Reflections on Gay History

Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This essay may not be republished without the permission of the author.

NOTE: This essay is based on a talk I gave in London in November 2005 at the launch of the 2006 LGBT History Month.

As I reflect on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month, two questions constantly recur to me: What is gay history, and Who is it for?

The history of gay history shows up some of the difficulties of striking a balance between two different uses of gay history: one which celebrates the lives of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people, and is aimed at building pride among LGBT people; and one which exposes the prejudices against LGBT people, and is aimed at raising awareness among straight society at large.

Studies of the history of homosexuality began in Germany in the nineteenth century, and were motivated partly by gay men’s anger at being outlawed. The pioneering history of homosexuality was published in 1836 by Heinrich Hoessli. He was an amateur scholar and a professional milliner and interior decorator. He was prompted to engage in his historical research following the execution in 1817 of a man for killing his male lover in a fit of jealousy. Hoessli believed, perhaps naively, that a knowledge of the noble love of the ancient Greeks might have prevented this sort of incident.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, another major writer on gay history in the 1860s, began his research following the prosecution of an acquaintance for homosexual indecency. The other major writings on the history of homosexuality appeared in the Yearbook of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee under the leadership of Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was motivated to begin his studies and his campaign to reform the laws against homosexuality following the suicide of one of his patients, a soldier who was being compelled by his family to get married.

From 1899 to 1923, Hirschfeld’s journal published major articles on gay history, using extensive historical research and anthropoligal investigations, as well as articles on contemporary gay life. Hirschfeld himself wrote a fascinating article on the lesbian subculture of Berlin. Hirschfeld took an all-inclusive attitude towards homosexual history, including not only lesbians and bisexuals as well as gay men, but also transgender individuals. He was a qualified physician, and extensively studied the biological development of what he called “intersex” individuals. He himself was affectionately called “Auntie Magnus”.

Similarly thorough-going studies of LGBT history were undertaken in the Netherlands, in Italy, in France, and even in England and Japan, all of which drew heavily on this German research. But the rise of Nazism put a stop to most serious homosexual research. There is a famous picture of Nazi youths burning books in Opera House Square in Berlin in 1933, but it is seldom realised that most of the books on that bonfire were works that had been looted from Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science.

Then the writing of LGBT history pretty well disappeared, and wasn’t taken up again until the 1950s, transplanted to America, in the Journal of Homophile Studies published by One Institute in Los Angeles, and in the writings of Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organisations. A typical article by Harry Hay was grandly titled “The Homophile in Search of an Historical Context and Cultural Contiguity”. This emphasis on LGBT culture, history and tradition continued practically unchanged in the pages of the San Francisco journal Gay Sunshine in the late 1960s/early 1970s, which published a large number of articles under the rubric “gay roots”, and to which I made regular contributions.

Most gay writers who did research into gay history were concerned to uncover evidence of a continuous tradition of LGBT culture across historical periods. We believed, and many of us still believe, that this historical continuity does exist, and that knowledge of it is a tool for building a collective identity or community in the present and the future. It is certainly true that LGBT history has been regularly censored, suppressed and studiously ignored by mainstream historians, so at the very least it seems right and proper for us to set the record straight, as it were.

It has to be acknowledged, however, that in terms of personal identity, LGBT history is perhaps not as essential today as it would have been thirty or forty years ago. In the 1950s and 1960s people spent many hours, often frustrating, sometimes exciting, looking through books in the library, trying to find descriptions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people so that we could sort out our own queer identity. But today we no longer have to search very far for representations of people like us, whom we can readily recognise on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on the internet, and in innumerable gay gatherings.

Today we have access to a wide range of models to choose from as we endeavour to shape our personal sociosexual identity. But I think that LGBT history nevertheless continues to play an important role in the development of community identity and social solidarity. The knowledge that we have survived centuries of suppression is in itself inspiring, and is in itself one of the coping strategies in our determination to achieve social change in the future.

However, the use of LGBT history as a tool in support of social change in the wider society sometimes has unfortunate consequences. I am particularly uneasy when I look closely at some writings on gay history and realise that their subject is not the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, but the oppression of gay people, or society’s prejudice against gay people. In the angriest days of gay liberation some gay historians wrote articles with titles such as “Gay Genocide from Leviticus to Hitler”. But this kind of gay history is not so much the history of homosexuality, as the history of homophobia. We should regularly remind ourselves that these are two distinctly different things, and indeed many of us look forward to a day when homosexuality can exist entirely without homophobia.

A study of the perception and repression of homosexuals is really a history of heterosexuals and their peculiar prejudices. To focus upon social prejudice, rather than the institutions and values of the everyday lives of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons, is to construct the homosexual as little more than the victim of persecution. It shifts the focus from queers to queerbashers. In the process, gay people can be all too easily lost sight of. LGBT history is too often reduced to the history of persecution and punishment, just as black history is sometimes reduced to the history of slavery, and Jewish history is sometimes reduced to the history of the Holocaust. There is a great risk in the field of all so-called minority histories, of promoting resentment against society more than celebration of oneself and one’s own community.

My own view is that the history of how lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have built their own identities and relationships and communities is more empowering than the history of how society has oppressed us. The history of homophobia is only a small part of the larger history of homosexuality, and needs to be kept in perspective to avoid a reductive victimology approach to LGBT history. Further, LGBT history will be a greater resource not only for LGBT people but for the whole of society to the degree that it emphasises the intrinsic values and interest of attaining historical knowledge of LGBT people, and is not simply exploited as a tool for social workers.

My own specialised area of research is homosexualitiy in eighteenth-century England. A major source for my information are the trial records at the Old Bailey. Because my resources are mostly criminal records, it would be very easy for me to assemble statistics on the number of men hanged or exhibited in the pillory during this period, and the number of victims of blackmail. However, my aim is to extract gay history from the homophobic context in which it is embedded.

I am not writing a history of the law, but a history of gay people. I am interested not so much in the punishment of gay men, as in how gay men lived their lives during those periods when the law was not interfering in their lives. I am interested, for example, in discovering facts about the life of a man who was called Princess Seraphina by everyone in his neighbourhood, who served as a bridesmaid at a wedding between two men, who regularly borrowed fancy gowns from his neighbourhood dressmaker and went to masquerades at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, and who lived his life almost entirely within the gay subculture during the 1720s–1730s.

Focusing on just this single individual can reveal a well-organized gay subculture in which gay men regularly went to gay clubs, where they sang and danced together and had a jolly good time, and experienced a sense of camaraderie that even today’s gay community might sometimes envy. It seems to me that once you’ve established that society has been prejudiced against homosexuals throughout most of history, you have barely begun doing gay history.


CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "Reflections on Gay History", Gay History and Literature. 4 June 2007, updated 14 June 2008 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/history.htm>.



Return to Queer Culture