Rare piece of queer history found with a simple Google search

milkboys Books & Magazines, History & People 11 Comments

Researchers at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University made the experience that sometimes a small treasure can be hidden in plain sight when a simple Google search led them to a rare document credited with helping to lay the foundation for the gay rights movement.

English writer John Addington Symonds (1840-1893)

Written in 1873 by English poet and historian John Addington Symonds, A Problem in Greek Ethics was an essay questioning why Western culture, which had modeled itself on that of classical Greece, did not embrace and accept homosexuality as the ancient Greeks had supposedly done. Fearing that a work promoting the morality of same-sex relations – which were deemed a criminal offense in 19th century England – might potentially lead to his imprisonment, Symonds had only 10 copies printed in an effort to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Of these, five had been thought to have survived, now in the collections of libraries in the UK and US.

According to the Baltimore Sun, that assumption was abruptly proven wrong when Gabrielle Dean, a curator at Johns Hopkins, was doing research for an upcoming exhibit called “Queer Connections: The Library of John Addington Symonds.”

“I was trying to verify the authenticity of Symonds’ handwriting by comparing the example we had to samples of his handwriting in other books,” she said. “I googled ‘John Addington Symonds’ handwriting’ and one of the hits was a brand-new listing for ‘A Problem in Greek Ethics’ from a rare book dealer.”

She shared the information with Shane Butler, director of the university’s Classics Research Lab, and the two obtained approval to purchase the book for an undisclosed price. Butler said, “I was blown away when Gabrielle showed me the listing… The odds of coming across something so incredibly rare are practically zero.”

Symonds was himself attracted to men, but like most gay men of his era lived a closeted life, with a wife and four children – though his sexual orientation was, at least late in his life, something of an “open secret.” While his name is mostly familiar today only with literary scholars, he was well-known in his time, counting such literary figures as Walt Whitman and Robert Louis Stevenson in his circle of acquaintances, and his writings in A Problem in Greek Ethics seem to have influenced Oscar Wilde in his defense while on trial for “gross indecency.”

Butler says, “Even if Symonds was forgotten after he died, his essay wasn’t. Pirated copies were passed hand to hand and read throughout the 20th century. The essay has been enormously influential in the struggle for gay rights.”

“There’s something sacred about a book like this,” he adds, “especially for queer students and gay faculty like myself. Just knowing that it’s there and being able to hold it and turn its pages is incredibly moving.”

Read more…

History Is Sexy: Queer gender expressions in the military

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Gender can be a complicated matter to deal with, both for an individual and the society they live in. In recent years historians began to unravel the complex relationships humans always had with sex, gender and social expectations.

Looking back it’s not always easy to tell the difference between diverse expressions of gender but it’s definitely an area that can be a lot of fun to explore. Emma and Janina from the History Is Sexy podcast take a closer look at the history of gender expressions in the military.

If you’re interested in the subject check out the two articles mentioned in the podcast: Monstrous Regiment on History Today and How Not To Erase Trans History on History Matters.

William Beckford: A queer hedonist

milkboys History & People 19 Comments

Few men attained greater celebrity during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than William Beckford (1760—1844), the wealthiest man in England.

With enormous wealth as his Aladdin’s lamp, he decided to make his Arabian dreams come true. By the time he died at the venerable age of 84, he had built the loftiest domestic residence in the world, had assembled a virtual harem of boys, had his own militia to protect his Fonthill estate of 6,000 acres, had written the first Oriental-Gothic horror novel in English literature, and had become the most scandalous connoisseur of hedonism in the modern world. His society bemusedly tolerated most eccentrics — even nouveau riche ones — but they chose to ostracize this remarkable personality, dubbing him “The Fool of Fonthill.”

Beckford’s father, twice Lord Mayor of London, was the richest man in England, with extensive holdings in the cloth industry, property, government bonds, and sugar plantations. As a result, Beckford received a brilliant education, and was widely learned in French, Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, philosophy, law, literature and physics by the age of 17.

His private piano teacher was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — at least that is the legend, too romantic to be discouraged. He was being brought up as an empire builder, but his father died when Beckford was only ten, leaving him with no political ambition, and a millionaire’s taste for pleasure

Read on…

When Florida had a committee to terrorise gay people

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Starting in the 1950s, a Florida state committee spent years stalking, intimidating, and outing hundreds of LGBTQ people. And they got away with it. Amid a national witch hunt for communists and an ascendant civil rights movement, a group of Florida politicians with a mission to preserve racial segregation in the state created a powerful group called the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee.

Commonly called the “Johns Committee” for the influential state senator Charley Johns who spearheaded it, the Committee went after civil rights activists by arguing they were backed by communists. But when those investigations failed, they turned to a new group to target: LGBTQ people. Today, over 50 years later, some Florida legislators are calling for the state to finally come to terms with this part of its history.

In the Vox series Missing Chapter, Ranjani Chakraborty revisits underreported and often overlooked moments from the past to give context to the present. Join her as she covers the histories that are often left out of our textbooks. Our first season tackles stories of racial injustice, political conflicts, even the hidden history of US medical experimentation.

Famous skeletons holding hands were male

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A pair of hand-holding skeletons–the so-called Lovers of Modena –in a burial site in Italy have been found to be male, according to researchers at the University of Bologna. The two bodies were discovered in 2009 and are believed to have been buried between the 4th and 6th century.

The sex of the skeletons could not be determined using genetic analysis at first but researchers developed a new technique using a protein found in tooth enamel and determined that both skeletons likely belonged to men, according to an article published in Scientific Reports.

This isn’t the first ancient grave site archaeologists have found with two people buried hand-in-hand; others have been found in Greece, Turkey, Romania, and Russia. But those were all male and female couples. And while researchers were confident enough about the couple’s relationship to name them the “Lovers of Modena” in 2009, discovering that they were both men has researchers confused.

“There are currently no other examples of this type,” Federico Lugli, the lead author of the study, told Rai News. “Many tombs have been found in the past with couples holding hands, but in all cases there was a man and a woman. What might have been the bond between the two individuals in the burial in Modena remains a mystery.”

Lugli said that it wasn’t common for men to be buried like this in this time period, but that their burial suggests a relationship of some sort. “In late antiquity it is unlikely that homosexual love could be recognised so clearly by the people who prepared the burial,” he said, suggesting that they may have been cousins or soldiers.

Yeah, about that…

Murray Hall: The politician who broke 19th Century gender rules

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He was a hard-drinking, twice-married businessman and politician in 19th Century New York – but Murray Hall had a secret which was only revealed after his death.

Murray Hall had a reputation for hard living – drinking, smoking, playing poker and even brawling with a policeman. He also had an active political career and a business as a bail bondsman.

So far, so ordinary for a man at the time. But one aspect of his life remained a secret until he died from cancer in 1901. That was when it first emerged that Hall had been assigned female at birth.

It was later reported that he had been born in Govan as Mary Anderson. According to a source quoted by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, he began dressing as a male in his teens, then fled to America when his first wife disclosed his gender to the police. It was there that he took the name Murray H Hall, before marrying for a second time and beginning his business and political career.

Writer and archivist Mel Reeve said there had been a “huge backlash” in the media after his death. “People were very angry and felt like they’d been betrayed, but obviously he was just living his life how he wanted to – which was as a man,” she said.

Newspapers reported breathlessly on the events in articles which reflected some of the attitudes of the times. The New York Times, for instance, accused him of “masquerading” in male attire. It said Hall had a reputation as “a ‘man about town’, a bon vivant, and all-around ‘good fellow’.”

One senator described how Hall used to “hobnob with the big guns of the County Democracy” and said that he “cut quite some figure as a politician”. He added: “He dressed like a man and talked like a very sensible one.”

Read on…

Bay Gays

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TV station ABC7news dug up an interesting piece of history allowing us a look at how gay people were portrayed in the media in the America of the 1970s. The documentary was made in 1976 and is called “Bay Gays.” It was shocking at the time, and opened up viewers to “the gayest city in the country.”

“The four part series starts before the rainbow flag was a a symbol for a united community. Before Harvey Milk was elected supervisor, before the White Night riots that followed his death, before HIV and AIDS devastated a community, before same-sex marriage was legal.” says ABC.