Gay Histories and Cultures

Gay Histories and Cultures

Gay Histories and Cultures

Gay Histories and Cultures


Bonnie Zimmerman and George E. Haggerty

The Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures in two volumes is the latest, and we hope the richest, in a long line of publications that attempt to open up for contemporary readers the complex history and wide cultural diversity of lesbian and gay life. Unlike earlier endeavors, however, which tended to limit the kinds of questions that could be asked about the past, these volumes try to avoid the stigma conventionally attached to “homosexuality” and look instead at examples of same-sex desire in different cultures at different times. They are the product of an age in which self-definition is challenged by cultural urgency of various kinds and when lesbian and gay concerns have moved out from the shadows into the bright light of national and international politics. What better moment to undo the misconceptions of the past and to reclaim the histories and cultures that have been denied us? In doing so, we hope to be seen not as appropriating the past but rather as making it available for all sorts of purposes, including but not limited to an increase in present-day awareness. Too often we have been told by others who we are or where we came from. It is time not just to claim our place in history and culture but also to negotiate with the histories and cultures to which we might most closely relate.


The study of homosexuality can be said to have begun in 1869, when a generation of medical doctors established the profession of sexology, the medical and supposedly scientific study of sex. Among its earliest objects of study was “inversion”-a term that signified a range of behaviors and attitudes that would later be classed under the term homosexuality. Inversion redefined same-sex desire as an aspect of human personality or essential being, not a sin-laden act against nature. Many of the most prominent figures of early sexology-such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis-described the invert, or homosexual, in excruciating and, from the perspective of today, stigmatizing or, as contemporary lesbian scholar Lillian Faderman put it, morbidifying, detail. A century later, the prominent French historian and theorist Michel Foucault would point to this construction of the modern homosexual as a signal moment in the history of sexuality.

Although homosexuality became known as “the love that dare not speak its name, ” in fact, even in the nineteenth century there were many names used for homosexuality: some, like bugger, sodomite, and tribade, referring to the specific sexual behaviors that men and women performed with members of their own gender, and others, like homosexual, invert, and Urning, referring to the identities that were being constructed around these behaviors. The shift from behavior to identity was also to have an unexpected impact: the beginnings of a political movement based upon that identity. Among the early generations of sexologists were several individuals who themselves identified as homosexuals and directed their scholarly activity toward both the elimination of prejudice and discrimination and the demand for equal human rights. These individuals-including Karl Maria Ulrichs, Edward Carpenter, Magnus Hirschfeld,


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