Early Gay Historians

Copyright © 1997, 2005 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.


The compilation of biographies of gay men and lesbians was felt to be an important feature of the early homosexual emancipation movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly in Germany. This wasn't because of their programme of apologetics, but because nineteenth-century historians conceived of history as the acts of great men. What should especially be appreciated about the early gay historians is the cultural breadth of their focus, which ranged from ethnographic studies to contemporary accounts of gay subcultures in large cities. The antiquarian, literary and historical pioneering studies of homosexuality in the late nineteenth century were gradually superseded by an interest in Darwinian evolution, whereby historical investigation was replaced by the biological or organic approach. From the 1830s to the 1920s we can observe that the ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ model of the third sex was steadily replaced by the medical model of the homosexual. The specifically historical approach was gradually superseded by a focus upon individual personal identity, as psychology and psychiatry rejected the cultural model. By the 1970s the traditional historical–cultural model was replaced by the political analysis of the homosexual as a victim of the ideological discourse of homophobia. The idea of ‘gay history’ that emerged in the 1980s focused almost exclusively upon the history of homophobia and the ‘contemporary history’ of the gay liberation movement. The idea of a queer cultural heritage was ‘deconstructed’.

The pioneering gay historical research was by Heinrich Hoessli (1784–1864), an effeminate amateur scholar who earned his living as a milliner and interior decorator. His book Eros: Die Männerliebe der Griechen: Ihre Beziehunger zur Geschichte, Erziehung, Literatur und Gesetzgebung aller Zeiten (Eros: The Male Love of the Greeks: Its Relationship to the History, Education, Literature and Legislation of All Ages; two volumes, 1836 and 1838; material for a third volume was not published) assembled mostly literary examples from Ancient Greece and Medieval Islam. It was partly an ‘answer’ to issues raised by Heinrich Zschokke in Eros oder über die Liebe (1821), perhaps the first example of gay ‘apologetics’, in which Hoessli appears as a Socratic character arguing his case. Zschokke and Hoessli (their personal relationship to one another has not been investigated) were both roused to public debate by the execution in 1817 of Franz Desgouttes in Bern for killing his lover in a fit of jealousy.

Their work was followed by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ more erudite and far-reaching Forschungen zur mannmännlichen Liebe (Researches on Love between Males; several volumes published from 1864 to 1870). A vast amount of material was published by Magnus Hirschfeld in his book Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (1914) and in the journal of his Wissenschaftlich-humanitäre Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee), the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Homosexualität (Yearbook of Sexual Intergrades; 23 vols, 1899–1923) (this included major articles on queer history by the Dutch writer L. S. A. M. von Römer). Other important works include Carlo Mantegazza’s Gli amori degli uomini (The Sexual Relations of Mankind, 1885); Marc-André Raffalovich’s Uranisme et unisexualité (Uranism and Unisexuality, 1896); Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion (German 1896, English 1897; most of the historical material was contributed by his co-author John Addington Symonds); Ivan Bloch’s Beiträge der Psychopathia sexualis (Contributions to the Etiology of Psychopathia sexualis, 1902) and Das Geschlechtsleben in England (3 vols, 1901–03, one-vol. trans. by M. Eden Paul as The Sexual Life of Our Time, 1908); Xavier Mayne’s (pseudonym of Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson) The Intersexes (1908); and Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex (1908). Queer apologetics outside of the Anglo-Germanic movement have not been much studied. Not much seems to be known about possibly-gay apologists in Portugal between the wars, such as Dr Arlindo Camillo Monteiro, who published a massive history of homosexuality, Amor Sáfico e Socrático (1922), or Dr Asdrúbal de Aguiar’s Evolução da Pederastia e do Lesbismo na Europa (1926) and Medicina Legal: A Homosexualidade masculine através dos tempos (1934). ‘The world Depression and the rise of Nazism put a stop to most serious homosexual research’ (W. R. Dynes, ‘History’, Encyclopedia of Homosexuality).

Gay history did not get under way again until the 1950s, but many works have basically recycled this earlier scholarship, and modern research has seldom matched the scale or depth or the work published before the 1930s. For example, in 1891 Dr F. C. Müller published the transcript of the 1721 trial of Catharina Margaretha Linck because of its unique lesbian interest, but he observed that in the Prussian Secret State Archives there were records of more than one hundred sodomy trials – none of which have been investigated to this day.

In terms of gay anthologies, a direct line of descent can be traced back from Alistair Sutherland and Patrick Anderson’s Eros: An Anthology of Friendship (1961) to Edward Carpenter’s Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship (1902) – dubbed the ‘bugger’s bible’ (it went through two editions and numerous reprints) – and thence to Elisàr von Kupffer’s Lieblingminne und Freundesliebe in der Weltliteratur (Love of Comrades and Friends in World Literature, 1900), which in turn was inspired by Hoessli’s Eros: Die Männerliebe der Griechen (1836-38). One of the more recent contributions to this tradition, Cecile Beurdeley’s L’Amour bleu (orig. pub. 1979), is a large-format illustrated book which is especially interesting for many colour reproductions of the pederastic frescos with which Kupffer decorated his Sanctuarium Artis Elisarion at Minusio, near Locarno, Switzerland. Kupffer began his anthology partly in response to the trials of Oscar Wilde; Kupffer was himself a playwright (and homosexual), as well as a painter; in 1908 he published a monograph on the Renaissance homosexual painter Sodoma; he and his lover Eduard von Mayer founded the Klaristiche movement, a kind of aesthetic/socialist/homoerotic/Christian emancipationist movement.

Modern queer theorists and social constructionists do a great disservice to these pioneering scholars by suggesting that the ‘central purpose of the project of gay historical reclamation’ was merely fabricated: ‘Having no access to a formal body of scholarship, gay men needed to invent – and constantly reinvent – a tradition on the basis of innumerable individual and idiosyncratic readings of texts. . . . By constructing historical traditions of their own, gay men defined themselves as a distinct community. By imagining they had collective roots in the past, they asserted a collective identity in the present’ (Chauncey, Gay New York, 1994). It is radically unfair to belittle the achievement of these men as mere propaganda. Symonds nearly worked himself to death discovering facts rather than inventing fictions. Many ‘idiosyncratic readings’ – e.g. of Michelangelo, Whitman, Thomas Mann, E. M. Forster, et al. – have been proven correct by recent publication of diaries and letters (though the Shakespeare controversy still rages). Though Carpenter was more of a journalist than a scholar, he nevertheless travelled to India to gather evidence of queer culture. These men did not ‘construct’ gay history: they succeeded in uncovering it. It was important for them to recognize that they had common ancestors and they were determined to share this tradition with their fellow queers by making their researches public. Gay scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is no more deficient or eccentric than the scholarship of other ethnic and ethnographic historians of the period. The vast majority of gay scholars were scrupulously accurate – and produced far more reliable texts than the straight scholars who had buried gay history.

Culturally identified gays have made the most significant contributions to the study of gay history. Their commitment to the subject has uncovered an enormous body of material hitherto shrouded and camouflaged by the scholarly establishment. They have been responsible for uncensored translations of material into English, German and French which many would like to see remain in the original languages or put into Latin; and they have made this material accessible to the non-specialist public in a large number of anthologies. Were it not for modern culturally identified queers, the evidence of ancient queer culture would be even less than what survives now. For example, many Greek vases depicting homosexual relations in the collections of various museums around the world were collected from 1885 to 1910 by Edward Perry Warren (1860–1928); though his collection in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts was not publicly exhibited until 1964, it nevertheless has contributed to the more forthright study of the subject in works such as Kenneth Dover’s ground-breaking Greek Homosexuality (1978). Warren was an American art connoisseur who came to Oxford University, where he met his lover John Marshall 1884, and who rejected the American ideals of democracy and feminism. He was specifically a pederastic apologist, and under the pseudonym of Arthur Lyon Raile wrote several volumes of pederastic poetry as well as a novel, A Tale of Pausanian Love (1927) (the reference of course is to Pausanius in Plato’s Symposium), and The Defence of Uranian Love (1928–30).

Gay scholarship is not limited to the West. The anthology of Japanese gay literature Partings At Dawn (ed. Miller 1996) includes a selection from the remarkable correspondence between Minakata Kumagusu (1867–1941) and Iwata Jun’ichi (1900–45), from a total of 120 letters begun in 1931 and continuing for thirty years (though Iwata burned many of the letters before he died). Both men were deeply interested in the history of homosexuality in Japan and the details of the homosexual subculture from the ‘Golden Period’ through to cruising the parks in modern Tokyo, from the poetic ‘Way of Prince Lung-yang’ (legendary icon of homosexuality in China) to the ‘way to proceed when a handsome boy is spread out beneath you’. Minakata was a naturalist and a scholar of Japanese folklore and folk history, and Iwata was an illustrator and artist. In 1930 he contributed a series of articles Nanshoku-k_, ‘On Man-Love/Lust’, to a journal of criminology, which caught the attention of Minakata and prompted the correspondence. Iwata’s great project was a complete ‘History of Man-Love’ and he engaged in an enormous amount of research on literary and historical sources related to homosexuality, and published a draft bibliography during the Second World War. The letters between the two men are a treasure-house of sources and linguistics (for example, they noted that, as in the English gay subculture, Japanese gay argot included ‘back-slang’, such as enk_, meaning ‘cruising ground’, by reversing the syllables of k_en, meaning ‘park’). They are, above all, written by culturally identified queers concerned to establish the cultural unity of queer history.

Minakata assembled a large collection of queer studies, and was the proud owner of numbered editions of John Addington Symonds’s privately printed A Problem in Greek Ethics and A Problem in Modern Ethics. Like many gay men, Minakata was concerned to be part of a living link with the ancient queer past. Like Alain Daniélou in India, he travelled around Japan studying visual representations of sacred boy-princes, in whose cult he believed homosexuality to have originated. The ancient monastery on Mt K_ya was legendary for the homosexual tradition carried on by its priests. He regularly visited the monastery in the early 1880s, where he interviewed old men who had been ‘acolytes’ in their youth, when they wore triangular cushions of velvet pressed down on their genitals to keep their penises limp; they received the attentions of their older monk-partners in the standard frontal position, and Minakata records a host of slang terms that were in common use in the queer culture of the monasteries in the 1840s. Iwata confirmed that in modern Tokyo the chest-to-chest position was preferred, and a wad of bleached cotton was used as a sexual restraint during intercourse. Minakata visited the K_ya monastery once again in 1920 at the invitation of its abbot, a friend he had met in London, together with a painter friend. During the course of the visit the abbot brought out from storage several paintings brought back from China by K_b_ Daishi (774–835), reputed to have ‘introduced’ homosexual love into Japan, including a remarkable thousand-year-old painting using powdered coral to depict a beautiful twenty-five-year-old eunuch, an ancient queer icon. Minakata’s letters began appearing in 1951, and Iwata’s began appearing in 1991; English translations of a limited selection began in 1996; other letters are rumoured to exist and are believed to appear in due course. It hardly needs to be said that only culturally identified queers feel that these letters are profoundly important and merit detailed study. Heterosexual historians are not likely to touch the subject and institutions are not likely to fund extensive translation and commentary. Ancient queer culture is taboo.

As noted above, the most common gay historiographical method has been the compilation of biographies of gay men (and sometimes lesbians) who were historically important. For a history of the early compilations, see my essay on Lists of Famous Homosexuals


CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "Early Gay Historians", 1 February 2005, updated 13 June 2008 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/earlygay.htm>.


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