Preferred Citation: Craft, Christopher. Another Kind of Love: Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, 1850-1920. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.

Alias Sodomy

Before turning to the “discursive explosion” of nineteenth century sexuality and to the paradigm shift implicit in it, I want briefly to consider three eighteenth-century texts that bear directly upon the historical argument being made here. The first text, which presents a rather extensive analysis of the legal implications of a particular heterosexual sodomy case (Rex v. Wiseman, 1716), provides compelling confirmation of our assertion that sodomy derives from a gender-inspecific conceptualization of desire; the second and third texts, both phobic satires upon the burgeoning homosexual subculture of early eighteenth-century London, complicate our argument by indicating the ways in which social practices may outspeed discursive norms; by definition, the “preposterous” sidesteps the normative.[46] Indeed, the very appearance in the eighteenth century of an institutionalized gay male subculture, which has been definitively established by, among others, Alan Bray and Randolph Trumbach, itself suggests a cultural turn toward the articulation of a specifically homosexual identity.[47] Bray writes: “Alongside the old forms of society in which homosexuality had appeared new meanings were now being attached to homosexuality: it was more than a mere sexual act.”[48] Yet we must stress, if only in passing, that such individual and cultural recomposition, never an instant accomplishment, is rather the result of a variable revisionary process, a conflictual interchange among discourses, institutions, subcultures, and identities, an interchange in which the presumptively opposed functions of complicity and resistance are not always so easily distinguished. As Weeks, following Foucault, has correctly noted, methods of domination (moral, legal, medical) produced an “inevitable contradictory effect,” an enhanced awareness of the homosexual possibility, “and this in turn created the elements of resistance and self-definition that led to the growth of distinctive homosexual identities.”[49]

To return to the sodomy paradigm: on 16 March 1716 Richard Wiseman, “the master of a workhouse at Maidstone in Kent,” was tried and convicted at the assizes at Rochester under “an indictment for committing of sodomy, in ano, with a girl of eleven years of age,” one Jane Mills.[50] For our purposes, the interest of this case does not center, as it would today, on the girl’s age—the statutory age of sexual consent at the time was ten—but rather on her gender and its relation to the crime of sodomy. The importance of this case lies in its adjudication of the status of heterosexual sodomy; in the words of Justice Fortescue Aland, whose compilation of trial Reports provides the text I am using here, the question before the court was “whether it [i.e., anal intercourse between male and female] was buggery within the statute [25 Henry 8, 6] or not.” Despite Wiseman’s conviction, this question was sufficiently vexing to prompt a Mr. Justice Probyn temporarily to reprieve the prisoner “in order to have the opinion of all the Judges, on this offence”; the case was then referred to the King’s Bench Division at Westminster for further consideration. Fortescue Aland’s report describes these appellate deliberations:

The Judges met once or twice on this occasion, and the case was argued by them, and a few were of opinion that this was not express buggery within our law; though as Justice Fortescue A. remembered there was a great majority, that were of opinion it was plain buggery by our law; but yet, because two or three Judges held out there was no further meeting and consequently no unanimous opinion given.

But Justice Fortescue A. was exceeding sorry, that such a gross offence should escape without any punishment in England; when it is a crime punishable with death and burning at a stake, all over the world besides.

It being so horrid and great a crime, that no colour should be given to such an offence, Justice Fortescue A. wrote to the Earl of Macclesfield, then Chancellor of Great Britain, concerning this matter; and his answer was by way of letter, that he wondered at a variety of opinions; that he had not the least hesitation in agreeing it to be plain sodomy, that he could not think of one objection, to which he should be able to give the appearance of an argument; that it is a crime exactly of the same nature, as well as it is the same action, as if committed upon a male, the difference of the subject only makes it more inexcusable, and it is within the letter of the Act of Parliament, as well as within the meaning, that it seems little to the purpose to say, that possibly the law-makers might not think of this crime; whether they did or not, appears not; the words reach it, and the reason of the law reaches it; and when crime is forbid in general, it is not necessary that every species of it should be under consideration, unless such species should be less criminal.

From this remarkable passage we may deduce the following assertions. First, sodomy or buggery was a category of sufficient conceptual dubiety to produce a significant rift in legal interpretation, a dispute as to whether heterosexual anal intercourse counted as “express buggery within our law,” 25 Henry 8, 6, which did not specify “mankind with womankind” but did specify “womankind with brute beast.” Second, this interpretive dispute issued in a very anxious textual production (e.g., Fortescue Aland’s letters of inquiry to the earl of Macclesfield and other authorities not mentioned in this passage; the letters received in response to these letters; and, most important, the pages from Fortescue Aland’s Reports that we are reading here). Third, the final effect of this discursive production, despite the dissent of “two or three Judges,” was to secure the authority of the dominant interpretation (here represented by Fortescue Aland and the Earl of Macclesfield) that “the words reach it, and the reason of the law reaches it,” and that, therefore, the “majority of all Judges held it was sodomy both at the common and civil law.” Finally, it is thus clear that sodomy was an elastic category capable of subsuming a variety of “species,” whether or not those species were expressly enumerated or intended by the original “law-makers.”

So certain was Judge Fortescue Aland of the urgency and importance of his victorious interpretation that he contravened the conventional directive toward reticence (inter Christianos non nominandum) in order to extend his analysis across eight pages of his 1748 trial Reports—a remarkable volubility that prompted William Eden in his Principles of Penal Law (1771) to chastise Fortescue Aland for “a very indelicate profusion of learning on the subject.”[51] Out of this profusion of learning we need to isolate two aspects. First, Fortescue Aland’s delineation of the types or “species” of intercourse that may be subsumed under the generic term “sodomy”: “Sodomy is the genus, rem veneream habere in ano with a man is only a species and with a woman is another species, and so with a boy or girl, is another species, and with a beast another species.” Second, his direct assertion that heterosexual rather than homosexual sodomy constitutes the greater offense: “Besides the unnatural abuse of a woman, seems worse than either that of a man or a beast; for it seems a more direct affront to the Author of Nature, and a more insolent expression of contempt of His wisdom condemning the provision made by Him, and defying both it and Him.” When a woman and her “provision” (i.e., her vagina) are, as Fortescue Aland goes on to say, “at hand,” then the “affront” to “natural” copulation is, because more proximate, therefore more extreme. Why go the wrong road when the right road is right there? It is clear from these passages that Fortescue Aland’s desire to regulate “perverse” behaviors certainly includes, but equally certainly does not pivot upon, what we would call the homosexual difference; his central concern is not same-gender relations. If his moral valuations are the reverse of Bentham’s, his taxonomic logic is much the same—specific as to act, inspecific as to desire and gender: heterosexual sodomy “is a crime exactly of the same nature, as well as it is the same action as if committed upon a male.” Homosexuality is very clearly not the definitive object of Fortescue Aland’s disciplinary pursuit.

It is necessary now that we qualify, without relinquishing, our initial assertion that sodomy does not refer to same-gender sexuality but points rather toward a more generalized and inclusive notion of the perverse, the deviant, the unnatural. Our basic contradistinction between “sodomy” and “homosexuality” still stands but requires now a more precise historical shading, for the recent historiographical and bibliographical work in gay studies is making it increasingly clear that the language of sodomitical deviance was being employed in eighteenth-century London to identify and condemn a growing, or at least an increasingly visible, urban gay male subculture.[52] Although much remains to be learned about this subculture, this much at least seems clear: that its most prominent institutionalized form was the molly house, usually an inn or tavern (or a room in same) where male sodomites could congregate and copulate in relative safety; that the molly houses were sites of an extravagant and self-conscious transvestism that had, as we shall see, large implications for the semiotics of gender; that the molly houses were the focus of considerable discursive attention in the form of popular tracts and broadsheets; and that within the dominant culture this subculture articulated a sodomitical role self-consciously counterposed to the norm of marital conjugality.

“The late proceedings in our Courts of Law,” writes the anonymous author of the sensationalist pamphlet Hell Upon Earth: or, the Town in an Uproar (London, 1729), “have furnished us with ample Proofs that this Town abounds too plentifully with a sect of brutish Creatures called SODOMITES; a sect that ought to be excluded from all civil society and human conversation.”[53] Despite the recommendation for exclusion from “conversation” (itself an ambiguous term), this passage continues at some length:

They exceed the worst Beasts of the Field in the Filthiness of their Abominations. The Birds of the Air couple Male and Female to propagate Generation, and every Animal moves by a natural Instinct; but Man, exclusive of all others, forms Ideas destructive to himself, and grows fond of new Inventions which are repugnant to divine Institution and the fundamental Laws of Nature; he is grown hardened in Iniquity, having abandon’d himself to all manner of Vice, and is not ashamed to act Crimes which expose him to the severity of the Laws and the Contempt of the World.…The greatest Criminal has some People that may drop some pitying Expressions for his unhappy and untimely Fate and condole his dismal Circumstances; while those Persons who fall by the Laws for Sodomy, can expect neither Pity or Compassion. It would be a pretty Scene to behold them in their Clubs and Cabals.

This passage does double duty: it registers a certain disjunction between discursive and social practices, and it helps us trace the elusive historical transition between the sodomy and homosexuality paradigms. Indeed, the passage may be said to straddle the difference between those paradigms. The passage derives its lexicon of deviance (“brutish Creatures,” “hardened in Iniquity,” “all manner of Vice”) from an available sodomy discourse, and yet it deploys that language to describe social practices and institutions—those of a newly established gay male subculture—for which the conceptual apparatus of the older paradigm would prove inadequate. Surely, the eighteenth-century “sect” of sodomites with “their Clubs and Cabals” adumbrates, without fully realizing, the modern notion of homosexual identity. Here we witness, from an alienated and phobic perspective, early social traces of that process of identity formation; as Bray writes, “There was now a continuing culture to be fixed on and an extension of the area in which homosexuality could be expressed and therefore recognized; clothes, gestures, language, particular buildings and particular public places—all could be identified as having specifically homosexual connotations.”[54] It must have been the presence within the dominant culture of just such a continuing subculture that in part led the nineteenth century to articulate the concept and the language of homosexuality.

Although the existence of a sodomitical subculture in eighteenth-century London is now beyond question, the details of its operations and practices are rather more obscure. Furthermore, extant knowledge of this subculture has been largely derived from trial reports and popular satires, that is, from discursive sources that stand in a self-consciously alienated relation to the practices they describe. The following text, extracted from Edward Ward’s The Secret History of London Clubs (London, 1709), provides one such account of life inside a molly house; if, as seems likely, the passage consists of a cross-coupling of reportorial fact and cultural fantasia, it nonetheless provides a contemporaneous instance of how the subculture was represented in popular discourse. Ward imagines a “pretty scene” in which we “behold them in their Clubs and Cabals”:

There are a particular Gang of Sodomitical Wretches, in this Town, who call themselves the Mollies, and are so far degenerated from all masculine Deportment; or manly Exercises, that they rather fancy themselves Women, imitating all the little Vanities that Custom has reconcil’d to the Female Sex, affecting to Speak, Walk, Tattle, Curtsy, Cry, Scold, and to mimick all Manner of Effeminacy, that ever has fallen within their several Observations; not omitting the Indecencies of lewd Women, that they may tempt one another by such immodest Freedoms to commit those odious Bestialities, that ought for ever to be without a Name. At a certain Tavern in the City, whose Sign I shall not mention, because I am unwilling to fix an Odium upon the House; where they have settl’d a constant Meeting every Evening in the Week, that they may have the better Opportunity of drawing unwary Youth into the like Corruption. When they are met together, it is their usual Practice to mimick a Female Gossiping, and fall into all the impertinent Tittle Tattle, that a merry Society of good Wives can be subject to, when they have laid aside their Modesty for the Delights of the Bottle. Not long since, upon one of their Festival Nights, they had cusheon’d up the Belly of one of their Sodomitical Brethren, or rather Sisters, as they commonly call’d themselves, disguising him in a Womans Night-Gown, Sarsnet-Hood, and Nightrale, who, when the Company were met, was to mimick the wry Faces of a groaning Woman, to be deliver’d of a joynted Babie they had provided for that Purpose, and to undergo all the Formalities of Lying in. The Wooden Off-Spring to be afterwards Christen’d, and the holy Sacrament of Baptism to be impudently Prophan’d, for the Diversion of the Profligates, who, when their infamous Society were assembl’d in a Body, put their wicked Contrivance accordingly into practice.

The critical interest of this passage lies in the way it conjoins counterconventional sexual practice to a language of hyperconscious mimesis; for in doing so it implicitly figures “deviant” sexuality, at least in this eighteenth-century English context, as a necessarily belated mode of gender parody, as a farcical and dangerous troping upon established gender codes. Here we have a parody of a parody, parody in the second degree, as Ward defensively travesties what is in fact already a travesty: the sodomite’s improvisational transvestite theater, complete with costumes, props, and predictable narrative—a theater, not incidentally, that found itself on a metaphor of gender reversal that anticipates, with important differences, the nineteenth century’s biological and psychological figurations of sexual inversion. As we will see in some detail, the medicalizing discourses of the nineteenth century worked to inscribe the inversion metaphor as a deep structure indistinguishable from the constitution of individual being, as a radical biological or psychological truth whose effects radiated from the center of being outward toward the peripheries of behavior. But here gender reversal has about it the relative ease of a costume change. To the degree that this passage represents gender less as a given of nature than as a product of “Deportment” or cultural “Exercise,” it identifies masculinity and femininity as the subjective effects of a cultural inscription whose anatomical loci may be preposterously reversed, so that these biological males, farcically “imitating all the little Vanities that Custom has reconcil’d to the Female Sex,” may “rather fancy themselves Women.” As the lexical and scenic emphases upon imitation and mimicry make clear, the presumptive perversion travestied in this passage is neither sexual inversion nor homosexuality in the modern sense; it is rather a radical, and radically equivocal, mode of gender stylization and performance—a matter, in Ward’s lexicon, of extravagant sexual “Manners.” And of course, as Ward is correct to note, the aggressive, revisionist intention of the mollies’ closet theater is “impudently” to “Prophane” the dominant heterosexual and procreative ideology that drove these men to the protective confines of this theatrical space, this site of “deviant” representation in which “the subculture could pose its meanings and practices over/against the larger culture.”[55]

Alias Sodomy

Preferred Citation: Craft, Christopher. Another Kind of Love: Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, 1850-1920. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.