In the eighteenth century, homosexuality was considered as a sexual deviation and a crime. At the time, it was called the “crime of sodomy”. When someone’s homosexuality was known, there was a trial and a punishment. How did men hide their homosexuality? What were the consequences of the “crime of sodomy”?
First of all, in the eighteenth century, homosexuals were called “sodomites”. In the Bible, Sodom was a city that – along with three other neighboring cities – has been destroyed by the Divine Jugement because people committed too many sins there. Since then, there was a deviation of the word “Sodom” and this passage of the Bible was used to illustrate the homosexual repression. In the eighteenth century, men of the upper classes who were suspected to be homosexuals, were men who inherited lands and who never married. Men in this situation were more and more common, so it could mean that there were more and more homosexuals in the upper class in the eighteenth century (Lawrence Stone, The family, sex and marriage in England 1500-1800, 541). For Philip Carter, masculinity was more a “social rather than sexual criteria” (Philip Carter, Men about town: representations of foppery and masculinity in early eighteenth-century urban society, 34). According to him, the only “eighteenth-century image of unmanliness” that was considered worse than the sodomite, was the fop. As sodomy was considered as a crime, homosexual men had to hide their homosexuality.
To do so, some of them married a woman and had children – sometimes to make people think that they were heterosexuals – but slept with with other men. Marriage was a sort of protection for them. Homosexual men used to go to molly houses. Molly houses were taverns where men could meet and possibly have sexual relations in private rooms. Homosexual men used to go there to meet other homosexuals. Molly houses were protected and there, men could openly have homosexual relations. Sometimes, there were raids in molly houses and men who were caught were imprisoned, judged and punished. But it still was the better place for men to meet other homosexuals because it was a safe space – because it provided an enclosed space – and there were private rooms for them. Most of the raids happened in 1726 and 1727 – about 17 raids. But except for these years, raids in molly houses rarely happened (Amanda Bailey, Welcome to the Molly-House: An Interview with Randolph Trumbach). When they wanted to send letters to their lover, homosexuals used messenger boys. They used them only for that purpose, to be sure that no one would find their letters and would know that they were homosexuals (Rictor Norton, My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, 11). Most of the time, homosexual letters were discovered only after the death of the man who had written them. Some of them even censored themselves by burning their letters before someone could find them (Rictor Norton, My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, 12).
It was essential for homosexual men to protect their homosexuality and their identities because of its consequences. Indeed, homosexuality was a crime that led to trials and punishment. During the eighteenth century, many men were condemned to death for homosexuality.
On this image for example, we can see a man who was accused of sodomy and who is in the pillory at Stratford (http://www.britishmuseum.org). People are shouting at him “Shave him close”, “Flogg him” or “Cut it off”. It’s a satirical image. Indeed, the man says “I’m now in the hole indeed (reference to the sexual act) come all in my friends”. We also can see a woman on the left who is taking some food from her basket to throw it at the man. The note of the painter that is under the image shows the violence of the people, as the note says that this man was killed by the population.
Punishing someone for sodomy was really hard because they had to prove that penetration and ejaculation had actually occurred, but it was very difficult to prove it. If it could not be proved, the “crime” was an “Assault with Sodomitical Intent”.
Despite the fact that during their punishment homosexuals were humiliated and victimized by the people, some of them didn’t want to hide. Even if there were risks, some of them wanted a real relationship with their lover. For example, in the letters he wrote to Stephen Fox in 1730, John, Lord Hervey told him that he wanted them to live together. Indeed, he wrote “Why should we see one another by Visits, but never have a common home?” (Rictor Norton, My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, 87). Furthemore at the end of their letters, they often wrote how much they loved each other, like “Adieu, mon bien aimable, mon bien aimé” or “I love you & love you more than I thought I could love any thing” (Rictor Norton, My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, 92). Even if people were becoming more tolerant towards homosexuality, there were still violent prejudices and writing such things in letters was very risky.
Some people used the violence of the punishment for sodomy in order to blackmail homosexuals. They threatened them to denounce their homosexuality if they refused to give them money. But even heterosexuals were threatened, because people could blackmail them the same way even if they were not homosexuals. People could ask something to an heterosexual man and tell him that if he did not do what they asked, they would say to everybody that this man was an homosexual. They could not prove anything about it, but if someone would say something like this about someone else, it could ruine his reputation (Randolph Trumbach, Blackmail for Sodomy in Eighteenth-Century London, 25-26).
In 1707, at least forty homosexuals were arrested in a “club” in London. Three of them killed themselves when they were imprisoned in the Compter. The Women-Hater’s Lamentation – written in 1707 – is a “broadside sheet” that mocks the men who had committed suicide while they were waiting for their judgment.
But see the fatal end
That do’s such Crimes pursue;
Unnat’ral Deaths attend,
Unnat’ral Lusts in you.
Ye Women-Haters then,
Take Warning by their Shame,
Your Brutal Lusts restrain,
And own a Nobler Flame.
In the picture which is above the poem, on the left we can see a man cutting his throat while another man hangs, on the right there is a hanged man being cut down, and in the middle, we can see two men embracing one another.
In order to prevent homosexuality, people from the upper class tried to inform their children about homosexuality.They protected they children by telling them about the existence of homosexuality (Lawrence Stone, The family, sex and marriage in England 1500-1800, 542). In his essay “Offences Against One’s Self” written in 1785, Jeremy Bentham – who was a heterosexual man – argued against the criminalization of homosexuality “If all men were left perfectly free to choose, as many men would make choice of their own sex as of the opposite one, I see not what reason there would be for applying the word natural to the one rather than to the other”. He thought that homosexuality was not “unnatural” and that there should not be laws against the “crime” of sodomy, but this essay was not published until 1931 because it could be considered as an offense to public morality.
Image. “This is not the thing: or, Molly exalted” (1762).
Rictor Norton, “My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries” (United States: Leyland Publications, 1998), 11, 12, 87, 92.
Image. “The Women-Hater’s Lamentation”, (London: J. Robinson, 1707).
Amanda Bailey, “Welcome to the Molly-House: An Interview with Randolph Trumbach,” Cabinet magazine, Fall 2002.
Randolph Trumbach, “Blackmail for Sodomy in Eighteenth-Century London” in Historical Reflections Vol. 33, No. 1, Eighteenth-Century Homosexuality in Global Perspective. (New York, Owford: Berghahn Books, 2007), 25-26.
Lawrence Stone, “The family, sex and marriage in England 1500-1800” (London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977), 541-542.
Jeremy Bentham, “Offences Against One’s Self,” last modified June 11, 2010, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/eresources/exhibitions/sw25/bentham.
Philip Carter, “Men about town: representations of foppery and masculinity in early eighteenth-century urban society,” (London: Longman, 1997), 34, 40.