Getting Our Gay History Straight

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 4, 2004 | Go to article overview

Getting Our Gay History Straight


Byline: KATHYRN HUGHES

Strangers: Homosexual Love In The 19th Century by Graham Robb Picador [pounds sterling]18.99 ([pounds sterling]15.19 - 0870 165 0870) (5/5)

The way homosexual love has been written up over the past few decades, you'd think no one was gay before the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895.

There was plenty of same-sex activity before then, historians argued, but this didn't add up to a recognition that an individual was homosexual per se.

It would take the fuss of the Wilde trials before doctors, journalists and even gay people themselves started to realise that being homosexual was about much more than a series of repeated sexual acts. Only at this point did homosexuality come to be viewed as a mindset, a way of life and, above all, a self-awareness that one's erotic desires and emotional longings were permanently directed towards people of one's own sex.

In this funny, scholarly and, above all, humane book, Graham Robb takes issue with this wonky chronology. Combing through novels, letters, police reports, diaries and doctors' notes, he shows gay men and women were well aware of themselves and their sexuality from the time of the French Revolution, and even before.

What's more - and this is quite a crucial point for Robb - many of them lived lives that were cheerfully fulfilled, vibrantly sexy and free from the sort of self-harming guilt that was a feature of so many reports of gay life in the early 20th Century, once doctors, psychoanalysts and sexologists got to work.

In fact, it is Robb's argument that homosexual love was, in some important ways, freer to flourish in the earlier years of Victoria than it was during the decades of Dr Freud.

The funniest bits of Strangers recount the ways that earnest doctors and other 'experts' tried to diagnose who was gay and who was not. …

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