The History of Homosexuality: Fops, Coxcombs, Libertines, and Dandies

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Dandies, c. 1830. Wikimedia Commons

Although we’ve already discussed that “homosexuality” as a concept didn’t exist prior to the 1860s, queer men have been noted across all countries and societies since the dawn of recorded time. Often, those men migrated towards each other, forming their own subcultures. While the idea that a person’s sexual orientation predisposes them to conform to a certain overall type is relatively recent (and ludicrous: there is no single “gay experience,” although the notion has a pleasing homogeneity which has been effectively used in recent years to win emancipation in the West), there were still various stereotypes through the ages of how queerfolk were supposed to act.

We touched briefly on “mollies,” a term current in the eighteenth century to describe both female prostitutes and queer males. More specifically, those males were part of an inner-city subculture centered around “molly houses,” which were taverns-cum-boarding houses-cum-brothels. The men who frequented such places tended towards cross-dressing and pastiching or parodying male-female courtships and marriage. They were, in the crudest sense, the first drag queens.

As well as molly houses, cruising grounds began to become established, where men seeking sex with other men (MSMs) could find anonymous strangers with whom to pass the time. The theatres had been known haunts of MSMs since at least the 1600s — Samuel Pepys, the diarist, lamented in 1663 that “buggery is now almost grown as common among our gallants as in Italy.” Street names, too, provide clues as to what could be found at their location. Female prostitutes reliably gathered along Gropecunt Lane (sadly renamed Milton Street in 1830) and Maiden Lane, so it’s not a great stretch of the imagination to wonder if male prostitutes frequented Cock’s Lane and Lad Lane, located just opposite. Such men were usually known as “he-strumpets” or “he-whores,” although the surviving trial reports suggest that in most instances, the men apprehended were not being paid for sex. The common referral to them as prostitutes probably had more to do with the fact MSMs more frequently resorted to sex in public or semi-privates spaces (like prostitutes), and it serving society’s self-image better to imagine they were coerced.

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Colley Cibber as Lord Foppington, in “The Relapse” by John Vanbrugh. Wikimedia Commons

The mollies were certainly the most visible queer subculture, but they were far from the only one. Trial evidence produces plenty of examples of men who were clearly unfamiliar or uninvolved with the molly house scene. The mollies were also distinctly working class: their very visibility all  but precluded those with a title or reputation to lose from doing more than dabbling at their fringes. As we move higher through the class system, the world of queer men becomes increasingly murky.

Much of the confusion comes from the fact that, despite the precedent set by the mollies, effeminacy was not intrinsically linked with queerness in the eighteenth century. As often as not it was associated with the combination of wealth and foolishness displayed by so many in the upper classes, who would think nothing of spending small fortunes on clothes and accessories. Fops, fribbles, popinjays, ninnies, coxcombs, and Macaronis all belong to this type. (Think Hugh Laurie’s Prince George in Blackadder the Third.) That some were queer is a matter of mathematical fact, but their sexual orientation wasn’t considered relevant to their dress or behaviour. The Oxford English Dictionary defined “fop” in 1672 as “one who is foolishly attentive to and vain of his appearance, dress, or manners; a dandy, an exquisite.”

John Cleland, author of Fanny Hill, followed his most famous novel with another told from a male perspective: Memoirs of a Coxcomb. Readers expecting smut will be sorely disappointed by this gentler comedy of manners, following nineteen-year-old Sir William Delamore through his pursuit of the enigmatic heiress Lydia. Most modern definitions of “coxcomb” claim it to be interchangeable with “fop,” but “coxcomb” holds a promise of sexual agency which both fop and, ultimately, poor Sir William fail to live up to. What is immediately noticeable from Cleland’s story is of course that Sir William was pursuing a woman (although the novel is not without homoerotic overtones). A coxcomb may have been a vain and silly young man, but rather than sequester himself in his wardrobe admiring his clothes, he was on a relentless pursuit of women.

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“A Rake’s Progress” by Hogarth. Wikimedia Commons

If a coxcomb had sexual agency, libertines were the very definition of sexual excess. Defined as one “devoid of most moral restraints,” libertines valued sensory experience and physical pleasure. The term was coined by John Calvin as a derogatory name for those who opposed his teachings in the early days of the Reformed Church, but quickly spread to refer to hedonists of all types, particularly sexual. In England, libertine was virtually interchangeable with rake (short for “rake-hell,” an early form of the modern expression “hell-raiser”), and became something of a point of pride among a certain shadowy subset of the aristocratic and political classes, who delighted in engaging in clandestine acts which would shock the nation. A number of Hellfire Clubs were established through the eighteenth century, where titled young men (and women!) would meet to drink and cause trouble. (Rumours abounded that they worshiped the devil, although it appears the Satanist aspect was affected precisely to cause outrage.) Sir Francis Dashwood had a series of caves built under Medmenham Abbey as a Hellfire Club meeting place, and decorated them with mythological and phallic symbols and erotic artwork.

Libertines experimented with all manner of sexual experiences — queerness and sadomasochism were celebrated among their number, which included the Marquis de Sade, the Earl of Rochester, and Lord Byron.

This trend towards social excess and ostentatious dress continued into the Victorian era, albeit with a more conservative veneer. The epitome of the “dandy” is of course Oscar Wilde, and it was his trial which intrinsically linked his mode of dress and behaviour with his sexual conduct, and found all aspects of his personality suspect. The dandy himself was placed on trial and condemned along with the poet who so vocally espoused its aesthetic. Over subsequent years, the preening peacocks underwent a quieter revolution, raising their heads only occasionally, such as in the 1960s-70s mods and glam rock movements and, more recently, in the modern “meterosexual” man.

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Born on this day: Bettina Aptheker (71, American), feminist and anti-war activist and academic; Geri Jewell (59, American), actress most recently known for playing Jewel in Deadwood; Randy Jones (63, American), singer best known as the cowboy from Village People; Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954, American), philosopher and founder of the Harlem Renaissance; Antonia Pantoja (1922-2002, Puerto Rican), social worker and founder of ASPIRA philanthropic non-profit; and Nancy Spain (1917-1964, English), broadcaster and journalist.

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2 replies on “The History of Homosexuality: Fops, Coxcombs, Libertines, and Dandies”

  1. As a Satanist, I could talk all day about Hellfire Clubs and their satirical backlash towards the times. The Satanic Aspect has always been, even in the 19th century “black masses”, little more than psychodrama meant to shock others and entertain ourselves. But as a “libertine” myself, maybe I’m biased. Either way I enjoyed you touching on it, even briefly.

    On a total aside, I’ve been researching, for some reason, the history of The Tango, and it’s culture and development. – how it started in brothels, and in it’s earliest days was danced between two men. There was nothing homoerotic about it necessarily, other than the ratio of men to women in Buenos Aires, “practicing” together to impress the whores.

    Made me think of you. LOL!

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