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The Daily Agenda for Sunday, February 10

Jim Burroway

February 10th, 2013

TODAY’S AGENDA:
Events This Weekend: Cologne Street Carnival, Cologne, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, LA; Germany; Sydney Mardis Gras, Sydney, NSW; Sitges Carnival, Sitges, Spain; GayWhistler Winter Pride, Whistler, BC.

Post cards by J.C. Leyendecker, 1900.

THIS MONTH IN HISTORY:
A New Homosexual Trait?: 1920. That’s the question that Dr. Walter Courtenay Rivers sought to explore in the February, 1920 issue of Medical Review of Reviews:

A sexuological brochure published in 1913 brought me some correspondence both home and foreign. Among the writers of these letters was an English public school ‘coach,’ whom later I met. I then found that altho he had written he was glad my book had appeared, he was an invert himself; not only that, but a member of a homosexual coterie; and besides, one who physically indulged his abnormality. Upon which I felt that his acquaintance and correspondence were too potentially compromising for my as yet extremely slight scientific name. I asked him to send his ‘case’ to Dr HAVELOCK ELLIS (to whom I wrote about him also), and declined further communication with regret, for of course clinical experience is the only road to discovery. However, one clue I did get. He kept a large cat of which he seemed very fond, and he remarked that many of his friends had the same taste in pets.

The “brochure” that Rivers mentioned was a booklet published in 1913, titled Walt Whitman’s Anomaly, which explores exactly what its title implied: that Walt Whitman was a sexual invert or, in the still-newfangled terminology of the medical literature, a homosexual. Rivers was undoubtedly surprised by his “coach’s” interest in the book, as its sale was “restricted to members of the legal and medical professions. This was quite common at a time when anything which might be remotely construed as non-condemning of the “abominable vice” was routinely banned as obscene. Havelock Ellis’s early works were not immune from such official attentions (see Feb 2). And so Rivers’s nervousness over merely maintaining a correspondence with an invert was neither out of the ordinary nor out of line.

And yet, Rivers’s articles and writings were among a growing body of literature which was just beginning to  try to figure out who these homosexuals were that they kept encountering. Given how little was really known about gay people, coupled with reluctance of the overwhelming majority of gay people to make themselves known, every tiny clue took in a huge significance. Including cats.

Since [Magnus] HIRSCHFELD’S (see  May 14) exhaustive work does not mention such a trait, the matter seemed worth inquiry, and it is attacked here in the following way: First I have taken HIRSCFIELD’S list of eminent men who were of inverted disposition, and looked for record of their affection’ for cats as pets; secondly I have taken eminent persons who are stated to have been cat lovers, and looked for evidence of inversion in them.

Rivers encountered several difficulties in the first approach; Hirschfeld’s list went back into antiquity; Hirschfeld didn’t see pet ownership as an important detail to record, some names on Hirshfeld’s list weren’t prominent enough for such details to survive. But Rivers did find four worth mentioning: the 18th-century art historian and Member of Parliament Horace Walpole, the English poet Edward Fitzgerald, the French poet Charles Baudelaire, and the English essayist Walter Pater, for whom Rivers provided the following evidence of homosexuality:

The evidence of PATER’S inverted disposition might first be briefly given. He never smoked and never married; he was entirely averse to outdoor games altho not physically weak; he wore always a green tie; his works show passim a special sensibility to young male beauty.

But about their cats:

Four out of thirty-one is a proportion of one in eight. Is one out of every eight men, or, for the matter of that, one out  of every eight distinguished men, devoted to cats? I imagine most people would say no. Some men, and particularly distinguished men, have notoriously a horror of them. These four, by the way, were all writers, and HAVELOCK ELLIS states that inversion is particularly frequent amongst authors. They were also pretty exclusively homosexual; there is no evidence of a bisexual disposition

Rivers then compiled his list of known cat-lovers in history “taking only those who have been dead some time” — undoubtedly to avoid impugning the reputation of a living person and opening himself up to charges of libel. Rivers then lists them:

Pope GREGORY the GREAT, HOKUSAI, TASSO, A. DE MUSSET, PAUL DE KOCK, PETRARCH, COWPER, WORDSWORTH, LISTON the SURGEON, RICHELIEU, CIIATEAUBRIAND, T. GAUTIER, DR. JOHNSON, SIR WALTER SCOTT, DUMAS the ELDER, SHELLEY, JEREMY BENTHAM.

Of how many of these may inversion be deemed a likely characteristic?

The quest now is much more difficult. To begin with, of none can we expect the trait looked for to be recorded outright. It will be a matter of inferring its presence from other, and commonly associated, characteristics, such as friendship enthusiasm, feminine tastes, aversion to women, physical stigmata of degeneration, and so forth; while even these may easily escape biographical mention. Again, bisexuality, physical attraction to men and women both, may mask inversion. Perhaps for these reasons, none of these cat lovers figure in HIRSCHFELD’S list of eminent inverts already spoken of.

You will notice Rivers’s referring to “physical stigmata of degeneration,” a reference to degeneracy theory that I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these historical notes (see, for example, Sept 3Jan 25Feb 7). It was a medical axiom in those days that homosexuality, along with many other physical and mental ailments, were the result of evolution gone wrong. Before the industrial era, natural selection meant that the fittest survived. But modern society was now allowing all sorts of lesser-fit people to survive and breed, resulting in a kind of reversal of evolution — they called it “de-generation” — in which mankind was de-evolving or “degenerating” to a more primitive, less advanced state. The theory further held that degeneracy was not only imprinted on the brain, but  the “physical stigmata” or signs of the degeneracy could also be found on the body as well, whether it was a physical abnormality, or the shape of the head, the cut of the brow, the width of the nose — you can see racially where this went, can’t you?

At any rate, River’s struck two from his list immediately as not being gay, and concluded that only three were definitely gay. Three of seventeen now brings the ratio to somewhere closer to one in five. Clearly, he thought, he was onto something. But why cats?

And there is something else relevant to cats which is also relevant to our subject, and that is the close association in the human mind of cats with femininity. One always associates cats with the woman’s world, and of course male inverts are very often of feminine tastes. The former proposition seems the truer and profounder the more one tests it…

A good many readers, perhaps, will agree that fondness for cats does, on the whole, seem entitled to a place among male homosexual characteristics. If it be, then the reason is that it is a woman’s taste. My subject aforesaid, the public school coach, had his cat beside him when pouring out tea; which he did, if not, like COMPTON MACKENZIE’S inverted author WILMOT dispensing similar hospitality. See Sinister Street Vol 1. ‘with a myriad mincing gestures,’ still with quite unmasculine competence, gusto and deliberation; he sucked sweets, smoked only cigarettes. Indeed the tale of male homosexual traits has probably not yet been given anywhere with anything like completeness. For the heart of the inverted man seems always reaching out after something womanish in order to adopt it; or else recoiling from something that reminds him he is bodily a man. Of that unfortunate being it might almost be said:

Femina est: nihil feminitatis a se alienum putat.

I think we can conduct a survey that is as scientific as anything Rivers accomplished. I’m generally a cat person myself — I like their independence — but we have two lovable dogs in the Burroway household: Twister, a bossy Beagle mix, and Buster, a purebred feral dog who looks exactly like the wild dogs seen on the nearby Indian reservation. What about you?

[Source: W.C. Rivers. “A new male homosexual trait?” Medical Review of Reviews 26, no. 2 (February 1920): 55-60. Available online via Google Books here.]

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?

Comments

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Eric
February 10th, 2013 | LINK

I have owned cats in the past, but I definitely consider myself a dog person. My first dog, a beautiful Dalmatian, lived to be 16 years old. My current companion, a 5 yr old Weimaraner, is asleep on my feet as I type this.

Steve
February 10th, 2013 | LINK

Anecdotally, I have noticed that a lot of lesbian couples seem to own dogs…

Tom Mc
February 10th, 2013 | LINK

I believe “Femina est: nihil feminitatis a se alienum putat” should read “Femina est: nihil feminATIS a se alienum putat”. That said, fascinating, and well-written, article.

Bill Herrmann
February 10th, 2013 | LINK

We are neither dog nor cat owners and can’t really understand the impulse to do that.

Timothy Kincaid
February 10th, 2013 | LINK

Ay, Dios meow

Priya Lynn
February 10th, 2013 | LINK

I love cats but my husband says I can’t have one. He says cats are a farm animal, their job is to keep the vermin down, not to be pets and he hates them. He’s a dog lover, I like a friendly dog but most of them are pretty aggressive and the barking drives me nuts as well they are just too much work with not using a litter box and needing exercise and what-not. Wanna go ride bikes?

Pacal
February 10th, 2013 | LINK

I’m definitely a dog person. although I do find cats especially kittens to be adorable. When I was growing up I had a terrier, lab and something else we could never figure out mutt. She was the sweetest, gentlest of animals. Not a mean or angry bone in her body. She loved virtually everybody. She lived 16 years. I still miss her.

Hyhybt
February 10th, 2013 | LINK

Dogs are pretty good; cats are better. Mine are friendly, and always glad to see me come home, but are also fine by themselves as long as there’s food, water, and a cat door.

Andrew
February 12th, 2013 | LINK

I’ve had cats, but prefer them practically feral – I had a tough rescue cat as a kid (he used to take on the neighborhood dogs and was seen “riding” a couple of them down the street, claws-in)… My partner and I are both definitely dog people (like my mother-in-law was) and own a pit-bull mix.

Interestingly, my brother (whom a lot of people always thought was gay) – and his wife – have 2 cats they keep in their house… and have taken on caring for all the neighborhood strays. So maybe it’s got to do with being in touch with your feminine side after all… but maybe not with your sexual orientation.

Those are, after all, different things.

Priya Lynn
February 12th, 2013 | LINK

Maybe you’re right Andrew.

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