The Daily Agenda for Sunday, February 2
February 2nd, 2014
TODAY’S AGENDA is brought to you by:
Selling books on sexuality, particularly where minority sexuality was concerned, was always fraught with peril. If a book became too popular, its popularity might bring it to the attention of local and national censorious authorities, whether it be the local vice squad, an ambitious district attorney or the Post Office. Many publishers tried to inoculate themselves against charges of peddling obscenity by placing notices on the title pages of their publications that the sale of the book was restricted to the medical or legal professions, regardless of whether the book itself had any medical or legal value whatsoever. But those messages also meant that the typical popular bookseller wouldn’t bother to stock these books. So with the opening of the first gay bookstore still several years away (see Nov 24), mail order from “medical book departments” was perhaps the most reliable way of obtaining such hard to find titles. This ad, appearing as it does in the nation’s first nationally distributed gay magazine, has all of the winks and nods needed to pass muster with the authorities while still getting its message across to “the serious reader.”
THIS MONTH IN HISTORY:
130 YEARS AGO: Why Should It Be a Crime To Dress As You Please?: 1884. The following letter to the editor appeared in the February 1884 edition of the journal Alienist and Neurologist (an alienist is an archaic term for a psychiatrist). The letter was notable for two reasons. Nearly all letters to the editor were routinely signed, but this one is kept anonymous. And it is also a very rare early example of an American writer, apparently a professional, asking whether those who don’t conform to the rigid gender roles of the day should be left alone (or at least relatively alone) and not treated as a criminal:
MR. EDITOR: — Will you kindly permit me to say a few words about Sexual Perversion, in reply to Dr. Rice’s paper. The latter says that it has but little forensic interest in this country, and I beg to differ with him. In the first place, it is quite generally admitted that lunatics and maniacs are not responsible, and irresponsible people are not to be punished for a thing that they cannot help doing.
When a man dons female attire, or vice versa, he either has an object or he has none. If he has an object, it may be good, bad or indifferent. If it is to conceal past crime, or as an aid to future crime, it is bad, and deserves punishment. If he seeks the disguise to enable him to ferret out a crime, the object is praiseworthy, — detectives are allowed it. In the third case, it must be said that the sole object is pleasure or satisfaction of some sort. Crime may be a pleasure to some, but if we exclude all evil intent, is it not harmless? Another case that resembles, sometimes one and sometimes another of the above, is when it is done for a livelihood; women give this as an excuse, a plea to be allowed men’s dress; men rarely.
Quite a large number of cases are occurring in all large cities, of persons arrested for dressing like the opposite sex. But few are criminals; many are highly respectable and honorable. Should they be punished as criminals? If the object is good, No! If bad, Yes! If neither, what then?
It is self-evident that no sane man will take the pains and go to the expense of obtaining a full set of female attire, and persist in the practice of wearing it until he becomes expert in its uses, initiating himself into all the mysteries of a lady’s toilet, submitting voluntarily to the tortures of tight corsets and high-heeled boots and false hair, hoops, pull-backs and frizzes, unless impelled thereto by some motive stronger than mere mischief. There can be no doubt in my mind that such a miserable being deserves pity rather than punishment. There have been several arrests in this city within five or six years for wearing female attire, and I believe nearly all the victims belonged to that innocent class, since no other object or purpose was ever proved against them.
Why should it be a crime, to dress as you please? The dress itself inflicts punishment enough on its wearer. No one but the wearer is injured, nor need others be any the wiser for it. Certain it is that many of these poor people have suffered severe punishment at the hands of our judges, and with no one bold enough to defend them.
Is it not sad enough that they must suffer daily between two fires — love of this dress, and fear of punishment, which they have known to be swift and certain? Would the world be any the worse for allowing them this little modicum of comfort, the only pleasure they have in life, under proper restrictions? What these restrictions should be I am not prepared to say. Perhaps an asylum or retreat might be provided, where they could resort when these paroxysms came on, and there enjoy (?) in seclusion from the public eye, where the law could not reach them, such indulgences as might be deemed proper, or compelled to follow these practices until they were thoroughly cured of such desires. I know of one case, at least, that would be benefited, perhaps cured, by suitable treatment of this sort. I should be glad to hear the opinion of those of greater experience than myself.
[Source: E.J.H. (Anonymous) “Correspondence.” Alienist and Neurologist 5 no. 2 (February 1884): 351-352. All italics and parentheticals in the original.]
155 YEARS AGO: Havelock Ellis: 1859-1939.When it came time to choose a career, he chose an unorthodox one for a Victorian Englishman: that of a sexologist. To prepare, he studied to be a physician, since medical science was considered to be essential in understanding all matters sexual. Then he joined the Fellowship of the New Life, a social group influenced by Emerson and Thoreau, where he met Edward Carpenter (see Aug 29), whose unabashed homosexuality must surely have been a great influence on him. Another influence: his wife, women’s rights activist Edith Lees, who was openly lesbian, and who insisted on an open marriage, an arrangement to which he readily agreed although he himself was impotent until the age of 60.
When in 1896 he co-authored (with JohnAddington Symonds, see Oct 5) the first installment of his six-volume Studies on the Psychology of Sex, that volume, titled Sexual Inversion go on to become the first English medical textbook on homosexuality. But first, he published it in German, and then translated it into English in 1897 in a bid to avoid British censors. German scholars, by then, had already written several influential works on homosexuality, making German the de facto language of sexology. It was thought that by translating a German work, censors might look the other way as they had for other publications of continental origin. They didn’t. A bookseller was prosecuted for stocking Sexual Inversion, although the charges were eventually thrown out.
Ellis can claim several firsts. He was the first to study what we today recognize as transgender identities as a distinct phenomenon from homosexuality. He is also credited for creating the ideas of narcissism and autoeroticism, concepts which were later adopted by psychoanalysis. He is also often credited for introducing the word “homosexual” into the English language, although in fact he hated the word’s made-up mixture of Greek and Latin roots: “‘Homosexual’ is a barbarously hybrid word, and I claim no responsibility for it.” He wrote instead about “sexual inversion,” and in ways that no major English writer had done before: as an objective field of study without characterizing it as a disease, immorality or a crime.
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And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?