Research Log: Male Homosexuality in the Late-Victorian Era
You would think that, for a story about homosexual love in 1875, we would have started out knowing a little more than simply it being possible in that time period.
There was, in fact, very little I personally knew about Victorian same-sex love upon embarking on this project. The somber, sepia-toned images of straight-faced Victorians and the mere knowledge that they existed over a century ago had me convinced that, surely, they must have been total prudes, and this resonates with their prevailing stereotypes. Stereotypes suggest that the Victorians were a people who were tight-lipped and prudish, who acted properly at all times, raising their pinkies as they daintily sipped tea and discussed the dreary British weather. It is joked, even, that they would have found the sight of an uncovered table leg scandalous.
Rather than fall to these preconceptions, I wanted to figure out if they were true.
When we started this story in 2016, Elissa and I did some cursory "research" into the topic of homosexuality in the Victorian era. What little the internet yielded about this topic was often focused on Oscar Wilde and the dramatics of his downfall, as well as the prevalence of male prostitution. We now know that, though these are two very important parts of the overarching umbrella of "homosexuality in 19th century England", they certainly don't encompass the entirety of this history.
What was necessary to understand the past, however, was to strip back my understanding of a world before "homosexuality" in the defined sense.
The very term "homosexual" hadn't been adopted into the common, let alone English vernacular in the 1870s. The term was coined by Karl-Maria Kertbeny in German in 1868 and only popularized in English in 1906, which means there were efforts being made to understand people who were attracted to others of their sex despite the lack of a "category" to put them under.
In the mid to late 1800s, doctors made attempts to diagnose and identify the "ailments" of their homosexual patients. Though this was relatively uncharted territory, the overarching logic was pretty simple: men who felt desire for other men must be in some way female or feminine, and women who felt desire for other women must be in some way male or masculine. This, combined with the pseudo-science of physiognomy (the use of physical traits to determine stereotypes of character) led doctors to seek out signs of hermaphroditism, or sexual inversion, in their patients. Precise definitions were developed for the spotting of "inverts"— people who had subconsciously assumed the gender role of the opposite sex. These encompassed everything from smaller than usual genitalia and wide hips to a penchant for theatre, an inability to whistle, and bold fashion choices. (You may notice that some of these "signs" still echo in today's LGBT stereotypes.)
The two young men in this drawing are dandies— men who dressed fashionably and loudly and who were often homosexual.
Beside the pathologization of homosexual patients, the criminalization of homosexuality is another common talking point in relation to the Victorians. When we did preliminary research for this project, we decided then and there that we would place our story before the introduction of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 which contained the Labouchère Amendment— the amendment which famously made "gross indecency" between men illegal. This was mostly a moot effort, as homosexuality was already illegal before this point under the label of sodomy or buggery. The last instance of capital punishment for sodomy was recorded in 1835, but on paper the punishment for it would read as life imprisonment until 1967. One could be arrested and tried for the "conspiracy to commit sodomy" as well. In 1870, this charge was brought against Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, two cross-dressing men who went by the drag names Fanny and Stella. Although Boulton and Park were ultimately found innocent, their case suggested homosexuality and prostitution were linked to even the most "respectable" classes of society (Boulton and Park being sons of upper-middle class households and Lord Arthur Clinton, primarily Boulton's partner, being of the gentry*) in the Victorian imagination.
*People of high social class, short of nobility
Another link between homosexuality and the upper classes was the all-male public school (private in the American sense), at which "frigging" between students was pervasive but advised against by parents and headmasters alike. Some students would go on to university, at which pederasty— educational and erotic bonds between adult men and younger men as practiced by the Ancient Greeks— might spawn between pupils and their professors. These relationships were often lauded and seen as productive for both student and mentor, but institutions remained cautious and participants were secretive. Misdemeanors and controversies in these academic circles were more often quietly handled with the resignation or dismissal of offending staff members, as the reputations of gentile students and their fathers were at stake.
Given this Victorian tendency to keep such matters under wraps, it was only the most sensational, dramatic cases which came under public and legal scrutiny. Graham Robb, in his book Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, asserts that
"Nineteenth Century homosexuals lived under a cloud, but it seldom rained" (Robb, 30)
due to the perception that sodomy was a vice that thrived on publicity— convictions, and therefore press, were publicity. More often than not, odd couples went under the radar, and were tolerated or sometimes even accepted as long as they were kept private. Most were simply indifferent to the existence of same-sex relationships because sexuality was less of a main concern than gender presentation. (Boulton and Park, who went around London in full female drag, violated male gender norms and in turn were subjected to the public eye.) "Criminal statistics distort and darken the lives of real people...Not everyone lived the sort of life that put them within the chlorinated grasp of policemen. And not everyone knew— or cared — that their sexual activities were punishable by the law." (Robb, 34)
When criminal cases, news headlines, and medical notes— the most well acknowledged "records" of homosexual history— are set aside, the following question remains: What did the life of a non-sensational homosexual Victorian man look like?
The answer, which may come as a surprise, is that it may not have been too different in principle from the life of a gay man today.
As mentioned above, stereotypes that were founded in this time period still persist today, and this is also true for other facets of LGBTQIA+ struggle. Issues such as the fear of losing family, friends, and reputation, the stress of concealment, the feeling of shame, and the conflict between religious or moral belief and sexual desire were just as prominent back then, but perhaps quieter and lesser known. There are still people who marry members of the "opposite" sex due to a false obligation to heteronormativity, and there are still LGBTQIA+ people who are ostracized and bullied for not adhering to the "norm".
But, as with the modern day, there were people who lived happily with those they loved, who were accepted by their families, religious leaders, and their communities, and who "came out" to themselves and found self-love.
They found other people like them in urban centers (the West End in London, particularly Leicester Square, Haymarket, and Regent Street, were known to be cruising grounds for men seeking sex and relationships) and in private settings— homes, clubs, hotels— male same-sex love and camaraderie flourished.
Examples of gay couple photography, presumably late 19th to early 20th century. These float around the internet unattributed on social media, but if you have the sources for these let me know, because I have a burning curiosity and a love for proper attribution.
The record of many of these potential interactions, through letters, telegrams, and diaries, however, are lost to history due to the posthumous destroying of documents— surviving examples, such as poet, writer, and gay rights proponent John Addington Symonds' memoirs, may only have survived because he expressed that they should be saved. His memoirs, the only surviving document of those originally bequeathed by his executors to the London Library 29 years after his death and finally published in 1984, recall a lifelong struggle towards self-acceptance and reconciliation of his homosexuality with his professional and familial identity. (His biography, containing highly protracted summaries of his struggles, led readers to think his struggles were merely religious.) In life, Symonds was able to reach a level of comfort in his identity late in his life that many still struggle to reach. In an 1892 letter to his daughter Margaret Symonds, he says the following of his homosexuality:
"I was born with a temperament wh[ich] has given me immense worry & distress all through my life. It is, luckily, mixed up with great capacity for enjoyment & being merry"
Perhaps the Victorians were more diverse and complicated group when it came to matters of sexuality and love than is assumed in the present.
As 21st century creators attempting to realize a fictionalized 19th century relationship, our main takeaway from this information is that we should consider each of our characters' lives as the lens through which they would see love— just as we would for modern-day characters and their backgrounds.
What did you take away from this research log, and what else would you like to learn about the Victorians?
If you enjoyed reading this, do leave us a comment below!
If you have questions about sources for particular parts of this log, feel free to comment below and I'll be happy to direct you to the specific source.
Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love and Scandal in Wilde Times by Morris B. Kaplan
Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century by Graham Robb
The John Addington Symonds Pages compiled by Rictor Norton