How should we describe the sexuality of historical figures?
March 6, 2015 7:09 AM   Subscribe

It's a discussion that flared up recently at the house of Jane Addams. "Let’s start with an art history mystery. In 2006, a lifetime after Jane Addams passed away, Lisa Yun Lee took up the position of Director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. One day she came across a fetching painting of a brunette in the museum's back offices. But, Lee says, “As soon as I started asking ‘Who is that person in the painting,’ there were hushed tones and confusion. And people said, ‘Well, some people say that it’s Jane Addams’ partner.’ Other people say it’s her biggest business supporter. Other people said, ‘Well, of course. It’s her lesbian lover.’” "
posted by sciatrix (73 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
That's a pretty good article (and a good post title). Fair and covers all the issues. And I never tire of seeing this brought up:
What historians do know is during the Victorian era platonic love was in the air. It described a meeting of souls, not necessarily bodies, and was viewed as a pure kind of love that same-sex couples could enjoy. Men could share a Platonic love with men, and women with women. The intimacy in these relationships could be as deep as any heterosexual relationship, but they were not framed in terms of sex.
To me the death of Platonic love is the saddest casualty of the sexual revolution. These days there is no Fair Youth. These days, if you love someone, then you have sex with them.
posted by resurrexit at 7:28 AM on March 6, 2015 [16 favorites]


These days, if you love someone, then you have sex with them.

I dunno, I love a lot more people than I'm having sex with right now.
posted by Gelatin at 7:46 AM on March 6, 2015 [28 favorites]


I found this section especially interesting, as I'd never heard the term "Boston marriage" before:
Addams and Smith referred to their relationship as a marriage in some writings, and this era enjoyed another kind of sanctioned love that came with a term: Boston marriages. D’Emilio characterizes Boston marriages as deep relationships and commitments between two middle-class, college educated women.

Etymologically speaking, he says, the word “Boston” refers to the preponderance of women’s colleges in Boston, while "marriage” is used because many of these women never married and lived a lifetime with another woman.

“Think about it this way,” D’Emilio says. “This is a generation in which sex is not out there in the public. Sex is supposed to be quiet and private and behind closed doors. And so Boston marriage becomes a very neutral and acceptable way of describing something, that if described in other terms might be scandalous.”

It can be argued that Boston marriages could be considered a corollary of lesbian relationships today, but it’s not clear whether sex was included in these setups.

D’Emilio says “Boston marriage” was a term that acknowledged a relationship and intimacy “without getting into the stuff we’re not supposed to talk about.” Ironically, D’Emilio says in part because there were taboos against openly discussing sex, there was a kind of flexibility in what happened behind closed doors; it just wouldn’t end up in polite conversation.
It's fascinating to consider that the very prudishness of Victorian society allowed women to buck heteronormative gender roles, simply because everyone was too "polite" to even acknowledge what their unconventional choices might actually mean. (Or maybe the Victorians really were onto something with the idea that what goes on in other people's bedrooms and/or underpants is none of anyone else's goddam business?) Of course, that's a double-edged sword, as it also meant that people's true identities went unacknowledged and were even partially erased. But I'm so grateful that these women were able to build these kinds of lives outside the dominant paradigm, and also grateful that historians are now paying more attention to excavating their real stories.
posted by the turtle's teeth at 7:50 AM on March 6, 2015 [11 favorites]


I'm a nearly 70-year-old lesbian (who always knew she was gay.) I'm glad my forays into libraries and museums were not accompanied by well-meaning historians. I was free to "see" lesbians and gay men with my own eyes. And I did. All this kerfuffle about something that cannot be known (whether same-sex couples had sex or not) gives me a pain. Trust your feelings and thoughts.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:05 AM on March 6, 2015 [26 favorites]


I am surprised this is news of any kind. If anyone is interested in same-sex marriages of the era, Outlaw Marriages is mediocre but worth reading and includes the Addams/Smith pairing.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:08 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


To me the death of Platonic love is the saddest casualty of the sexual revolution. These days there is no Fair Youth. These days, if you love someone, then you have sex with them.

Of course, now there's a category of "asexual" that has become a new identifier for some folks, that seems to take its place. Often involving intense, loving relationships, just with no sex. There's more to it, but I can't go searching on that at work.

The article mentions that the Victorian era was "different" but what didn't get said is that one of the differences was the stifling dominance of patriarchy over everyone's life. It wasn't merely "different" it was oppressive, in terms of forcing all human beings into one of two predetermined, rigid modes of behavior.

Platonic friendships were surely a refuge from that rigidity, and may not always have been "platonic" anyway, but human beings will seek whatever freedom they can find under such a system.

Friendship can only be defined in terms of the people involved in it. Some friendships include romance, some don't, some used to but don't anymore.
posted by emjaybee at 8:33 AM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


I am sort of baffled that it has become so important for people to be identified by sexual orientation. I understand the need to fight discrimination, but a little discretion wouldn't hurt. Too much information!
posted by lazydog at 8:39 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is a great article. Thanks for sharing it. As a historian, I'm always glad of the reminder that we can't actually know what it was like to live in a certain time period, despite what we think we know about it.
posted by mynameisluka at 8:44 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Trust your feelings and thoughts.

I don't think "assume other people are the same as yourself" is a good starting position regardless of whether you start from being straight or gay.
posted by yoink at 8:46 AM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


Thanks for this, sciatrix!

There's such a temptation to try and view historical people and events as though our modern language and terminology, which leads to those weird conversations, IMO.

See also, "Was Lincoln Gay?" "Was Buchanan Gay?" "Was Alexander the Great Gay?" "Did people get PTSD from the civil war?" "Were biblical prophets schizophrenic?"

The way that different personality traits and experiences play out within the culture is so determined by that culture. So I love seeing folks coming at this from a historical perspective/etc.
posted by DGStieber at 8:53 AM on March 6, 2015 [4 favorites]


I dunno, I love a lot more people than I'm having sex with right now.

Ha, me too! Holiday get-togethers with extended family would never be the same.... I thought it was clear I was speaking about non-familial love.
posted by resurrexit at 8:54 AM on March 6, 2015


Many people may not care about the sexual orientation of historical figures, but for an isolated adolescent who doesn't quite know how to place themselves in the world, this information could be quite valuable. Because, for young people who are growing up in repressive, sheltered environments, and who may be struggling with their own LGBTQ identities when everything they've been taught tells them that being gay or queer or trans is "freakish," discovering "their people" in the world and in history can literally be life-saving. Discovering that there have always been people like you, that they built meaningful lives and did important things, that they forged paths to be followed. And, in fact, much of this article is focused on how to respectfully and truthfully word a plaque that children and young people would read.
posted by the turtle's teeth at 8:58 AM on March 6, 2015 [16 favorites]


I am sort of baffled that it has become so important for people to be identified by sexual orientation. I understand the need to fight discrimination, but a little discretion wouldn't hurt. Too much information!

I wouldn't push so hard to be visible if heteropatriarchal culture didn't push so hard to erase and demonize me.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:58 AM on March 6, 2015 [27 favorites]


The broader issue with 'was [historical figure] gay/lesbian?' is that it attempts to use terms that move beyond homosexual--i.e., engages in same-sex sexual activity. We have lots of historical figures whose homosexual activity are recorded. But then if you ask whether that person (or persons without a record of homosexual activity) was "gay" or "lesbian" or whatever--since it's not historical to label them "homosexual" in the absence of evidence of sex--it's all a question of how you define those terms.

If "gay" or "lesbian" now means "Platonic same-sex friends with no evidence of sexual activity" we'll find many more historical figures to whom we can apply those labels. But as the article says, we can't really do that and still be doing history--we're doing something ideological at worst or a-historical at best.
posted by resurrexit at 9:02 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


As we pass through time learning, healing, creating, loving and understanding, we hope to leave a legacy of our choosing, as we hope also to have lived a life of our choosing. We get to be, with various influences, the editors of self, we also exist as our own ad hoc, public relations firm. This wishfully being so, how odd is it to have people looking up our dresses, and down our pants in some historical voyeurism? One seeming cause or another wants to pillory or plunder private memory. This x-ray world is wonderful and awful in its capacity to illuminate, educate, dog, fog and consternate.
posted by Oyéah at 9:03 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Even earlier: the Ladies of Llangollen, who were celebrities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. And there's no doubt at all about Anne Lister.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:06 AM on March 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


Saying we can't apply modern labels to historical and literary figures (true, we don't know what Achilles and Patroclus did in the privacy of their tent) comes frighteningly close to sounding like those who say: don't apply such labels because no one did such disgusting things, they were just best friends.
posted by Carol Anne at 9:09 AM on March 6, 2015 [7 favorites]


So here's the thing: part of gay liberation has been going back and claiming our heroes. Our forefathers and mothers from earlier generations. It's important to be able to point to Alexander the Great, or Leonardo da Vinci, or Walt Whitman and say "these people were like me". (And I'm dismayed that the first comment here is an erasure of the homoerotic reading of Shakespeare's Sonnet 20.)

Personally I agree that sticking modern labels like "lesbian" or "gay" on pre-modern figures is ahistorical. "Homosexual" is a better term, being somewhat culture-neutral. I'm also personally a fan of moving gay liberation past the simple "gay or not" space where we are now, of more broadly embracing a variety of gender and sexuality variations. (Hello, bisexuals! Hello, genderqueers!) But, well, that's complicated. When the main cultural discourse is "fags are icky" about the most complicated thing you can respond with is "oh yeah? well these important people were fags".

The gender and sexual dynamics of earlier eras are fascinating and I'd love to know more about how Ms. Addams' Boston Marriage worked. It's foolish to think of Addams and Smith's relationship as just another pair on the L Word. Not just foolish, but terribly limiting and simplistic. OTOH I'd hate to erase them entirely as a model of womens' love for each other, including (possibly) erotic love.

Sometimes I think this problem is uniquely American, our need to pigeonhole everyone into classes and then pass moral judgement on whether that class of person is OK or not. I'm grateful that my particular box is becoming a protected class with equal rights, but I'd rather not be quite so confined.
posted by Nelson at 9:16 AM on March 6, 2015 [12 favorites]


I've got to say, I'm pretty much with Carol Anne on this. I feel like the work we're doing is erasing people's lives here, just like I felt that a lot of the Butch Heroes posted on MeFi last year were having their gender identity ignored and erased. We can use modern terms to talk about history, because we have those terms available now to converse in.

I am sort of baffled that it has become so important for people to be identified by sexual orientation. I understand the need to fight discrimination, but a little discretion wouldn't hurt. Too much information!

That's what my mom said, too, when I came out to her and again when one of my siblings did. A society where no one talks about sex is certainly not my ideal, but even if it's my mom's, what I don't think she gets is that the choice isn't "be identified as queer vs. nothing", it's "be identified as queer vs. straight". Straight sexuality is out in the open and indiscreet whether you want it to be or not, so the choice is be proud or be completely silent.
posted by capricorn at 9:19 AM on March 6, 2015 [13 favorites]


It's foolish to think of Addams and Smith's relationship as just another pair on the L Word.

What does this mean?
posted by capricorn at 9:23 AM on March 6, 2015


Well yeah, it's a complicated mess of socially constructed stuff but it's that way for people living in the 21st century as well. More and more I'm increasingly frustrated by the reductionism and implicit essentialism of sexual orientation right now. My long-term relationship doesn't reduce to fucking (which I'll be frank, hasn't happened in four years). It's still queer because we're both queer which takes the heterosexual privilege of flipping out (PDF) largely off the table. Lesbianism doesn't reduce to fucking. Gay relationships don't reduce to fucking. The guy who broke my heart never was a sexual partner.

And even if we're just talking about the fucking, MSM, WSW, and "sport-sex" are things that go on. Sexuality is not constructed the same way across different cultures! It wasn't constructed the same way in our culture in living memory. We can wake up to the reality that these reductionist ideas about sexual orientation don't work, or we can continue through another generation of epidemics and pandemics.

But you know what, rather than engaging in the equivalent of concern trolling about the dangers of indiscriminate labeling of historical figures, perhaps you should take a moment to reflect on the fact that queer theory and LGBT historians wrote the majority of the historiography regarding the problems of defining sexuality and interpretation across cultural and historical contexts.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:23 AM on March 6, 2015 [7 favorites]


I was speaking about non-familial love.

Of course. What makes you think I wasn't?
posted by Gelatin at 9:23 AM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


These days, if you have questions and conflicts with whatever history, personal orientation, or romantic constructs that primary education has taught to you or shoved down your throat, you have a plethora of resources for alternative views.
posted by halifix at 9:28 AM on March 6, 2015


On the other hand, I don't want to seem like I'm walking in here and saying this conversation is totally closed and there is only one right answer; it's interesting to me to see different perspectives on this and I think many of the responses in the Butch Heroes thread I liked above were valuable as well.
posted by capricorn at 9:28 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's foolish to think of Addams and Smith's relationship as just another pair on the L Word. ... What does this mean?

I'm referring to the TV show The L Word, which features many lesbian characters and couples. It's a TV show; the characters are necessarily simplified and stereotyped as all TV characters are. I'm saying that Addams and Smith's lives are more complicated than some two dimensional TV characters. I fear for many straight people, characters on shows like The L Word (or worse, Will and Grace) are their most nuanced understanding of what actual LGBT peoples' lives are like. I'm saying the reality of people like Addams & Smith are more interesting than that.

Part of the problem is also the modernity of modern concepts of LGBT lives as reflected by shows like the L Word. It takes extra effort to remember how different gender roles were 80, 100, 200 years ago. A marriage between women was less thinkable in the 1930s. (And even harder in earlier eras, where women had no right to vote or in some cases, even own property.) OTOH it happened all the time, and with public recognition of the relationship, if perhaps not the sexual component.
posted by Nelson at 9:35 AM on March 6, 2015


Sometimes when I refer to my friend who is a woman as my "friend," and people see our short hair and minimal makeup, they assume we are a lesbian couple. Sometimes when I'm with my roommate who is a man and refer to him as my "roommate," people assume we are a straight, cohabiting couple. Sometimes I only find out these assumptions are being made when someone tries to be supportive, like "oh honey, you don't have to pretend to me; I respect your right to be a couple."

I'd rather be assumed lesbian or assumed cohabiting-with-dude or whatever the assumption of the day is than even try to correct the assumption. What am I going to do--provide a stranger with an annotated spreadsheet of my actual bedroom companions sortable by gender, orientation, and list of sexual activities performed together? I would rather not. I generally pull a Jane Addams and "burn the letters" in these situations, letting people assume what they will and not giving them any additional information.

I dream of a day when people will take my word for it that my friend is just my friend, and my roommate is just my roommate, and if/when I take a lover that strangers need to know about (do they ever need to? maybe not!), trust that I'll let strangers know about it, but I don't really expect the day to come when people will be comfortable not knowing, not categorizing, and not even assuming, that which is none of their business.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 9:44 AM on March 6, 2015 [8 favorites]


What we could use, I believe, is a term akin to "gender essentialism" to identify a perspective that universalizes the concept of sexual orientation as it is now understood. It can be hard to critique this sort of sexual ethnocentrism because we don't even have a label for it, but in considering sexual history I believe it is vital to always bear in mind that sexuality is not some static, eternal phenomenon but an embodied capacity that is experienced vastly differently across times and between societies. And the idea that intimate partnerships should be based on an indwelling, gender-oriented lust is one that is only a century old. Check out Jonathan Ned Katz's The Invention of Heterosexuality if you haven't considered this before.

Victorian society was based on homosociality, not heterosexuality. It's frustrating to me that people have trouble imagining that the basis of relationships and the way that intimacy and lust and procreation are approached change over time, no more or less than do technologies or fashions. It seems to threaten people--which I see it as fascinating and something to celebrate. Ah well.
posted by DrMew at 9:56 AM on March 6, 2015 [10 favorites]


These days, if you love someone, then you have sex with them.

I disagree that this is a fact, but I think this is often an assumption. My roommate, who I have known for many years, is one of my very, very best friends. He was my husband's roommate our first year of college, the best man at our wedding, and he's been our roommate since he moved from Chicago to DC where we already lived about seven years ago. I care about him very much and know him very well. He and I are also absolutely zero percent attracted to each other, and I am attracted to a ridiculous proportion of people, but in this case I'm just totally 100% not which is great. I just really enjoy his company and care a lot about him and we have a lengthy history of friendship which is basically how I feel about my brother.

I am kind of shocked by the number of people who assume, often salaciously to them, that he and my husband and I all have some sort of sexual relationship with each other. We don't (I should note that poly relationships of various stripes are totally cool, we just happen not to have one and, respectfully to him, the idea of hooking up with my roommate is really squicky). There just doesn't seem to be a mental box for "super super good friend/long-term roommate" for a lot of people and it really irks me. I think it relates to an assumption that everyone needs to be in understandable, easily categorized boxes and we've kind of lost "super close platonic friend" as one of those boxes in the present.

I also think that, in terms of the FPP, we don't always include "sexuality other than heterosexual" or even "sexuality or gender identity other than straight/cis" are boxes we always include for people in the past. It's like the saying about how every generation things they discovered sex -- we don't always recognize that people in the past might have had sexualities we think we are progressive and clever for recognizing, so we assume that people we know in the present are all having sex with each other and people in the past weren't.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:00 AM on March 6, 2015 [8 favorites]


It's perhaps worth mentioning that my interest in this article (and in Jane Addams' life more generally, actually, and also in Boston marriages) comes from the perspective of a queer asexual woman who doesn't identify as a lesbian. I'm very, very sympathetic to the perspective of LGBTQ people looking back into history for representation--indeed, that's one of the reasons that I sometimes feel frustrated by historical discussion of Boston marriages. I often see this tension between two views that can be characterized "there was nothing queer about Boston marriages intrinsically!" and (more commonly) "Boston marriages were totally all lesbians as we know them flying under the radar!" And well--I sympathize, like I said, to lesbians who hold the latter view because they want to see themselves in people in history! I just also feel a tension, because I'd like to be able to see myself in history too.

And, well--I don't identify as a lesbian, because I don't experience sexual attraction and honestly I don't get crushes and my experience is sufficiently different that I really value having access to a community of people who feel similarly to me. But also, I don't identify as a lesbian because the way that the word is used today doesn't necessarily describe my life or experiences. And those are rooted inextricably in my culture and my time. If I was living 30 years ago, I'd probably identify as a lesbian (because I am very much not into men). If I was living a hundred years ago and I had the class resources to access one, I could have been very comfortable in a Boston marriage. If I was living three hundred years ago, I might have identified differently again, given the cultural context and the ideas available to me. I'd want the same kinds of things each way, but how I frame and conceptualized them would probably have been very different. And if I, in that theoretical hundred-years-gone framework, had been a historical personage? I can see myself and my life being labeled as "lesbian history" too. I'm really glad that capricorn linked the Butch Heroes discussion upthread, because I hadn't seen it and I would like to give it a read.

I mean, I'm not saying I want Jane Addams or Boston marriages to be an asexuals-only thing. Far from it, actually! I'm actually pretty sure that there were women who would, today, identify as lesbians who took advantage of the Boston marriages framework. And I'm certainly not trying to say that I want less public discussion of these relationships in history classes and popular culture (again, very much the opposite; I'd like to see more). I would just like the room to continue to see myself and people like me in those institutions, too, instead of framing them in a modern way that reflects a modern understanding of how we see women who had female life partners.
posted by sciatrix at 10:04 AM on March 6, 2015 [14 favorites]


Any good historian will point out that fucking and reproduction is only one aspect of how and why cultures construct sexuality. Heterosexuality also exists to define how certain forms of wealth and social capital are shared. So whether the participants in a Boston Marriage actually had the same sexual preferences as 21st-century lesbians is less important than the fact that it existed as an alternative to compulsory heterosexuality for the purpose of sharing wealth and social capital. As such, it is a precursor to the development of contemporary lesbian long-term relationships.

It's almost certain that some Boston Marriages involved sexual relationships as well. But that's not the only reason why they're significant to queer history.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:04 AM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


Victorian society was based on homosociality, not heterosexuality. It's frustrating to me that people have trouble imagining that the basis of relationships and the way that intimacy and lust and procreation are approached change over time, no more or less than do technologies or fashions. It seems to threaten people--which I see it as fascinating and something to celebrate. Ah well.

Eeek, should have previewed, because I'm afraid it looks like my comment is arguing against this and it absolutely isn't, or isn't meant to be (at the very least, I trust the good doctor to know more about this than I do).

I totally agree with this and I think the label we hesitate to assign to people in the past is often "complex" or "unfamiliar to us" and we figure we know all this stuff that people in the past couldn't possibly comprehend instead of recognizing that maybe it's stuff in the past that we're failing to comprehend.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:05 AM on March 6, 2015


Saying we can't apply modern labels to historical and literary figures (true, we don't know what Achilles and Patroclus did in the privacy of their tent) comes frighteningly close to sounding like those who say: don't apply such labels because no one did such disgusting things, they were just best friends.

That's just a rather crude attempt to bully people into joining in with whatever version of history you, personally, find convenient to believe in. Some of us would rather honor the historical specificity of different eras and different cultures, rather than populating the past with slightly strangely-dressed versions of ourselves.

The fact is that cultural norms about the expression of friendship, about cohabitation, about conceptions of sexuality (etc. etc. etc.) are remarkably fluid and can change radically in a relatively short historical time frame. Two young Victorian men meeting on a street in London and deciding to head off together to some mutual destination would be very likely to do so arm-in-arm. We would be entirely wrong to read that physical intimacy as a token of sexual intimacy, in the way we would read a similar pairing on the streets of modern-day London. Men in Eighteenth Century Europe (especially devotees of the emerging culture of Sensibility) would write protestations of eternal love to male friends which no modern reader can not initially see as implying some kind of erotic connection, but which contemporary readers fully understood to have no such implication.

If you want to actually understand the past (rather than just cast it as a set of morality plays proving that your side was always right about everything) you have to allow it its alterity--allow it its genuine difference from the presence.
posted by yoink at 10:05 AM on March 6, 2015 [11 favorites]


I also feel the need to point out that the existence of social, economic, and legal alternatives to compulsory heterosexuality are exactly what conservatives tried to ban through state laws and amendments in the 1990s.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:15 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


These days, if you love someone, then you have sex with them.

BY LAW
posted by Greg Nog at 10:43 AM on March 6, 2015 [10 favorites]


Some of us would rather honor the historical specificity of different eras and different cultures, rather than populating the past with slightly strangely-dressed versions of ourselves.

Yeah, but you have to admit it's a lot more fun to read Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church: A 2,000-Year History and A People's History of the United States than translated collections of the primary sources without annotations. :)
posted by resurrexit at 10:47 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you want to actually understand the past (rather than just cast it as a set of morality plays proving that your side was always right about everything) you have to allow it its alterity--allow it its genuine difference from the presence.

Any work of historical interpretation is going to be a work of historical interpretation using frameworks known to the historian. For some reason, talking about the sexuality of people before Stonewall seems to draw this kind of criticism in a way that talking about social networks, capital, technology, religion, or language does not.

Of course, all of the statements you make regarding platonic same-sex affection are true. But they're still relevant to queer history because one of the theories out there is that the medicialization of sexuality and gender made the 20th century even more conservative regarding affection and gendered behavior than before.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:48 AM on March 6, 2015 [7 favorites]


Because fucking hell, if we can use Marxism and Neo-Marxism to talk about the early Industrial Revolution, we should be able to talk about Boston Marriages using queer theory.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:59 AM on March 6, 2015 [5 favorites]


Because fucking hell, if we can use Marxism and Neo-Marxism to talk about the early Industrial Revolution, we should be able to talk about Boston Marriages using queer theory.

I agree with you about the validity of Queer interpretations and perspectives. That said, marxist theory is an explicitly more historical project than queer theory.

I'm not saying this just to be nitpicky, but I think that it has real implications for the way that history is viewed. I think that using labels such as "gay" or "queer" in the modern sense tends to reinforce the idea that sexuality exists in little pigeonholes, and has always existed in those same pigeonholes.

It's important to be able to point to Alexander the Great, or Leonardo da Vinci, or Walt Whitman and say "these people were like me"

Yes, that is important. But the "like me" (IMO) is better understood as "a unique human with unique desires and perspectives, including some sexual desires that are similar to mine in some ways" instead of "Gay" or "Straight" as though those categories existed in the same way back then. And it's super complex to recognize the complexity of history without erasing our commonalities with the historical figures that can be heroes for modern QUILTBAG folks.
posted by DGStieber at 11:29 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


If we can't project modern ideas of gay, lesbian, and bisexual back onto the past, don't we also need to be equally cautious about projecting modern ideas of straightness onto the past?
posted by Area Man at 11:33 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


If we can't project modern ideas of gay, lesbian, and bisexual back onto the past, don't we also need to be equally cautious about projecting modern ideas of straightness onto the past?

Is anyone actually doing that here, though?
posted by sciatrix at 11:45 AM on March 6, 2015


There's nothing wrong with speculation, or even coming to a conclusion you can't prove, as long as you acknowledge it as such.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:49 AM on March 6, 2015


I'm not saying this just to be nitpicky,...

You're just concern trolling by reminding us to be aware of ideas that you got from us to start with.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:50 AM on March 6, 2015


It's kinda like barging into an astronomy classroom and shouting, "Christopher Columbus was right y'all! The Earth is round!"
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:04 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


> I am sort of baffled that it has become so important for people to be identified by sexual orientation.

It's always been important. It's just that until recently, the sexual orientation everyone was happy to identify publicly was heterosexual, and this was done in newspaper announcements of weddings, and advertisements for engagement rings and groups of people getting together for bachelor parties or baby showers. Some of y'all have been flaunting that all over the place since the dawn of time, and it makes me laugh to see people scold me for frightening the horses when I mention that my girlfriend and I had a nice weekend.
posted by rtha at 12:05 PM on March 6, 2015 [18 favorites]


So whether the participants in a Boston Marriage actually had the same sexual preferences as 21st-century lesbians is less important than the fact that it existed as an alternative to compulsory heterosexuality for the purpose of sharing wealth and social capital.

My training wasn't in modern history, but this really resonates for me. I'm always reluctant to cast the (exclusive) sexuality of historical individuals in any particular way without more proof than we generally have about most of them, but attention to alternative economic and family structures is always welcome in my book.

As far as role modeling for queer kids goes, I am not queer so I know I don't have a dog in that hunt, but I know it's important. But I also think that use of history (to support and encourage) is a separate thing to the sort of "what can we really know" hypothetical arguments about sexuality. Along similar lines, I did a lot of eyerolling at the great-man history in the recent Cosmos series because I thought it wasn't accurate in some important ways, but I absolutely approved of the way the show and the history presented encouraged kids to get into science.
posted by immlass at 12:09 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Through the ages, etiquette has been invariant on this point, it is a simple manner of personal respect that you refer to someone in the way they have chosen to identify themselves. In this manner, you are respecting their wishes.

Apparently this bit of common sense is so controversial that it has been censored twice when I posted it in a different thread.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:39 PM on March 6, 2015


don't we also need to be equally cautious about projecting modern ideas of straightness onto the past?
Is anyone actually doing that here, though?

That is how I read these comments, and I apologize if I am misreading, and would appreciate clarification:

the choice isn't "be identified as queer vs. nothing", it's "be identified as queer vs. straight"

until recently, the sexual orientation everyone was happy to identify publicly was heterosexual
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:41 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Appreciate clarification of what, exactly? I don't understand what you're asking me to clarify.
posted by rtha at 12:43 PM on March 6, 2015


I'm asking whether you might be projecting modern ideas of straightness onto the past? Maybe you didn't literally mean that everyone was happy to identify publicly as heterosexual in the modern sense?
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:45 PM on March 6, 2015


I feel like the work we're doing is erasing people's lives here

While I understand the basis of this sentiment (I think!), it seems to me that what has been done here is to give a more detailed and more nuanced picture of someone's life than previously existed. In other words, exactly the opposite of erasing someone's life. Where there was previously heteronormativity, vagueness, or innuendo ("didn't want to be married" in Jane Addams case or lifelong bachelor, spinster, or worse in many others), there is now an honest and forthcoming appreciation of who she was and how she chose to live her life.

For the curators at the Hull House museum, what would have been a better way to present Addams?
posted by nequalsone at 1:14 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


> I'm asking whether you might be projecting modern ideas of straightness onto the past?

I was responding to a comment about how people should keep their sexual orientation more private. I was pointing out that until recently, most people did not in fact do that, but the sexual orientation they were broadcasting was one that is socially and culturally understood to be heterosexual.
posted by rtha at 1:34 PM on March 6, 2015


How should we describe the sexuality of historical figures?

"It's complicated"
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 1:34 PM on March 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


I am sort of baffled that it has become so important for people to be identified by sexual orientation.

This is exactly the same as saying "why isn't there a white history month?"

It's important because literally every single thing about the dominant culture is built on heteronormativity and binary gender roles.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:37 PM on March 6, 2015 [12 favorites]


Even within our culture the question of whether homosexuality is something you do vs. something you are is socially constructed in different ways depending on gender conformity, race, and class. I know guys who kept a running score of how many straight bros didn't care where the blowjob came from after a six-pack. During WWII, butches were lesbian, while femmes were good girls who just fell (or were seduced) into it.

So of course we're not going to say naively that Addams was a lesbian in the modern sense. It's much more interesting to describe what we know about her relationship with Smith, the power relationships of that form of relationship within her culture, and how similar relationships may or may not have been a part of emerging "lesbian" culture in the 19th and early 20th century. Any of which are going to be more interesting than the real-person slash considerations
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:12 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thanks, rtha. It makes sense as a response to that comment. I definitely want any and all orientations to be visible and treated equally.

the sexual orientation they were broadcasting

For myself, I like to not assume people are necessarily broadcasting a sexual orientation based on their living arrangements and other information of the type that we have available to us about Jane Addams. It can feel personal because people misread my situation in different ways. To use your example of mentioning a girlfriend, even in a modern straight-or-LGBT framework, a woman who mentions a girlfriend might be broadcasting "L," or she might be broadcasting "B," or she might be my hetero married mom who thinks that's a perfectly normal term for a platonic friend who is a woman and wonders why people do a doubletake every time she says it (because time did not stop in 1955), and there are probably even more possibilities filed under "Q" and maybe other letters. It might be weirdly literal of me to try not to draw conclusions beyond what people are actually telling me about their lives, but I think it's respectful of their boundaries and of the myriad ways people choose to conduct their lives.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 2:37 PM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


I generally agree with the sentiment that discerning the true nature of the sexual lives of people from other eras is difficult at best, and impossible in many cases. "It's complicated" is a start, and in some cases about as far as we can really go.

That said, I find it interesting to see this discussion, with all of its unknowns, suppositions, and respectfully tentative projections, juxtaposed with (or against) the discussion of William Thomas Prestwood's very frank and explicit personal diary (c. 1800) from a few days ago. Maybe there are too many differences in circumstance, class, gender, and society to bridge the divide between Prestwood's and Addams's situations. Or maybe, since Prestwood's self-reported experiences seem to paint him as an archetypical horn-dog who was always on the prowl for a roll in the hay with a willing woman, maybe some human behaviors are constant and share much in common with contemporary behaviors and practices.

Which leads me back to the sentiment that looking backwards and evaluating historic sexual behaviors and practices from a modern perspective is complicated, and filled with supposition and guess work. Looking again at the Prestwood thread, it seems like he lived a fairly unremarkable public life, and were it nor for the decoding and publishing of his very personal notes, no one would have been the least bit aware of his many dalliances (although it seems like Prestwood could have been a very active Tinder user if he had lived in contemporary times).

Most of us are products of the times in which we live and reflect those mores and behaviors. A few are harbingers of new waves of behavior, just as a few are likely throw backs to the behaviors of an earlier age. Very hard to for us to ascertain the personal lives of historic figures without the specific and explicit evidence of a diarist like Prestwood. I think the only conclusion I can draw about Jane Addams's personal life is that she was more circumspect than William Prestwood, in that she did not leave behind a multi-volume set of encrypted notes for scholars to decipher after her passing. Good on her for keeping her secrets to herself, whatever they may have been.
posted by mosk at 4:12 PM on March 6, 2015


She was drawn to the work of the Hull-House settlement, taking on several roles: philanthropist, benefactor (some might say a sugar mamma), and Jane Addams’ lifelong companion.

I don't the impression the journalist meant it as a slap, but the "sugar mama" thing sounded like kind of a creepy way to characterize their relationship. It almost makes Addams sound like a kept woman or something.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:27 PM on March 6, 2015


For myself, I like to not assume people are necessarily broadcasting a sexual orientation based on their living arrangements and other information of the type that we have available to us about Jane Addams. ... It might be weirdly literal of me to try not to draw conclusions beyond what people are actually telling me about their lives, but I think it's respectful of their boundaries and of the myriad ways people choose to conduct their lives.

The problem with insisting that we cannot draw conclusions is that, in effect, you are insisting Addams must have been straight. It doesn't matter that "we don't have enough information to definitely know" literally means exactly what it says, in our cultural context, it conveys "You only get to claim her as queer if you find a sex tape."

Take Nietzsche as an example. I think we'd all feel comfortable saying Nietzsche was straight. It is/was presumed Nietzsche died of syphilis (though I guess this has come into question in the last few years). What wasn't clear was how he would have acquired syphilis. His diaries were thought to be sufficiently detailed that one ought to be able to account for his sexual partners, but all anyone could come up with was "slept with a prostitute and didn't write about it". We're really never going to know the cause of Nietzsche collapse and subsequent (ten years later) death. But no one is protesting that we can't know who Nietzsche slept with and that to do so is erasing his life, precisely because the people inserted into the narrative to solve the gap in the syphilis theory are women, instead it's "yeah, this has some problems, but it's the best idea we've got" (well, I think we've moved on to "quite possibly not syphilis after all, but who knows").
posted by hoyland at 6:27 AM on March 7, 2015


Take Nietzsche as an example. I think we'd all feel comfortable saying Nietzsche was straight. It is/was presumed Nietzsche died of syphilis (though I guess this has come into question in the last few years). What wasn't clear was how he would have acquired syphilis. His diaries were thought to be sufficiently detailed that one ought to be able to account for his sexual partners, but all anyone could come up with was "slept with a prostitute and didn't write about it". We're really never going to know the cause of Nietzsche collapse and subsequent (ten years later) death. But no one is protesting that we can't know who Nietzsche slept with and that to do so is erasing his life, precisely because the people inserted into the narrative to solve the gap in the syphilis theory are women, instead it's "yeah, this has some problems, but it's the best idea we've got" (well, I think we've moved on to "quite possibly not syphilis after all, but who knows").

Except that a number of recent scholars have argued that Nietzsche's symptoms were almost certainly not a result of syphilis (brain cancer is a leading contender) and that the original hypothesis about tertiary syphilis was part of a deliberate smear campaign perpetrated by an enemy of Nietzsche's.

So rather than an example of how utterly unproblematic it is to make blithe assumptions about historical people's sexual actions and preferences you're giving us an example of precisely why we need to be very careful about exactly where the evidence actually leads us if we want to truly understand the past.
posted by yoink at 7:26 AM on March 7, 2015


You'll note that I said not once, but twice, that the syphilis theory has been discounted.
posted by hoyland at 9:50 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


You'll note that I said not once, but twice, that the syphilis theory has been discounted.

So you'll agree it's a really bad example, then, of how unproblematic it is to make assumptions about people's sex lives without evidence? What's your point?
posted by yoink at 3:10 PM on March 7, 2015


For some reason, talking about the sexuality of people before Stonewall seems to draw this kind of criticism in a way that talking about social networks, capital, technology, religion, or language does not.

No, it's just that you don't give a damn until it's your ox being gored. Take "religion" for example. I imagine you're familiar with those people who read, for example, the US Founding Fathers talking about the "Supreme Being" and so forth and claim that they were devout Christians who wanted to make religion central to the identity of the United States. Of course, a contemporary American citizen who spoke as much about "the Deity" as the Founding Fathers did would be a religious enthusiast. So they look at that behavior in a decontextualized way and say "gosh, those people sound kinda like me; obviously they held the same opinions that I do!"

Now, I'm reasonably confident that you can see the flaw in that position and that if you were seeing such a person interviewed on the TV, for example, you'd cheer along with a historian who tried to teach them about the changing historical understanding of the role of the Church, the nature of Christianity etc. etc.--who tried to explain the history of C18th Deism and its essentially rationalist view of the role of the "Supreme Being" and so forth. But of course, the Republican Bible Belt true believer viewing the show just thinks that the historian is a big meanie who hates religious people and is deliberately writing them out of history. You're simply holding the same "who cares about the historical evidence: I recognize in my gut that these people are my people" position as those types.
posted by yoink at 3:23 PM on March 7, 2015


So you'll agree it's a really bad example, then, of how unproblematic it is to make assumptions about people's sex lives without evidence? What's your point?

I wasn't asserting making assumptions about people's sex lives is unproblematic, nor do I necessarily think it is unproblematic. My point (which you seem to have missed entirely in a quest to say 'gotcha') was that we are perfectly willing to speculate about people's sex lives without this constant chorus of "well, we might be wrong and that would be unfair" if that speculation supposes the person in question is/was straight.
posted by hoyland at 3:32 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


The thing with that, yoink, is that you're comparing a religion--which is, on some level, chosen and has by definition its own history to work from--to sexual orientation and queerness, which is both not chosen and also has a distinct tendency to get erased from history. Right? Especially considering that Christianity is the dominant religion in many, many of the countries it has hold of, including both the US and many strong cultural contributions to the US. It is not precisely hard to track down Christian history. In fact, significant Christian history is usually taught in schools--think here of the Protestant Reformation.

On the other hand, queer history is trickier. It's generally glossed over and where it exists it is rarely taught unless you specifically go looking for it. This is true for both well documented cases and historical cases where the remaining "evidence" is more equivocal. And it's something that is hard to find for the people who want it, which compounds the desire to reach out and say "Oh. People like me have a place in history after all." Especially when "like me" is an experience of desire and of dislocation from mainstream desire, not a difference in religious philosophy.

Yoink, I am pretty sure from other conversations that you're a straight, cis man. If I'm wrong, I do apologize! But please do consider how a queer experience differs from a heterosexual one in this context with respect to discussing history, and please consider why you are getting hackles up. This isn't just about a desire to be "right" about the past, although that is an important part of the discussion. It's about a desire to honestly talk about the people of the past, and a desire to also see people who did not follow the heteronormative paths of their cultures equally discussed in history.
posted by sciatrix at 3:51 PM on March 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


[Comment removed, please let's avoid jumping to telling each other "fuck off", whatever else is going on.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 4:23 PM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


sciatrix: I think the same caveats apply to both religion and sexuality. But no serious historian of religion is going to say that Thomas Jefferson was a 21st century Evangelical or Unitarian Universalist either. They might use theories about religion that were developed after Durkheim (1897) to talk about how Jefferson's theology contributed to the development of 21st century American religion.

But yoink is largely concern trolling. He's stealing ideas that are fundamental to queer history and using them to attack a straw version of queer history.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:38 PM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


No, it's just that you don't give a damn until it's your ox being gored.

Drunkenly scribbling on a piece of newspaper and pinning it to a dartboard does not make it "my ox." If you can't engage in a good faith discussion with what you quoted, you probably shouldn't even try.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:48 PM on March 7, 2015


yoink: Trust your feelings and thoughts.

I don't think "assume other people are the same as yourself" is a good starting position regardless of whether you start from being straight or gay.
That's hardly a fair reading of Carol Anne's quote.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:37 PM on March 7, 2015


resurrexit: That's a pretty good article (and a good post title). Fair and covers all the issues. And I never tire of seeing this brought up:
What historians do know is during the Victorian era platonic love was in the air. It described a meeting of souls, not necessarily bodies, and was viewed as a pure kind of love that same-sex couples could enjoy. Men could share a Platonic love with men, and women with women. The intimacy in these relationships could be as deep as any heterosexual relationship, but they were not framed in terms of sex.
To me the death of Platonic love is the saddest casualty of the sexual revolution. These days there is no Fair Youth. These days, if you love someone, then you have sex with them.
What historians do know is ... horseshit, if they believe that some kind of "pure, platonic love of the souls" was common in the Victorian era, but no longer exists.

That's like claiming that Victorian people didn't sneeze, or we've sadly lost the ability to chuckle quietly since those older, more gentile days.

Also, "what historians know" is a really ridiculous statement. Historians know John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. They don't know anything about particular human feelings in a bygone era, although no doubt many of them have opinions about them. With much disagreement, far from being a consensus agreement, as "what historians know" implies.

Off to fuck my good friend Ben, because although I'm not attracted to penises one bit, I must sodomize those I care for.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:45 PM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anacreon (c. 582 – c. 485 BC) knew a Lesbian lesbian when he saw one and she ignored him.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:47 AM on March 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Partly because of this thread I'm reading In Bed with Gore Vidal, a book focussing on his sexuality. Vidal has always fascinated me for being such a public homosexual who explicitly rejected the label "gay" both for himself and in general. His famous line is "there are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts". I think he's wrong, possibly dangerously wrong in his time, but I also think he has a point and greatly respect his own desire to chart his own way in defining himself. Sadly the book itself is poorly written, very rambling, and since Vidal was so private it's somewhat lacking for source material. But it's entertaining for someone who is curious about Vidal and definitely sheds some light on a modern intellectual's personal take on sexual identity and historicity.
posted by Nelson at 7:58 AM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


thomas j wise: "Even earlier: the Ladies of Llangollen, who were celebrities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. And there's no doubt at all about Anne Lister."

Their house is quite neat.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:12 PM on March 13, 2015


The modern equivalent - Wikihow's "How to Start a Bromance"
posted by longbaugh at 3:06 AM on March 14, 2015


« Older "I wanted to make like a mini-movie."   |   Butt Bat Girl Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments