The History of Homosexuality

Throughout history, homosexuality has always been a topic which has attracted much discrimination, contributing massively to the construction of their presence in society. Factors such as religion and culture were continually the main force against the ‘unnatural’ sexual orientation, passionately opposing the LGB community with little knowledge to recognise exactly why people led these ‘alternative’ lives.

Jeffery Weeks chapter ‘The History of Homosexality’ in his book ‘Sex, Politics and Society- The regulation of sexuality since 1800’ explores the transformation of attitude towards sexuality that has taken place in England over the last 200 years. It is important to briefly review the history of sexuality in and the role of homosexuality, to present an understanding of why I have decided to revolve my project around a topic which consists heavily of sexual representations. By exploring the key historical events regarding the common perspective of LBG people, allows me to acquire knowledge such as: the foundations of the negative representations, why society thought in this specific way and how progressively over time the LGB identity has become more accepted by the public.

Weeks earliest account of sexual discrimination to homosexuals was recorded in 1533 under the reign of Henry VIII, the law demanding a death sentence for ‘Abominable Vice of Buggary'(Weeks:1981). This was the first law of Sodomy, which translated as the death to anyone who participate in any unnatural sexual act against the will of God and man. Clearly this was devised long before the studies of sexuality were researched, showing that at the time their was not even a thought or inking that homosexuality could be a possibility of a ‘type’ of person, but instead creating a criminal offence for the ‘type’ of person who disrespect Gods orders. It was presumed that Sodomy was a potential in all sensual creatures instead of a sexual orientation, and those who decided to act upon these ‘immoral’ behaviours were the ‘real’ criminals. This law was only lifted in 1861, followed by a reformed sentence of life, instead.
Even the most advanced philosophers at the time such as Jeremy Bentham believed that ‘sodomites’ and ‘bisexuals’ were capable of marriage. The prospect of a man having a sexual orientation separate from the ‘instinctive’ pro-creational purpose was not certainly not welcomed or explained, furthermore the knowledge to validate why was extremely underdeveloped, which opened room for many irrational conceptualisations.

The theorisation of Sex

Research recorded in 1813 in Robert Holloways ‘The Pheonix of the Sodom’ found that males who prostituted themselves were usually ‘not effeminate men, but coalmerchants, police runners, drummers, waiters, servants and a grocer’ (Holloway:1813, 13). This proved from an early stage that the association of homosexual behaviour was not routed from the feminine mind implanted in a male body- a concept theorised by german lawyer Karl Urlrich who believed ‘sodomy’ was answerable to an embryo malfunction during pregnancy. During the latter of the 19th Century the new theory of the ‘Medicalisation of sexuality’ switched the focus from homosexual behaviour as an act of sin, to a symptom of an illness. The shift to pathology and psychiatry welcomed many advanced ideologies. The emergence of theories such as Karl Westphal’s description as ‘congeintal reversal of sexual feelings’ or ‘moral insanity’ following the idea of Sexual Deviation- sexual deviants by trying to brainwash homosexuals out of their sexual orientation. Thus to ‘solve’ problems of sexual variation, many traumatic experiences such as week fathers, overpowering mothers and gender confusion were used as ‘symptoms’ to sexual preference. The characteristics of ‘sexual deviants’ were defined as the social ‘problemed group’. However the more liberal Havelock Ellis’ agreed it was in-born, ‘natural anomaly’ (Weeks:1981)  therefore not a disease or to be viewed upon as immoral; becoming one of the leading most applicable concepts to the difference of sexual orientation. On the other hand, Freud believed sexual orientation was a result of social constructs, arguing that sexuality was not a ‘pre-given essence but a drive constructed in process of the development of human animals’ (Weeks:2001). Freud’s theory was based on cultural civilisation, repression and accumulation of experiences throughout childhood. In the middle of the spectrum lay William Mcdougall’s primarily ‘naturalist’ view of the instinct of reproduction as a desire for offspring, arguing that heterosexual activity is only engaged in for this purpose. However, Mcdougall concluded that if these natural instincts were to fail, that social and cultural factors must be the influence ‘weakening the natural sexual force’ (Weeks:1981). Although this approach initially seems undeveloped due to the argument that sexual activity is solely for reproduction, it adopts both Freud’s and Ellis’ theories, it suggest that sexual orientation is an independent variable.

Whilst these studies were underway, in the wider context it evoked the studies of sexuality in general, rather than just homosexuality. A new social group were introduced who were now part of speculation and observation. Yet, throughout the entire (brief) history I have researched and examined, very little information appeared about homosexual women, focusing almost completely on behaviour of men. Lesbianism as a crime never managed gain any attention from the House of Parliament, although one specific attempt in 1921 to criminalise provoked Lord Dessar to comment on the subject which had previously been kept away from public interest. Lesbianism was seen as a threat to the stability of society, as Dessar worried it would draw attention to an ‘act which no women had cared of thought about before’ (Weeks:1981) therefore promoting it. Not only does this present the inequality between homosexual men and women’s place within the same group, but also showing the long standing battle gay men have faced generally in society, inside and outside their ‘social group’. Ellis vaguely touched on theories concerning lesbianism, specifically by comparning males sexual initiative to lesbian sexual desires. Thus implying that they were masculine women, purely down to their sexual urges. This could be seen as one of the earliest accounts behind the stereotype of lesbians adopting a more male appearance or what now is called ‘Butch’.

This book has great value to the broadening of my understanding of LGB people as part of our society, informing me about the history and culture which has essentially shaped the way in which they are represented now. The information I have gathered will be extremely beneficial towards the drafting of the question I intend to ask my interviewees. As I am on the search for derogatory terms used in the media to address LGB people, this reading has expanded my knowledge and awareness of historic terms, events and landmarks which I can look out for in modern day media, which may have significance to the people I interview. Therefore I can build my questions around historic matters which may also be relevant today.


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