially obvious now when we read the theories of homosexuality popular in the mid-1800s and early 1900s. While some researchers (such as Ulrichs, Karl Westphals, and Paul Moreau) felt that homosexuality was inborn, the idea won out that that some or all cases of homosexuality were caused by nurture, not nature.

Historian Byrne Fone notes that “as early as 1852, some medical theorists distinguished between ‘innate’ and ‘acquired’ sexual characteristics.” It followed logically that – if homosexuality was dangerous to society – the “innate” homosexual had to be contained or controlled, to prevent the spread of “acquired” homosexuality.

Gradually, though, psychiatry came to be dominated by the theories of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. These suggested that domineering mothers and passive or absent fathers were the cause of homosexuality. This theory still survives in pop psychology, and is often touted by the religious right when they wish to give a veneer of science to their arguments.

Psychiatry changed the landscape of homosexual life. Outside of gay history circles, it’s often been assumed these changes were for the better, but a closer look makes this idea suspect.

Arrests and convictions on charges relating to homosexuality greatly increased in this period in the English-speaking world. Parents were likely more willing to turn children over to a psychiatrist for a “cure” than to a tribunal for execution, but many of the methods used throughout Europe and North America for “treating” homosexuality – such as electroshock or castration – essentially constituted torture.

The Enlightenment had swept away the idea that a human being was fundamentally flawed, and hopeless without God’s intervention. Psychiatry now added the idea that the homosexual was often or always created, and could be contained or eliminated as part of the perfectibility of the human race that the Enlightenment had offered.

In early Canada, the law had been very rarely used against consensual homosexual couples – and apparently never for execution. However, those laws were changing, too.

Influenced by science, legal attitudes – which had been getting more permissive – began to get worse again. While execution never returned, new laws came into existence to help the police contain the danger homosexuality was seen to represent, and the flames of this terror were fanned by the new science of psychiatry. With the arrival of the modern police force and the penitentiary system in the 1830s, there was every sign that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.

We’ll turn toward law enforcement and the police in our next instalment.

Sources: Many, although a good place to start would by Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: A History and John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. There is also Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization. Foucault’s theories are laid out in his multivolume Histoire de la Sexualité, although my description of how those theories are used in universities is largely from personal experience. An excellent critique of this perspective can be found in the work of historian Rictor Norton, who blogs here.

Read Full Post »