Sunday, July 26, 2009

Gay-rights movements

Just concluded in June, the commemoration of New York City's Stonewall Rebellion has prompted some important questions regarding the origins of the American gay movement. Even though the mainstream media keep recycling the fiction that it all began in 1969, research has established that the first attempt in the US was by Henry Gerber in Chicago in 1924-25. This fledgling effort was soon quashed, so that one had to wait until 1950 for Harry Hay and others to found the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1950.

Since the landmark publication of The First Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935), by John Lauritsen and David Thorstad (1974), those who cared to look into the matter have known that the first gay-rights movement started in Central Europe in the nineteenth century. The adumbrations of Karoly Maria Kertbeny and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs came to fruition when Magnus Hirschfeld and his Berlin associates formed the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1897. As a native of Germany who had also served there as a US soldier in the occupation of the Rhineland, Henry Gerber knew of these precedents. So too, in all likelihood, did Mattachine’s Harry Hay, who benefited from the counsel of Rudi Gernreich and Christopher Isherwood. Towards the end of the Weimar period, Isherwood had actually lived in the Berlin building in which HIrschfeld’s Institute was housed.

Why should these issues have come to the fore in Central Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century? At that time and place the nationalities question was becoming acute. In 1848 the first Pan-Slavic conference was held in Prague. Sometimes assuaged, sometimes not, these nationalist strivings eventually led to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. We know that K. H. Ulrichs in particular was interested in the question of German unification (not achieved until 1871)--in particular the issue of whether non-German-speaking peoples, such as the Czechs and Slovenes, were to be incorporated.

In other words, during that era an implicit analogy emerged, linking the gay question with that of resurgent ethnic groups. The subalterns were restless. To put in the vernacular, uppitiness was becoming rampant. As far as I know, however, this line of analogous thinking did not become fully explicit until Kurt Hiller’s gay-rights analysis, which came in the wake of the Versailles Conference of 1919, in which the aspirations of a number of formerly subject peoples came to the fore.

But this is not the end of the story, for It seems that the gay-rights movement had even earlier origins--in the eighteenth century, when the matter emerged under the aegis of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. An epochal event was the decriminalization of sodomy by the French Constituent Assembly in 1791, the first time in the history of Christendom that this salutory departure had occurred. The overall background is of course the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on self-affirmation unfettered by throne and altar.

Let us note some specific forerunners of gay-rights in the eighteenth century. The first is the Sect of the Anandrynes, founded in 1770 by Therèse de Fleury. (“Anandryne” is a neologism formed from Greek roots, meaning “women without men.”) The votaries of the society, all female, met in the Rue de Boucheries-Saint-André in Paris. Eventually a quarrel broke out as to whether gay men should be admitted as associated members, and the group broke up in 1784.

There was in fact a counterpart that was largely male, Les Gens de la Manchette, led by the celebrated libertine, the Marquis Charles-Marie de la Villette (1736-1793). A satirical pamphlet. Les enfans de Sodome a l’Assemblée Nationale, published in the early days of the French Revolution, names some 160 members, men and women. Another pamphlet of the same time, Les petits bougres en manège, advances several progay arguments. One is the appeal to Greco-Roman precedent, a common feature of the period. The most important, however, is the motto “[Tous] les goûts sont de la nature,” that is to say, all (sexual) preferences are natural.

This relativistic argument directly confronts the conventional wisdom that same-sex behavior is by definition unnatural. Previously, the Marquis de Sade had explored this territory with his designation of same-sex behavior as “antiphysique,” against nature--a quality that he thought was a plus. The Marquis may have been the first to essay the modern ploy of detoxifying negative terms that is familiar to us now in the effort to rehabilitate the word “queer.” Sade also referred to masturbation as “pollution,” a seemingly pejorative term, but one which he adopted as a positive designation--though of course a transgressive one.

It seems that the groups mentioned, the Anandrynes and the Gens de la Manchette, were mainly social groups. Yet the fact that they could exist at all is notable. Moreover, as we have noted in connection with the last-mentioned pamphlet, these groups and the intellectuals connected with them began to generate progay arguments. These two features--collective groupings and new, positive thinking--are the two most salient features of what was to become the gay rights movement.

What accounts for the timing of these developments? Some historians of homosexuality would maintain that the appearance of a sense of gay identity (as distinct from same-sex behavior itself, which seems to have been always with us) is the essential precondition for the emergence of such pro-gay rights groups. Some historians place the starting point of the “modern homosexual,” the bearer of gay identity, as late as 1869. However, the formation of eighteenth-century groups with names like Anandrynes and Gens de la Manchette suggests that this date is too late.

An alternative theory of gay identity, espoused by Randolph Trumbach and others, is that it emerged in northwestern Europe about 1700. This date would fit the French social and intellectual development I have been outlining. I would stress though that the boundary between the pre-gay identity period and gay identity proper is a fluid one. Some in ancient Greece and Rome may have embraced something approaching a gay identity. Unpleasant as the term is, the word sodomite served as a uniting designation for certain medieval people. Indeed, the expression survived in the first of the two pamphlets cited: les Enfans de Sodome, the children of Sodom.



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