Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What Do You Mean "We," Miss Thing?

"Gay love as we know it is modern," wrote Caleb Crain on the first page of his contribution to Long Before Stonewall, and once again I winced.  Every term in that statement* needs to be defined before it can conceivably make any sense.

"Modern," for example, is a word that gets thrown around too freely in discussions of the history of homosexuality.  Aside from the occasional obligatory reference to Foucault 1:43, which places the origin of modern homosexuality in 1870, I've seen even academic writers refer to the early twentieth century, the immediate post-WWII period, and even the 1980s as premodern; it's only a matter of time before the "modern" homosexual will only have emerged in the twenty-first century, perhaps with the launching of Grindr.  They may even try to cast twenty-first century Dominican or Filipino hustlers or Mexican drag queens, equipped with Internet, cell phones, and porn DVDs, as pre-modern and non-Western.  Which, of course, could probably be argued, but that's the trouble: it isn't argued.  The writers have heard of Foucault, they've heard that homosexuality is modern, but they don't know what that's supposed to mean, so they wing it.  Crain is writing about a late eighteenth-century romantic friendship between two males, and that's part of the modern period historically.  Foucault also placed the birth of the modern homosexual in the London Molly houses a half-century earlier, so Crain really hasn't a leg to stand on.

As for "gay love," that too needs to be unpacked.  True, the word "gay" wasn't adopted by English-speaking buggers and sapphists as an in-group code word until sometime in the mid-twentieth century.  It quickly caught on around the world, in non-Western societies, and in those cultural contexts it usually referred to sissy, often (but not always) female-impersonating pretty boys, but then it often meant the same thing in the US.  It certainly hasn't been established that "gay" is the equivalent of "the modern homosexual," but again, nobody knows the characteristics of that mysterious being, probably because there is no single style of homosexuality, either male or female, in the United States -- which is what most writers on this subject take to be the home of modern homosexuality, even though Foucault was writing about Europe, especially Germany, where there was no single style of homosexuality either.

But to keep things simple, let's limit ourselves to the US.  What does "gay love" refer to?  Who knows it, and what do they know?  Anyone who's spent any amount of time observing or participating in late twentieth-century American gay male life will know that it's diverse.  There are drag queens, there are fey twinks who start out willowy and hairless but often metamorphose, like caterpillars, into hairy, chubby bears.  There are leather men and guys into Western gear.  Bears often adopt a quasi-blue-collar style of jeans and plaid flannel shirts (just like some lesbians), even when they are computer programmers by trade.  There are Radical Faeries into genderfuck.  There are middle-class professionals who present a gender-compliant front by day but camp and scream when they're away from the public eye.  Their sexual and romantic lives range from circuit parties and bathhouses to a public presentation of monogamous couplehood, officially ungendered (they share the housework and cooking) but not always in practice.  Those who haven't found husbands may or may not be looking for one; some are lone wolves who don't want to be coupled, though they will still have friends who provide vital support networks.  Some prefer to pay for sex.  Some are romantic, some just want "some hot stranger tweaking [their] nipples in the dark" as one of Armistead Maupin's characters put it.  Many, still, are heterosexually married with children, and express their gayness in the video booths of adult bookstores, or when traveling on business.   Because hypocrisy (like amnesia) is a treasured American value, what these men tell you about themselves may (or may not) be at odds with their actual behavior.  A similar range of styles exists among lesbians.  And I've really only barely scratched the surface here.

So what could Crain and his fellows possibly mean by "gay love as we know it"?  I suppose, from those occasions where someone bothers to explain what is meant, they're talking about "egalitarian" homosexuality, with both partners presenting as conventionally masculine males, both possessed of the modern gay identity, both sexually versatile and taking turns as insertor or receptor in copulation, and both eager to marry civilly and join the military.  But this model, however much the mainstream professionalized gay movement supposes it, is only part of gay male life in the United States today.  No one knows to what extent it reflects the reality of our lives; I suspect it's a minority.

Intriguingly, given his lip service to avoiding presentism and anachronism, Crain promptly describes the subject of his piece:
At about 127 pounds, he was a slight figure.  He carried a cane, which as a twenty-seven year old he did not quite need.  He was very nearsighted.  His powdered hair was gathered at the rear into a fashionable queue.  He was the sort of man that children throw snowballs at -- finicky about his appearance, mildly pompous in his manners, and too delicate to do much harm if he caught the offender.  His father had been a successful merchant; he was a lawyer with a trust fund.  He spent most of his days either sipping tea with Philadelphia ladies or trying to collect rent from his own or his half-brother's tenants [218-219].
A major sissy, in other words.  Not that there's anything wrong with that!  The first thing I want to point out is that Crain has little trouble describing John Fishbourne Mifflin in terms that will make sense to late-twentieth century American readers, and seems to expect that there's no anachronism here.  Well, for one thing, white American gay men in 2007 (when Long Before Stonewall was published) are likely to find a white American bourgeois two hundred years ago more familiar and relatable (or to think we do) than we would an Iroquois hunter or a North Carolina slave in the same period.  We've all seen paintings of Mifflin's contemporaries, we know how they dressed, how they wore their hair, and we've seen them in TV and movie reconstructions.  Culturally, we're their descendants.  It would be harder to connect with an eighteenth-century Zulu farmer or Chinese scholar, say.

But even there we might go astray.  Reading about Mifflin reminded me of something I read in Theo van der Meer's "Are Those People Like Us -- Early Modern Homosexuality in Holland," published in Katherine O'Donnell and Michael Rourke, editors, Queer Masculinities, 1550-1800:Siting Same-Sex Desire in the Early Modern World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
All through the eighteenth century sodomites prinked themselves up and some were said to dress in an effeminate manner. Even if eighteenth-century dress did not look very masculine from a twentieth-century perspective, for a man selling rags at fairs in the 1790s, to be dressed in ‘a light frock with brown stripes, a white vest with red little dots, dark trousers, white stockings and shoes with ribbons [and] a triangular black shining hat with a black little rose, a black lus with a yellow button attached to it,’ seems a bit over the top. Occasionally some men would stroll around in female attire, like a prominent official of a church in Utrecht (convicted in 1730) who in the 1720s had been thrown out of his rooms by his landlord after he found him dressed as a shepherdess.
As you can see, gay men’s taste was every bit as good then as it is now! Oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to wear something tacky... Of course there's no similarity between the modern gay lover and these eighteenth-century sodomites.  Clothing styles and drag outfits are completely different -- who dresses as a shepherdess nowadays, even in the privacy of his own room?  And these men spoke Dutch, not English, so we're talking about a totally different sexual category here.

Crain's subject, by the way, is a "romantic friendship," which by definition (or postulation) involved no copulation or genital grabbing.  It's possible that the modern dick hadn't been invented yet, in those far-off days.  But no, that won't do, because we know that fictional and non-fictional writings about homoeroticism up to and including buggery and tribadism were available, read, and popular in Philadelphia in those days, and that such acts took place in reality was known by lawmakers and social reformers.  (See the chapter by Clare A. Lyons that I wrote about yesterday.)

Pennsylvania's sodomy laws were less draconian than English common law or their parallels in the rest of New England, but they existed, even though they apparently weren't enforced.  Philadelphia was a port city which drew shipping (and merchants and sailors) from around the world.  It presumably had its lowlife.  But we don't know much about it.  Some diaries of Mifflin and his romantic friend James Gibson survive, and they are Crain's main sources for their relationship.  But detailed, explicit diaries recording copulatory behavior, especially illicit behavior, are rare in this or any period, even between people who can be known to be Doin' It, like heterosexual married couples.  Romantic friends were usually eager to insist that they weren't that kind of friend.  Similar stigma-denying tactics are often used by modern Homo-Americans.  It's just hard to decide what is and what is anachronistic here.  True, today's modern homosexual rarely powders his hair (though fashionable queues made a comeback a few years ago), and sometimes he is "the sort of man that children throw snowballs at".  It's hard to see how this opens a yawning gap between the modern homosexual and the eighteenth-century romantic friend or the eighteenth-century sodomite, requiring a major sea-change of categories and thought to understand.

So I look forward to seeing what Crain will make of these boys; so far I've barely begun the chapter.  But he has gotten off to a bad start.  I know -- the invocation of the Modern Homosexual is obligatory in this kind of work, like a romantic friend's ritual denial that he or she does anything "shameful" when the lights are out.  Once it's out of the way, it can be forgotten, and usually it is.  But it still sets my teeth on edge.  Because you know something?  The most obvious fault with "Gay love as we know it is modern" is that it's tautological: basically it means "Gay love as we moderns know it is modern."  It's true, but says nothing.

*It's actually the first clause of the opening of the second paragraph.  For context, here's some more of the text: "Gay love as we know it is modern, and as Thoreau wrote, 'the past cannot be presented' (155 [from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Princeton UP edn.]).  However, close examination of the language men used in early America to describe and convey their feelings may reduce the anachronism of our understanding" (217).