Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America

Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America

Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America

Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America

Synopsis

Although the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City symbolically mark the start of the gay rights movement, individuals came together long before the modern era to express their same-sex romantic and sexual attraction toward one another, and in a myriad of ways. Some reflected on their desires in quiet solitude, while others endured verbal, physical, and legal harassment for publicly expressing homosexual interest through words or actions.

Long Before Stonewall seeks to uncover the many iterations of same-sex desire in colonial America and the early Republic, as well as to expand the scope of how we define and recognize homosocial behavior. Thomas A. Foster has assembled a pathbreaking, interdisciplinary collection of original and classic essays that explore topics ranging from homoerotic imagery of black men to prison reform to the development of sexual orientations. This collection spans a regional and temporal breadth that stretches from the colonial Southwest to Quaker communities in New England. It also includes a challenge to commonly accepted understandings of the Native American berdache. Throughout, connections of race, class, status, and gender are emphasized, exposing the deep foundations on which modern sexual political movements and identities are built.

Excerpt

In mid-eighteenth-century Massachusetts, the engraving featured on the cover and on the facing page, published in the Boston Evening Post, depicted the Freemasons of Boston engaged in anal penetration with a wooden spike or treenail. Treenails were commonly used in ship-building in the eighteenth century and joined timbers by becoming engorged when wet. Thus, the very object being used for penetration was a multilayered phallic symbol. The image also included the figure of an “ass” (furthering the anal emphasis) that brayed “Trunnel him well, brother.” A poem accompanied the engraving and depicted the Masons as romantically and sexually interested in one another. It only added to the focus on the phallus (note that the word “trunnel” was highlighted with capital letters) and the posterior with the lines: “I'm sure our TRUNNELS look'd as clean / As if they ne're up A—se had been; / For when we use'em, we take care / To wash'em well, and give'em Air, / Then lock'em up in our own Chamber, / Ready to TRUNNEL the next Member.” Sodomy was, of course, still a capital crime in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, yet the story managed to muster humor about the act by calling on a cultural association of depraved and inferior manhood with same-sex sexual interest. That by the eighteenth century an all-male secret social club could raise the specter of homosexuality is significant. We might even speculate that the satirist was referencing molly houses of London, which were reported on in local newspapers.

Traditional scholars might argue that the engraving displays the scatological, not the sexual. But to draw too fine a line around the sexual limits our understanding of ways in which the erotic, romantic, intimate, repro-

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