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. (more…)

riot

The History of Homosexuality: Stonewall

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. (more…)

gay couple

The History of Homosexuality: Being Gay

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. (more…)

rainbow paint hand

The History of Homosexuality: Becoming Gay

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. (more…)

drag queen

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. (more…)

blah language

The History of Homosexuality: Polari

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. (more…)

camp tent

The History of Homosexuality: Camp

Wikipedia describes camp as “a social, cultural, and aesthetic style and sensibility based on deliberate and self-acknowledged theatricality.” It is all those things, and more besides, but it’s difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, we all know camp when we see it.

Camp is effete, it’s garish, it’s hyperbole and exaggeration, it’s shameless, crude, funny, and sexless. Camp appeals to the masses, yet is intrinsically associated with queer men. (more…)

rolls royce

The History of Homosexuality: Class

Class is a peculiarly English phenomenon. Which isn’t to say other countries don’t have class systems, because of course they do, but whenever one thinks of “class” one can’t help conjuring up images of English lords and ladies juxtaposed against ruddy-faced farmers, sooty coal miners, and Dickensian street urchins. (more…)

spy espionage secret agent

The History of Homosexuality: Blackmail and Espionage

Ever since the law criminalised homosexual acts and identities, it has been open to abuse from blackmailers. When I examined the Burney Collection, almost a quarter of complaints concerning sodomy related to blackmail, the threat of “swearing sodomy” against an innocent party. If discovered, the blackmailer was subject to the same punishment as somebody convicted of the crime they claimed (generally standing in the pillory up to three times, and paying a fine of 50l, or £10,000/$15,000 in today’s money). (more…)

gay pride march

The History of Homosexuality: Post-Legalisation

Homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in July 1967 with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act. At least, that’s the common perception. Actually what this Act did was define an exemption from prosecution for private, consensual sexual contact between two males over the age of 21, excluding army and merchant navy personnel. Anything else covered by the Sexual Offences Act 1956 which criminalised buggery and “gross indecency between men” remained illegal. (more…)