Tag Archives: Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: The Mattachine Society

The Mattachine Society was founded in LA in 1950 by Harry Hay and a number of his friends. Hay conceived of  an “international…fraternal order” to serve as “a service and welfare organization devoted to the protection and improvement of Society’s Androgynous Minority”. He had tried to form a similar political activist group in 1948 in support of a Progressive presidential candidate, but it never got off the ground. Over the following two years, Hay worked hard on the model of a queer emancipation group which could be politically engaged on a public stage.

Originally meeting under the banner Society of Fools, the name Mattachine Society — which references anti-monarchy Medieval French societies of masked men who used anonymity in order to be critical of the establishment — was adopted a year later.

Originally the Mattachine’s organisation was modelled after the American Communist Party: different levels of membership required increased commitment and involvement, and information was closely guarded from lower level members. The founders were anonymous, and the society existed as a collection of independent cells. Continue reading →

The History of Homosexuality: Stonewall

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Stonewall Inn, 1969. Wikimedia Commons

Queer bars have existed for centuries, and have been raided by the police for just as long. The Stonewall Inn was no different.

After the Second World War and well into the Cold War, American law enforcement, led by the FBI, deliberately targeted homosexuals for prosecution. In a three-year period from 1947-50, 17000 federal job applications were denied, 4380 people were discharged from the military, and 420 dismissed from government jobs because of suspicions about their sexuality. It was the period known as the Lavender Scare, and plenty of other institutions soon took part. The US Postal Service recorded addresses where “homosexual material” was delivered; local state ordinances were passed to close down gay bars and outlaw cross-dressing, and city police forces did regular “sweeps” to rid the streets of anyone perceived to be homosexual; colleges expelled professors whose teaching was too liberal; and anybody caught in a compromising situation was publicly humiliated in the press and usually jailed or sent to a mental institution.

Continue reading →

The History of Homosexuality: Being Gay

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“Gay pride 390 – Marche des fiertés Toulouse 2011” by Guillaume Paumier. Wikimedia Commons

With the shift in understanding of human sexuality from acts to identities, the concept of behaving in a certain way outside the bedroom because of what happens inside began to take hold. Sexologists, busy looking for a “cause” of variant sexualities, began to study every aspect of their patients’ lives looking for common ground, although the debate about nature/nurture and whether or not conforming to stereotypical behaviour is a cause or effect of sexual orientation is still going on today. Initially, nobody had any idea what might make a person queer: the idea was still so new there was no received wisdom to fall back on. Early questionnaires used by sexologists and psychotherapists to try to understand their clients’ orientation show just how different the theories were. Some blamed overbearing mothers and/or absent fathers; others thought the reverse was true. The number of male and female friends a patient had, the amount of sport they played, and what they ate and where they worked were all considered important, but nobody was sure exactly how.

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People in History: Noël Coward

Screenshot-2017-06-26-22.13.05 People in History: Noël Coward

Wikimedia Commons

Born on the outskirts of London in 1899, Coward was the second son of Arthur, a piano salesman, and Violet, daughter of a naval captain. His older brother died the year before he was born. Despite the fact the family often struggled for money, Coward’s interest in performing was indulged from an early age: by seven he was regularly appearing in amateur productions, and attended the Chapel Royal Choir School, although otherwise his education was sparse and largely informal.

His mother was his biggest supporter, enrolling him in a dance academy after Choir School. By twelve, Coward had his first professional engagement in the children’s play, The Goldfish. From there, Coward secured influential contacts in the theatrical world who ensured he was never without work, and he joined the circuit with a number of notably child actors of the day. Continue reading →

The History of Homosexuality: Becoming Gay

Screenshot-2017-06-26-22.15.32 The History of Homosexuality: Becoming Gay

Wikimedia Commons

Most people know that “gay” originally meant “happy/carefree” and came to refer to (usually, male) homosexuals, but not how or when the change occurred. When we study the etymology of the word, which is twelfth century in origin, it’s clear it had developed sexually suspect connotations as early as the 1500s. By the seventeenth century, its meaning of “carefree” had become specific to a kind of sexual looseness or immorality: a “gay woman” was a prostitute, a “gay man” was a womaniser, and a “gay house” was a brothel. Cities known for their liberal nightlife were described as gay — “gay Paris” — and unmarried men and women were often referred to as gay, in reference to them being sexually available (whether or not they exercised that availability). “Gay” could also refer to the act of sex itself.

In America, the expression “gay cat,” recorded as early as 1893, referred to young men who drifted from place to place and were noted for their lack of sexual discernment. There’s also evidence they were taken advantage of because of their age, and in some cases kept almost as slaves. Sociologists noted that “Homosexual practices are more common than rare in this group,” and in a 1933 dictionary of Underword & Prison Slang, “gay cat” was defined as a “homosexual boy.” Continue reading →

People in History: Boulton and Park

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Lord Arthur Clinton (in chair), Park (standing), and Boulton (on floor). Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park were two middle-class Victorian men who were involved in a national scandal after being arrested and tried for cross-dressing in public.

Boulton was the son of a stockbroker; Park of a Master of a superior court. The two met at a young age and became friends, forming a theatrical double-act as Stella Clinton and Fanny Winifred Park, which played to favourable reviews. Boulton, particularly, was very attractive, with a sweet soprano singing voice.

Fanny and Stella were more than just parts they played, however. From an early age Boulton’s mother had encouraged his fondness for dressing as a girl and calling himself Stella, and starting around 1868, when they were approximately twenty, they both began to cross-dress in public. Fanny and Stella became a frequent sight around the West End, where they were removed more than once from the Burlington Arcade and Alhambra Theatre, and were even sentenced by a magistrate for their behaviour, being bound over to keep the peace. They also attended the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. Continue reading →

The History of Homosexuality: Drag

Drag is the practice of cross-dressing and pastiching the mannerisms and behaviours of the opposite sex for comic effect. Drag queens run the gamut from over-the-top professional comedians such as Lily Savage, all the way through to serious (and seriously impressive) female impersonators such as RuPaul. Generally speaking, drag is a costume donned for a performance and doesn’t stimulate sexual excitement in the wearer (transvestism), nor does drag implicitly suggest that the performer identifies as trans* although, as with everything, there are always exceptions.

As an expression, “drag” may have been around for a century or two, but the history of men impersonating women for entertainment purposes is of course much longer. Many of Shakespeare’s works played on the fact the actors on stage were men dressed as women (and often the female characters pretend to be male, creating truths within truths which audiences find amusing). Continue reading →

People in History: Kenneth Williams

Screenshot-2017-07-14-21.35.04 People in History: Kenneth Williams

Wikimedia Commons

Born in London in 1926, Kenneth Williams was the son of Louisa (“Louie”) Morgan and Charles Williams, a barber and strict Methodist. He had an older half-sister, an illegitimate child of his mother’s born before she met his father. Although interested in acting from an early age, his father absolutely forbade it and refused to encourage him. After school, Williams apprenticed as a draughtsman for a mapmaker instead of pursuing his dream.

In 1944, aged eighteen, Williams was drafted in the army, where he became a Sapper in the Engineers Survey, putting his artistic mapmaking skills to good use. At the end of the war he was stationed in Singapore, and opted to enlist in the Combined Service Entertainment Unit to see out his service putting on revue shows to entertain the troops. Continue reading →

The History of Homosexuality: Polari

Screenshot-2017-06-26-22.25.06 The History of Homosexuality: Polari

Wikimedia Commons

Polari is a form of cant slang adopted by the queer subculture in England throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries. Its origins are murky, although there’s evidence at least some of it dates back as early as the 1500s, where it was used by a number of socially marginalised groups, including actors, circus showmen, merchant seamen, prostitutes, and petty criminals, as well as queer men. Punch and Judy street performers also have a strong association with it.

The purpose of any slang vernacular is to include and exclude, and usually serves to mark the speakers out from the dominant culture. People use slang all the time — it exist in different occupations (I could write a whole essay on the shorthands, abbreviations, and slang of the construction industry, for a start), different age groups (teenagers are most notable for it), and across different socio-economic strata. Geographically, we use different words depending on where we’re from (dialect), and individually, too (idiolect). Close-knit groups of friends will often develop their own words (or ascribe new meaning to old ones) based on common experience, and using language in this way encourages social cohesion, both by linking all the users with a common tongue, and by excluding those who are “other.” Continue reading →