Same-sex sexuality in 17th century British North America

Thanks, Nick, for bringing Larry Kramer’s long rant about Richard Godbeer to my attention.

Sex and sexuality is a tricky thing to research and same-sex relations even moreso, because as Kramer points out, direct reference to one’s sexual behavior could get you killed. Ok, now that I’ve said that, let’s lay down some historical parameters. Academic historians of gay and lesbian life are reasonably sure that the permanent cultural identification of one’s self as a queer self is a 19th century phenomenon — that homosexuality as we know it (as a set of cultural and social identifications, self and community and institutions) is a historical creation of modernity. So, to say “oh, there were guys getting it on with guys in 17th century British North America” is a historical truth. It really did happen. However, to make the leap about what that sex/affective relationships meant to the participants or the society they were in is quite another — that’s an interpretation that requires a lot more evidence to support.

In my mind, Kramer is leaping from “men having sex with each other” and “men writing passionately to each other” to “they must have been gay, gay, gay just like me and anyone who doesn’t believe that is either self-hating or a bigot or possibly both.” He sees himself as locked in a desperate fight for legal recognition of human rights and so he’s eager to see the past through a lens of political convenience. I think if you look more broadly at the context of what’s going on, though, you’ll see that he’s making leaps that a historian just can’t make. The academic discipline requires proof of either orientation (an demonstrable enduring sexual or romantic preference for men) or activity (“wasn’t that great sex we had last weekend, Roger?”) or both.

Kramer argues that’s too high a bar to set and impatiently cries cover-up. He points out that because of our standards of proof, we’re silencing the gay past. That might be. In fact, I rather think he’s right. However, that’s the hand that a guy like Richard Godbeer is playing. He’s not being timid or self-hating. He’s being accurate. He’s refusing to substitute his speculations about what did or didn’t happen for evidence. So, while I applaud Kramer’s challenge to our epistemes about the history of sex and sexuality, he’s petulantly kicking on one of the most gifted historians of same-sex relations currently practicing in the US.

(As an indignant aside: Godbeer actually PUBLISHES books, real books, really well-researched and well-written books that have advanced the study of same-sex sexuality in concrete ways. He teaches and he lectures and he writes his ass off; I can and do use his work in my classes on early America. Kramer, on the other hand, is a hell-raiser who has taken thirty years to amass a 4,000 page manuscript of unpublishable shit which may never see the light of day and cannot be used by anyone. And he’s going to play the critic? Girlfriend, please.)

Did early British male colonists have sex with each other? Yes, they did. We know more about Mass. Bay than the Chesapeake, but we have legal records about same-sex relationships in the Chesapeake. We know that Jamestown officials grudgingly condoned men living in common households as a way to manage labor (including young Indian and English boys) to try to turn a profit for the Virginia Company’s investors. We know that they feared that the young “duty boys” were being sexually abused. We know that they thought than an all-male colony was undesirable and so company officials shipped off wives for Virginia. We know that gender (like race) was a central organizational category for classifying human hierarchy and that when confronted with the confounding person of Thomasin Hall (a hermaphrodite who changed outward performative representations depending on whether it was more economically advantageous to be a man or a woman), their solution was to garb Hall in both pants and an apron. These were not people who were gender-bending pioneers, but rather people who believed in truth in advertising. If you’re interested in a good study of this, you should try Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs. She writes a whole chapter on Hall.

Mass Bay was perhaps more complicated. Puritans both believed in the civil nature of marriage (not a sacrament, but a contract between man and woman) and the necessity of locating everyone who settled with them within a heterosexual family unit. They actively broke up male-male householding arrangements and executed sodomites.

On the other hand, just to throw a wrench in the works, Richard Godbeer (yes, the very same one that Kramer dogged on) has discovered a prominent man who had repeated (and not clearly consensual) sexual relations with a male servant and has written at length about the perplexity of the community about how to deal with the social repercussions. He concludes that the cross-class and arguably non-consensual nature of the sex (being a bad master), even more than the sodomitical aspect, was the core problem. Puritans believed that everyone was a sinner, after all — sodomites were just a different sort of lustful fallen person. Likewise, it’s clear from the effusiveness of their writing that they were some highly erotic people and when men wrote to men, they poured their hearts out.

Honestly, I understand Kramer’s frustration but I have to say that a group of people that would advertise in newspapers for “teeth from Living Bodies” to make dentures and people who thought that the vagina was a penis merely turned inside out are not…you know…just like us. The past is a foreign country and they did things differently there, including sex and sexuality.

Published in: on May 20, 2009 at 4:19 pm  Comments (10)  

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  1. Love your history blog!

    I think Kramer is angry verging on hysteria at times, more activist than historian, and he is often reaching.

    One of his most suspect assumptions is that simply because no wives were available for many colonists, they would “turn to each other.” It’s not something you can CHOOSE like that, and he of all people should know that. I could no more choose attraction to males amid a girl-shortage than Kramer could choose attraction to women.

    You wrote:
    The academic discipline requires proof of either orientation (an demonstrable enduring sexual or romantic preference for men) or activity (”wasn’t that great sex we had last weekend, Roger?”) or both.

    Well, I think one of Goldbeer’s discoveries that Kramer mentions DOES cross the “wasn’t that great sex we had last weekend, Roger?” threshold:

    “Some letters are a good deal more suggestive than others in expressing nostalgia for nights spent with a close friend. Virgil Maxcy, who lived in Smithfield, Rhode Island, assured his ‘chum’ William Blanding in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, that he missed sleeping with him: ‘Sometimes,’ he wrote, ‘I think I have got hold of your doodle when in reality I have hold of the bedpost.’ A ‘doodle’ that could be confused with a bedpost was hardly in a state of repose, and Maxcy signed this particular letter, ‘your cunt humble.’ One cannot help but wonder.” 240 pages and Virgil Maxcy’s doodle is all we are given and Godbeer cannot help but wonder. Cannot help but wonder? Gee whiz, Godbeer. What does it take to make you really wonder?”

    • Yes, I would not be so tentative in that case, but I haven’t seen the rest of the letters in the series. If they regularly talk smack about each other’s packages, describe themselves and others as pussies or cunts (which was an all-purpose 19th c crude word among the middle-class clerks, sort of like calling somebody a likeable bastard…you don’t actually mean he’s a bastard, but that he’s a regular fellow), but also talk about their sexual escapades with the whores of Smithfield, well, I’d think they were young guys speaking crudely to each other for fun and wouldn’t necessarily assume that they were giving each other hand jobs. But then again, Martin Duberman’s work on James Henry Hammond makes it clear that JHH was indeed having sex with his male classmates (possibly raping them to establish the dominance hierarchy in his private school, as I remember), so there was, for some boys, a frankness in their sexual communication with other boys that corresponded to homosexual activity.

      I guess I’m coming down on Godbeer’s side of this. Unless you’re Kramer and believe that there’s a need to insist on it, presenting suggestive evidence and then refraining from speculation lets Godbeer have it both ways. He does an astonishing job of research, he presents his case, he lets his reader make up his or her mind and he doesn’t have to put up with rightwing nutjobs discrediting the entirety of his work for exceeding his proof in one instance.

      • Oh, and if you’re interested in the Duberman article about Jeff Withers and James Henry Hammmond, it’s in the Journal of Homosexuality (December 1981), pp. 85-101. Here’s an abstract:

        http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a904834161~db=all

      • I can see now how maybe they were horsing around, but..ehhhh….

      • Ironic that some of our best evidence of early American homosexuality comes from ultra-reactionary conservatives in South Carolina.

        That particular pathology is so familiar today!

  2. Oh, and I meant to say too that Kramer apparently hasn’t clued into the idea that there were plenty of women in Virginia in 1609 — about 20k Powhatan women lived there. They were not attracted to the Tassentass (translates to “stinky dog-faced people”), but that didn’t stop some of the Jamestonians from trying to have sex with them.

  3. Back to this fallacy that whenever there’s a scarcity of women in a society, large amounts of men will “turn to each other.”

    Recently, a gay family member told me because of the lack of females in China and the fact that, mathematically, hundreds of millions of men can never find women to marry (true) that millions will turn to gay sex. I don’t think that’s what will happen — it’s not A CHOICE!

    More likely consequences of gender imbalance in China are: increased sex trafficking, prostitution becoming more widespread and more lucrative, and, possibly, invading neighboring countries. I’ve seen a book about this discussed on CNN a few years back, and it argued that the explosive growth of Islamic conquests in the 7th & 8th centuries wasn’t just “to spread the faith by the sword,” but because the prevalence of polygamy on the Arabian Peninsula made it impossible for large numbers of angry young fundamentalist males with swords to ever find wives. So large groups of them invaded Egypt, Persia, etc., where the population of widowed women had just grown considerably from the war. The book suggested a similar phenomenon may happen in China.

    What do you think?

  4. I turned our discussion here into a post on my blog, and link back to this post.

  5. […] history professor friend Bridgett and I discussed this on her blog post about Kramer, “Same-sex sexuality in 17th century British North America,” and she explains that real historians can’t “out” people from the past as […]

  6. More source material:

    Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform
    by Charles Upchurch
    University of California Press; (April 22, 2009), 288 page

    Upchurch uncovered over 1000 published newspaper articles in the UK documenting cases of homosexuality between 1800 and 1870, mostly reports of arrests and convictions.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/larry-kramer/review-ibefore-wilde-sex_b_216391.html


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