Friday, May 22, 2009

Larry Kramer in the Huffington Post

For some time a debate has been raging among historians about individual cases of same-sex inclination in pre-Victorian times. Did they do the deed or not? Of course, we know that men--probably many men--had genital sex with other men; a few unlucky ones were executed for the “abominable and detestable crime against nature not to be mentioned among Christians.” A small number dared to boast about it in writing. Others were caught, but managed to escape into exile.

Just as today many are fascinated by celebrities, so too we would like to know about the gay eminentos of past times. This preoccupation transpires in the claim that a number of US presidents--Washington, Buchanan, and Lincoln for starters--were gay. We can safely set aside the silly notion that because they didn’t use the word “homosexual” in those days, this could not be. Bullbleep. They had plenty of other words. And, as many will recall from their own boyish phase of “experimentation,” it was possible to perform the acts without knowing any of the words.

To return to the US presidents, as far as I can tell there is no certain evidence that messers Washington, Buchanan, and Lincoln had genital sex with any male. As one skeptic bluntly asked: when are we going to get to penis? But is this genital evidence necessary? For some time, Lillian Faderman and others have been arguing that lesbian status does not require genital activity. It is the affection that matters. Here I would like to cite indebtedness to my late friend Paul Hardman who published a little-noticed book on homoaffectionalism, a term he coined. As with women who loved women, so too with men. In the case of the novelist Henry James there is, in my view, no real evidence that he ever had sexual relations with men (or with women either for that matter). But biographical and literary evidence shows conclusively that James’ closest emotional ties were with members of his own sex.

In recent decades, however, gay historians have been leery of the concept of homoaffectionalism (however one choses to term it), perhaps for good reason. Many heterosexual scholars, eager to “protect the integrity” of admired figures of the past, have demanded strict proof, beyond any possibility of doubt, of actual genital activity. Absent genital activity, they conclude that there is no homoeroticism. Voila! the individual is degayed. A good example of the way this degaying procedure has worked (at least for a while) is the case of Walt Whitman. The effort failed, as it deserved to. For a long time honest observers have been clear that the poet was not “just friends” with the young men he took under his wing. Still, given the tenacity of the resistance, it took a long struggle for the truth to be acknowledged.

For their part, gay historians have sometimes been overeager to claim historic figures as gay, including the sexual side. In the past I have flagged this tendency as sometimes valid, sometimes not. Yet the enthusiasts for historic outing seem to assume that once they have labeled someone as gay the attribution cannot be challenged. There is no reason to abandon our responsibility in this realm.

In short, it seems then that there are two opposed ways of interpreting the evidence. The minimalist position, espoused by many heterosexual scholars, seeks to limit outing of historical figures. The maximalist position, favored by some gay scholars, does the opposite, sometimes claiming individuals without a clear warrant to do so. Surely, the truth lies between these extremes.

In a new Internet posting the indefatigable Larry Kramer has entered the fray. (“Homo Sex in Colonial America,” Huffington Post, May 20). As a maximalist, Kramer registers his severe disappointment with respect to a new book by Richard Godbeer, a well-known historian of colonial America who teaches at the University of Miami. The book is “The Overflowing Friendship: Love Between Men and the Creation of the American Republic” (Johns Hopkins University Press). Apparently Godbeer (I have not read the book) maintains that the documentation he has found for passionate friendships in eighteenth-century America does not indicate genital enactment. In fact, he takes great pains to exclude this possibility.

For his part, Kramer had been hoping for something more from this distinguished scholar. In fact, for some time he has been obsessed by his belief that Jamestown, Virginia--Britain’s first colony in North America--was a kind of male-homosexual republic, replete (even) with gay-marriage ceremonies. In fact, some evidence for the flourishing of gay-male relations at Jamestown was first presented by Jonathan Ned Katz in 1976.

In his Huffington Post piece, Kramer remarks as follows: “When both US News and the New Yorker ran pieces on the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007, they were both so annoyingly ignorant of the fact that almost all of its inhabitants were men that I submitted my thoughts to both magazines. US News, which appeared first, of course said No, (they never have liked gays very much), but the New Yorker, which ran their Commemorative Piece a few months later, published the following from my letter to the editor:

"Jamestown [Kramer wrote] was initially an all-male settlement. subsequent years...male colonists outnumbered women by roughly six to one in the 1620's and four to one in later decades... It is difficult to believe that a group of young and notoriously unbridled men remained celibate for an extended period of time. It seems likely that some male settlers deprived of female companionship would have turned to each other instead.

"Settlers in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake often paired off to form all-male households, living and working together. would be truly remarkable if all the male-only partnerships lacked a sexual ingredient... IT SEEMS REASONABLE TO ASSUME, [my caps and bold], that much of the sex that took place... was sodomitical."

“These words [Kramer goes on to say] are from “Sexual Revolution in Early America,” by Richard Godbeer . . .

“My own research for my book, “The American People,” has revealed that not only were male-only partnerships quite in evidence, but services were often conducted to join the partners "under God," and that, of equal interest, was their adoption of Indian children to raise as their own. I hope it will not be too much longer before scholars will be able to deal with the fact that Jamestown was in fact not only America's first colony but its first homosexual community.”

Having been encouraged by the brief remarks in Godbeer’s earlier book, Kramer eagerly looked forward to the new one, “The Overflowing Friendship.” He has been bitterlly disappointed.

This is what he now says in the Huffington Post: “In this new book, Godbeer is hell-bent on convincing us that two men in colonial America could have exceedingly obsessive and passionate relationships . . . replete with non-stop effusive correspondence that rivals anything in Barbara Cartland, and spend many a night in bed together talking their hearts out, without the issue of sex arising in any way. He tries very hard to convince us that then was so different from now, that men, in essence, in all of this behavior, had no sex drives, indeed no functioning penises that perked up when the luscious emotions and activities he is describing completely dominated the lives he is detailing. Oh, no, insists Godbeer. Most of these friendships were not in the least sexual. You know, a sort of "I Love You, Man" for colonial America.”

In fact Kramer acknowledges the two forms of homoeroticism, genital and nongenital. “My American Heritage unabridged dictionary lists two definitions for homosexuality: the first: "sexual orientation to persons of the same sex”; and the second: "sexual activity with another of the same sex." In other words, it is not necessary, nor should it be, to have had sex with another of the same sex, to maintain that a person is homosexual. Why, then, do most academics, indeed why does everyone, insist on this second definition [explicit sexual enactment] over the first? This definition makes it all but impossible in many cases to claim a person as gay. Gay history gets eliminated as if we never existed. Perhaps this is why this second definition rules.”

At first sight it is hard to see what Kramer’s problem is. It seems that he is engaging in a non sequitur. If orientation, without the sex, also constitutes gayness, then we are on safe ground. What is the difficulty?

As Kramer sees the matter, though, Godbeer holds that when evidence of genital activity is not recuperable, there cannot be even homosexual orientation. In my view, Larry Kramer is really onto something. For there is a kind of sleight of hand between the nongenital assertion and a suggestion that homosexual orientation is absent.

Parenthically, I note that some gay scholars of the Social Construction persuasion have complicated matters by their bizarre insistence that there was no homosexuality before 1869. Kramer and I are agreed in adopting the more sensible view that in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America men were capable of loving other men, just as they do now.

Needless to say, I do not agree with everything Kramer says in his long essay. But it is essential reading--check it out at



Blogger J. L. Bell said...

I don’t trust Kramer to present Godbeer’s statements completely and accurately.

And I certainly don’t trust Kramer’s historical judgment. At one point he quotes Godbeer and screams: “‘Figuring out what these romantic friendships meant to people living in the eighteenth century involves setting aside modern assumptions about love between members of the same sex.’ WHY?!

Because setting aside presentist assumptions in order to better understand how people thought in the past is what historians do.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Kramer is right less often than a stuck clock and has no credibility evaluating historical evidence. Many of those who do harbor heterosexist assumptions, but the ever shrill Kramer probably increases their confidence and maintains their prejudices.

11:42 AM  

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