A. The Charge. Same-sex acts have traditionally been subject to legal sanction, and rightly so. Cavalier yet closeted, expectant yet withholding, these reprobates are always true to form. Is it surprising that their infamous skill set allows them to consort so readily with the denizens of the criminal underworld?
Their wayward arrogance and pitiful longing for acceptance by other lawbreakers should cause alarm in each and every one of us, upright citizens dedicated to upholding the rules of a civilized society. At present, homosexuals are the one demographic group whose involvement in the drug and pornography industries is disproportionately high. This affinity alone has made homosexuals not only subversive but just plain untrustworthy.
B. Historical Background. Historically, there have been several reasons for this link between homosexuality and criminality. First, both groups have been forced to live and socialize in rundown quarters of major cities. Sometimes these slum districts were glamorized as “bohemias,” but they remained zones of deposit for society’s rejects. Moreover, struggling to get by somehow in the face of their stigma, the outgroups have sought solace in alcohol and other stimulants. Finally, for their part, homosexual individuals have generally found that survival required them to become well-versed in the arts of concealment. As the blogger Andrew Sullivan has noted: “[W]hen you know you are different, especially in your teens, you keep very careful tabs on what is regarded as "normal." You become obsessed with giving nothing away. You have to develop much sharper skills of human observation, and learn how to mimic what comes easily to others. . . . The art of mimesis comes early - as part of self-defense.” (The Dish, January 23, 2013). This capacity for dissimulation, for appearing to be what one is not, has proved a valuable resource in various walks of life, including acting, espionage, and criminal activity.
The best documentation of the link between sexual variation and crime stems from major urban centers. To illustrate this point, three sites of this multinational phenomenon suffice: Florence, London, and New York.
Among Italian cities it was Florence that historically enjoyed the dubious reputation of being excessively "tolerant" of homosexual conduct. This renown is attested by the Middle High German verb florenzen, "to sodomize." And St. Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), preaching on May 23, 1425 against sodomy, lamented that "You cannot leave Tuscany without being reproached twelve times a day that here we never punish such a vice."
In reality Florentine laws (beginning with that of 1325) severely punished sodomy, but in practice the authorities imposed the death penalty reluctantly, preferring fines or corporal punishments of other types (including castration). Capital punishment was reserved for cases of special gravity, such as rape, seduction of a small child, or public scandal.
Florence had a special court, that of the Uffiziali di Notte (the "Officers of the Night"), which was charged with the task of monitoring and punishing homosexual acts. Research shows that most of the penalties exacted were fines. The relative mildness of Florentine justice helped to assure the denunciation of notorious sodomites, since the accuser knew that he was unlikely to cause a person's death.
In this way one can see how in "tolerant" Florence the accusations amounted to several thousand. Thanks to this option of mild, but systematic repression (instead of severe, but sporadic), Florentine society succeeded in keeping homosexual behavior under control, despite the existence of a popular culture that treated it indulgently, especially if the culprits were adolescents. Among the names of famous persons accused of sodomy under this system were the artists Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Benvenuto Cellini (who was twice condemned).
The existence of a real subculture, and not simply of isolated acts, is confirmed by numerous sermons preached by the above-mentioned Bernardino of Siena in the years 1424-27. In these texts Bernardino mentions various privileged places where sodomites met, especially taverns and pastry shops, noting the hours of the night preferred by the sodomites, those "wild pigs," in their search for sexual partners.
Niccoló Machiavelli, in a letter of February 25,1514, to his friend Francesco Vettori, amused himself by recalling street by street the path of a common friend in nocturnal quest of boys. Among the locales noted are Borgo Santo Apostolo, Calimala Francesca, and II Tetto de' Pisani.
The prevailing pattern of this subculture resembles that known for other Italian cities of the period: the sodomite couple consists of an adult, who takes the role of the insertor, and an adolescent, who is the insertee. The availability of adolescents for prostitution was decisive for maintaining the subculture; Michael Rocke has calculated that in the period ca.1478-83 ten percent of all Florentine boys had to appear before the authorities charged with sodomy. The same author notes also that those accused of sodomy included a conspicuous number of bachelors and recidivists, whom it is probably accurate to describe as having a "deviant lifestyle."
London presents a number of revealing glimpses over the centuries.
Richard of Devizes' Chronicle of the Times of King Richard the First includes an account of the underworld subcultures of London in 1192 that mentions four classes of individuals who certainly (or probably) engaged in homosexual activity: glabriones, "smooth-cheeked, pretty, effeminate boys," pusiones, "little hustlers, kept boys,"molles, "effeminates," mascularii, "man-lovers," a term found only in this passage in all of Medieval Latin, through plainly deriving from the masculorum concubitores of 1 Corinthians 6:9. Thus even in the early Plantagenet period London had its erotic subculture frequented by those who ignored or defied the official norms of the Church in the sphere of sexual morality.
The social reality of Elizabethan drama, so much celebrated nowadays, flourished in its own milieu of social marginality. The theaters at which the plays of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the lesser dramatists of that time were performed had all-male casts, and by tradition the roles of women were taken by boys, so that an ambiance of sexual ambiguity and double-entendre hung over an institution that was constantly assailed for "immorality." Christopher Marlowe ended up being murdered in a tavern brawl.
In England the civil war and the Commonwealth were followed by the Restoration, during which the first signs of a modem homosexual subculture emerge. The social stratification and anonymity of the metropolis facilitated the growth of a clandestine network of meeting places for individuals with unconventional desires. Restoration drama, the novels of Henry Fielding and John Cleland, and the prints of William Hogarth have given the London of that era a reputation for sensuality and excess that contrasted with the sober life of the English countryside. In the late 1720s London was scandalized by the discovery of homosexual clubs, molly houses, in which some men would don women's clothing and even go through mock marriages.
Although burning at the stake was never the penalty for buggery in England, a fate in some ways even worse lay in wait for the convicted sodomite. Such culprits were exposed in the pillory to abuse and assaults of the mob, which could freely pelt the guilty parties with filth and missiles of every kind. The belief that Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed because of the sexual depravity of their inhabitants justified these cruel penalties in the eyes of the populace. The Napoleonic wars saw a renewed outburst of intolerance, which resulted in numerous prosecutions. In 1810 a homosexual rendezvous on Vere Street in London was raided by the police, and nine men were subsequently convicted and placed in the pillory, where the commons vented their wrath on them in a manner that bespoke the intensity of popular hatred for those guilty of "unnatural crimes."
Nonetheless, homosexual life persisted beneath the surface of London's commercial and industrial life and the Victorian respectability of the capital of a great empire "on which the sun never set." Homosexuals of the upper social strata rubbed shoulders with hustlers from the depths of the criminal underworld, a phenomenon so aberrant from the standpoint of a class society that as late as the middle of the twentieth century the police could be moved to an investigation merely by evidence of associations of this kind. In 1889 a scandal occurred in which a house in Cleveland Street was discovered to be a place of assignation for homosexual clients and telegraph boys who served them as prostitutes. Oscar Wilde's ruin was also caused by his involvement with this criminal milieu when it was revealed by his archenemy, the Marquess of Queensbury, in 1895.
Since US cities emerged more recently, they were slower to develop the kind of demimonde in which reproved sexual behavior flourished. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, though, New York City harbored a vibrant bohemian and entertainment subculture. As a result of vice investigations of the 1890s, we know of such establishments as the Golden Rule Pleasure Club, Manilla Hall, Paresis Hall, The Palm, the Black Rabbit, Little Bucks, and the Artistic Club. Some of these locales were essentially male brothels, while others offered drinks and entertainment. In the Bowery and lower Broadway areas, the streets were patrolled by aggressive male hustlers, identifiable by their painted faces and red ties.
The first two decades of the twentieth century were the original heyday of Greenwich Village as a cultural center and also as a place of some toleration for lesbians and gay men. Others frequented the nightspots in Harlem, a district which was also the scene of a major black intellectual movement with several significant gay and bisexual participants: the Harlem Renaissance. At this time the modem gay-bar and bathhouse culture began to take shape.
For the bars in New York City and elsewhere in the United States, however, Prohibition (1919-1933) meant devastation, though some of these bars continued as speakeasies. An unintended consequence of the legal change was to make gay and straight bars more similar, since both were now invested with the same atmosphere of clandestinity. After the gay bars reopened, however, many fell under the control of organized crime, which coordinated payoffs to the police. Today some gay bars and other gathering places serve as markets for purchasing drugs. It is not clear, however, that this predilection for controlled substances is greater than in the rest of the population.
Is quantification possible? A forty-eight page study published in the journal Psychological Reports in 2005 analyzes some data compiled in 1996 by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), which seem to suggest that US homosexuals are more likely to engage in illegal and socially dangerous behavior than heterosexuals. According to the study, homosexuals are over 107% more likely to have been booked for illegal activity than heterosexuals. However, the report was penned by Dr. Paul Cameron of the Family Research Institute, an organization whose scholarly bona fides has been questioned. In fact, there are no reliable data to this effect because no one knows what the statistical universe (the total number) of GLBT people in the United States is.
C. Response. Why has this marginal status with its criminal taint continued to trouble GLBT people? Over the centuries, the main reason is the opprobrium and illegality that have been imposed upon them in Western society. As this mantle of oppression is being lifted the marginality may be expected to diminish.
Even if--and it is a big if--gay criminality today were to be found to exceed that of the rest of the population that finding would be no more reason for discrimination than it is for certain ethnic groups that have historically had significantly high crime rates.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Rictor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830, London: GMP, 1992; George Chauncey, Jr., Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994; Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence, New York: Oxford University Press 1996; David Higgs, ed., Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600, London: Routledge, 1999; Matt Cook, London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.