Can't Pee Straight

Graham Robb uncovers the many mysteries of being gay in the 19th century

Graham Robb
Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century
W.W. Norton

In France they were known as chestnut gatherers; Brits called them lavender aunts. The names evoke a quieter, saucier time, when the diluted champagne flowed and gay men and women could live relatively free from harassment. And yet the law tells a different story. Gays in the 19th century were living under a death sentence. Sodomy was punishable by death in England until 1861. Forty-six people were executed for the crime in England alone between 1810 and 1835.

In his provocative new book, Strangers, Graham Robb argues that persecution was the exception and that homosexual life in Europe was, if not thriving, vibrant. To build this case, Robb combs through criminal records, letters, diaries, newspapers, and libraries of literature to find a "vanished civilization," Wildean before Wilde was a star. In doing so, he takes on French philosopher Michel Foucault, who theorized that until Victorian doctors came up with the category of homosexual, no one identified him- or herself as such.

Strangers builds its case slowly, and the first half of the book nearly refutes Robb's thesis. While Robb credits doctors with giving gays a sense of community, a place to tell their stories, their diagnoses didn't represent a banner achievement of science. Many physicians believed men and women could masturbate themselves into "sexual inversion," as it was then called. The criteria for identifying gays seem even more haphazard. For some reason, the ability to urinate in a straight line was a telltale sign. One doctor devised a rather ingenious test. "Throw an object at the lap of a sitting homosexual," said the Berlin doctor Magnus Hirschfeld in 1913, "and he will automatically open his legs to catch it."

And as long as homosexuality was a condition, there could be a cure. Thus, the homosexual became a "walking laboratory." There were mild treatments, such as a New York doctor's prescription of "cold baths with outdoor exercise and the study of mathematics." Others prescribed going to prostitutes. When Oscar Wilde left prison, a friend convinced him to visit one to develop more "wholesome tastes." He emerged rather unconvinced. "It was like chewing cold mutton!" he muttered.

And yet Robb asserts that there were places in Europe where gay life was actively lived, and gay men and women could meet each other: There were the docks in Barcelona, the Champs-Elysées in Paris, Broadway and Central Park in New York, and almost anywhere in Naples. In big cities, encoding behavior was not just a necessity, but a sport as well. "Visiting cards with photo-portraits were exchanged like cigarette cards," Robb writes (an activity that was apparently the Friendster of its day). And the selectivity and secret quality of this life bred a closeness that made the world seem small. There was even the Gay Grand Tour, which stretched from London to Amsterdam, Paris, and Berneval, anticipating the party circuits of the 21st century.

One obvious flaw of Strangers is that it focuses almost exclusively on society's upper echelons, a problem Robb attributes to historical record. It is also unfortunate that Strangers is tilted more toward gay male life than lesbian life. To read Strangers, then, is to hear a lot about people like Tchaikovsky, André Gide, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and John Maynard Keyes, men of privileged intellect or station--sometimes both--who had access to a large network of people.

One could hardly pick a better literary sleuth to peek into these lives, though. Robb's previous biographies of Rimbaud, Hugo, and Balzac were notable for their combination of research and page-turning prose. By comparison, Strangers is a starchier read--one so meticulous that a reader might want to draw an outline while perusing, so as to better keep track of Robb's argument.

Often enough, however, Robb digs up some juicy tidbit that makes this book worth its taking-your-medicine tone. In the later sections, as he delves into the lives of one figure after another, Robb turns up a diary by Walt Whitman, in which the great bard recorded his nightly conquests. "Saturday night Mike Ellis," Whitman wrote, "wandering at the corner of Lexington av. & 32nd st.--took him home to 150 37th street,--4th story back room--bitter cold night."

With its graphs and appendixes, its 20-some pages of sources cited, Strangers will satisfy scholars. It is details like Whitman's booty book, however, where the message borne out by the statistics becomes clear: Gay life was alive and well in the 19th century. A barbaric yawp of celebration might be in order.

 
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