Love Stories: Sex between Men before Homosexuality, by Jonathan Ned Katz
Another milestone from the dean of gay history in North America.
Story blurb: In Love Stories, Jonathan Ned Katz presents stories of men’s intimacies with men during the nineteenth century—including those of Abraham Lincoln—drawing flesh-and-blood portraits of intimate friendships and the ways in which men struggled to name, define, and defend their sexual feelings for one another. In a world before “gay” and “straight” referred to sexuality, men like Walt Whitman and John Addington Symonds created new ways to name and conceive of their erotic relationships with other men. Katz, diving into history through diaries, letters, newspapers, and poems, offers us a clearer picture than ever before of how men navigated the uncharted territory of male-male desire.
Available in print format, only – 440 pgs.
About the author: Jonathan Ned Katz (born 1938) is an American historian of human sexuality who has focused on same-sex attraction and changes in the social organization of sexuality over time. His works focus on the idea, rooted in social constructionism, that the categories with which we describe and define human sexuality are historically and culturally specific, along with the social organization of sexual activity, desire, relationships, and sexual identities.
Katz received the Magnus Hirschfeld Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Sex Research from the German Society for Social-Scientific Sexuality Research in 1997. In 2003, he was given Yale University’s Brudner Prize, an annual honor recognizing scholarly contributions in the field of lesbian and gay studies. His papers are collected by the manuscript division of The Research Libraries of The New York Public Library. He received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle in 1995.
[See also my review of Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. by Johathan Katz.]
Review by Gerry Burnie
Over the centuries, Erotic love between men has had its ups and downs (no pun intended): From the socially-acceptable, Greco-Roman periods, to the reviled years under the predominantly Catholic-dominated-states of Europe; and from the relatively tolerated years following the Stonewall Raids in New York, and the Bathhouse Raids in Toronto, to the same-sex-marriage debates of today. We’ve come a long way, baby, but we’re not there yet.
In his superbly researched thesis, Love Stories: Sex between Men before Homosexuality, [University Of Chicago Press, June 15, 2003], Jonathan Ned Katz takes a look at one of these eras—the ultra-conservative, tradition-bound, 19th century.
The one constant throughout, of course, is that certain men are romantically drawn to one another in spite of all. Today, we call it being “gay” or “homosexual,” but having been around for less than a century these are relatively modern terms; therefore, what did the men of the 1800s call it, and how did this affect their attitudes towards themselves and others?
Katz attempts to answer these questions by delving into the letters, diaries, writings, etc. some 19th-century men left behind, and extracting such kernels of evidence as may be found.
He begins with the now famous (infamous?) friendship, and sleeping arrangements, of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Fry Speed. The story goes that Lincoln rode into town with two saddlebags, and inquired at Speed’s store where he might purchase a “single beadstead.” Speed replied that he had a large room and bed, and that Lincoln was quite welcome to share it with him. Thus, began a twenty-eight-year friendship that Speed later described as, “No two men were ever more intimate.”
The term he used was “intimate,” which was quite acceptable because love was considered separate from sex. Platonic love between men was seen as idyllic (and still is by many) while erotic sex was labelled “sodomy,” “mutual masturbation,” and/or “a crime against nature.” In fact, it wasn’t until Freud (1856 – 1939) that the a-sexual relationships and erotic sex were thought to be connected. Having been reconstructed, therefore, even Platonic love became suspect.
Not surprisingly, however, men went on loving one another regardless of what society thought, so how did they choose to call themselves? Walt Whitman and others tried to transform an illicit sex story into a romantic sex-love story, and adopted terms like “associate” and “partner” to describe the players.
The point being that labels do matter, both to the individual and to society.
Besides Lincoln and Walt Whitman, other personalities are: John Stafford Fiske, the U.S. consul to Scotland in 1870; famous British cross-dresser Ernest Boulton; noted Harvard mathematician James Millis Peirce, writer Charles Warren Stoddard, and English philosopher Edward Carpeter Katz. All of these men have one thing in common: they all indulged in a deeply loving and erotic relationship during the 19th century.
This is such a fascinating and educational book on many levels, and Katz is the undisputed dean of gay, historical studies in North America; therefore, it comes with my highest recommendation. Five bees.
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