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The Daily Agenda for Monday, January 14

Jim Burroway

January 14th, 2013

Addressing “A Horror of Everything Related to the Homosexual Tendency”: 1899. In 1897, British sexologist Havelock Ellis published the first installment of his six-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Volume 1 was subtitled Sexual Inversion, as homosexuality was more often called in the English language at that time. Two years later, his book was still making waves. In the January 1899 edition of the International Journal of Ethics, reviewer H. Sturt reviewed Ellis’s book, calling it “a solid and valuable contribution to psychology” and commending Ellis as “give(ing) the impression that he is a genuine scientific man doing his best to illustrate an obscure… province of human nature.” Sexual Inversion was revolutionary, being the first publicly-available scientific book in the English language to discuss homosexuality in a humane and nonjudgmental way. Ellis argued against the contemprary attitudes about homosexuality being abnormal, criminal, or immoral, and presented it instead as a variation in a broad spectrum of sexual expressions. Ellis concluded that it was useless to try to change sexual orientation, and he advocated for the abolishment of Britain’s anti-gay laws like the “gross indecency” law under which Oscar Wilde was prosecuted in 1895.

Most books about homosexuality at the turn of the century were severely restricted in their distribution in England. Sexual Inversion was first published in German in 1896 because Ellis feared it would be censored in England. Since several other books on sexuality had already been published there, German had become the lingua franca, so to speak, of sexuality research, so Ellis’s had a certain logic to it. Besides, when many of those German books were later translated into English, their carefully restricted  distribution to solely the professional trade in England typically went unchallenged by the authorities. And so Ellis followed that route as the first English edition was published in London in 1897, with its distribution similarly restricted.

The ploy didn’t work. George Bedborough, a London bookseller, arrested in 1898 and charged with selling obscene material. In court the book was described as being a “certain lewd, wicked, bawdy, scandalous libel.” The judge warned Bedborough, “So long as you do not touch this filthy work again with your hands and so long as you lead a respectable life, you will hear no more of this. But if you choose to go back to your evil ways, you will be brought up before me, and it will be my duty to send you to prison for a very long time.” Ellis withdrew Sexual Inversion from sale in England, and thereafter published his works only in the U.S. and Germany. Sturt, in his review of Sexual Inversion a year later, argued that this established a very bad precedent:

There are some who would raise the general question whether a subject like the present can fitly be made the matter of a published treatise. Many excellent persons have a horror of everything related to the homosexual tendency. Their feelings commands our respect, and yet it seems better to have the subject brought out publicly. That all sorts of immature and half-educated people should read Mr. Ellis’s book is, of course, most undesirable. But in view of the prevalence of sexual inversion it is necessary that every schoolmaster, every criminal lawyer, we had almost said every head of a family, should be acquainted with its phenomena. Were the subject better understood, mistakes would be avoided that have ruined thousands of lives.

[Source: Jonathan Ned Katz.  Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary (New York: Harper & Row, 1983): pp 296-297.]

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?



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