The Gay Past and the Intellectual Historian

by Emily Rutherford

In the papers this week was the news (slow, it seems, to come to the mainstream media’s attention) that, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, University of British Columbia graduate student Justin O’Hearn helped to fund the UBC library’s purchase at auction of two rare 1890s homoerotic novels, Teleny and Des Grieux. Teleny, a story of a love affair between two men which includes explicit sex, has been reprinted in modern editions and is fairly widely available to researchers, but Des Grieux, a sequel (the title refers to Teleny‘s protagonist) hasn’t and isn’t. O’Hearn’s campaign was spurred by his intention to edit a critical edition of the text and to incorporate it into his dissertation.

Unless specific circumstances caused anglophone sexually explicit/pornographic novels of historical importance to be reprinted in twentieth-century (often badly-made, pirated) editions, they tend to languish, sometimes only in single copies, in the British Library’s Private Case holdings, accessible only to those who can afford the trip to London and work up the courage to collect pornography from the librarians in the Rare Books reading room. Part of O’Hearn’s stated interest in these two texts is that Oscar Wilde has long been held to have been one of the anonymous authors behind Teleny, and bibliographer of erotic fiction Peter Mendes argues that Des Grieux was written by the same group, including Wilde. Association with canonical literary figures gives pornography redeeming social importance, and leads to reprints: while (surprisingly) little Private Case Victorian pornography is available online or in modern editions, one text you can reliably find is the flagellation periodical The Pearl, to which the poet Algernon Swinburne is believed to have contributed. The association of Wilde with these two novels, however, has an added connotation: thanks to the drama surrounding his 1895 gross indecency trials, and more recently to Richard Ellman’s biography and the 1997 biopic starring Stephen Fry based upon it, Wilde has been viewed as a great tragic hero of gay mythology, whose (possibly fictitious) courtroom defense of “the love that dare not speak its name” has firmly established him as a key figure in a gay male literary and cultural canon. In a popular historical narrative centered on a teleology of gay liberation, the scandalous story of Wilde’s downfall assumes an outsize role.

I’ve been writing about male homosociality, homoeroticism, and homosexuality in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century England for some years now, and when I first came to the subject as a college junior it seemed extremely important to push against narratives which look to the past for gay heroes who stand out because they seem to us to be boldly ahead of their time, and instead to insist that men who wrote and talked about and practiced same-sex sex and love prior to the last couple decades of the nineteenth century simply weren’t gay—it was bad history to connect them to later figures who did see gayness as an identity category. My research on John Addington Symonds shows that he lived in a milieu where there were many competing models for understanding the nature of same-sex desire, and also that—however important we might believe his writing on homosexuality to be today—he was predominantly known during his life and in the years after his death as a historian of ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy. He also had a wife, four daughters, and several female friends. As Sharon Marcus has written, we have to squelch our present-day impulses to see homosexuality as the card that trumps all other salient facts about a historical figure’s life and work, and homosocial, -erotic, and -sexual bonds as subversive of hetero ones and of the nuclear family. For Symonds—or, as Marcus points out, for Wilde, who also was married, for some years edited a women’s magazine, and had meaningful friendships with women—this simply wasn’t the case (Marcus 261).

And yet. Both Symonds and Wilde and their twentieth-century reception played significant roles in bringing into being our modern conceptions of homosexual sexual orientation (as congenital, unchooseable and unchangeable, both physiological and psychological, constituted in opposition to heterosexuality) and of gay (sub)culture. It wouldn’t be right to treat them in the same way as the countless other unknown men in their period who had close homoerotic friendships/relationships (in which sex may or may not have played a part), who consumed homoerotic pornography, who may have been married, and who didn’t consider themselves homosexuals or take a public stand in the name of a nascent identity category. Furthermore, there is something important and powerful—and relevant to academic historians—about narratives of gay history (or other kinds of minority identity history) and their ability to inspire those living in other times and places. Symonds relates in his autobiography that he first gained an inkling of same-sex desire by reading Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus as a teenager, and it is remarkable how often in twentieth-century gay life-writing and fiction moments of self-discovery are framed in terms of encounters with the past through books and the discovery of authors or other historical figures whom the reader is able to label as gay. Even in our moment of widespread acceptance of gay identity as a category of cultural diversity, these narratives compel. Witness the recent furore over Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, which set out to tell a tragic, Wilde-esque story about a national treasure who was forced to suffer at the state’s hands for his sexual orientation (under the same law with which Wilde was sentenced), but wound up, as Christian Caryl has incisively argued, in the process managing to desecrate basically everything the genius and war hero achieved in his life other than being found guilty of “gross indecency”—thus doing violence to other ways in which Turing might be seen as an inspiring figure from the “gay past.”

Numerous historical projects recognize and respect a wider public’s desire for an inspiring narrative of gay history while still emphasizing how much has changed in a relatively short span of time about the concept of sexual orientation. OutHistory.org is an important public resource written by professional historians, while historians including George Chauncey and Matt Houlbrook have written academic books which bring to life the fabric of gay communities of the past while understanding them on their own terms. I’m excited also to read Robert Beachy’s new book Gay Berlin, just out from Knopf, which looks like it expands on his 2010 article about “The German Invention of Homosexuality” to show how nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century German thinkers and political campaigners were pioneers in using science to define the homosexual as a kind of person (who could then be advocated for as a protected class). In the book, he supplements this argument with a lot of detail about Berlin’s flourishing queer subculture in the years before the Nazi period—in the process urging us not to see early-twentieth-century Germany simply as a lead-up to the rise of Hitler.

When you work on sexuality, it’s easy to get typecast as someone who does only that—and, at times, as someone who doesn’t have the intellectual chops to engage in meaty, intricate, ideas-focused topics. It’s also easy to get bound up in the salaciousness of it all, reading pornography for work and speculating about dead people’s sex lives. The rich literature and vibrant debates around the history of homosexuality as a concept and around the lives of people like Wilde, Turing, and other far less famous individuals show, though, that “who had sex with whom, and how” is one of the least important questions a historian can ask. As I’ve tried to show here, the questions about the methods and uses of history that this subfield actually does raise are as challenging and urgent as in any other.

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