Scientific Racism and the Emergence of the Homosexual Body
Journal of the History of Sexuality
Volume 5, Number 2 (October, 1994)
Siobhan Somerville, Associate Professor
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
One of the most important insights developed in the fields of lesbian and gay history and the history of sexuality has been the notion that homosexuality and, by extension, heterosexuality are relatively recent inventions in Western culture, rather than transhistorical or “natural” categories of human beings. As Michel Foucault and other historians of sexuality have argued, although sexual acts between two people of the same sex had been punishable through legal and religious sanctions well before the late nineteenth century, they did not necessarily define individuals as homosexual per se. Only recently, in the late nineteenth century, did a new understanding of sexuality emerge, in which sexual acts and desires became constitutive of identity. Homosexuality as the condition, and therefore identity, of particular bodies is thus a production of that historical moment.
Medical literature, broadly defined to include the writings of physicians, sexologists, and psychiatrists, has been integral to this historical argument. Although medical discourse was by no means the only—nor necessarily the most powerful—site of the emergence of new sexual identities, it does nevertheless offer rich sources for at least partially understanding the complex development of these categories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Medical and sexological literature not only became one of the few sites of explicit engagement with questions of sexuality during this period but also held substantial definitional power within a culture that sanctioned science to discover and tell the truth about bodies.
As historians and theorists of sexuality have refined a notion of the late nineteenth-century “invention” of the homosexual, their discussions have drawn primarily upon theories and histories of gender. George Chauncey, in particular, has provided an invaluable discussion of the ways in which paradigms of sexuality shifted according to changing ideologies of gender during this period. He notes a gradual change in medical models of sexual deviance, from a notion of sexual inversion, understood as a reversal of one’s sex role, to a model of homosexuality, defined as deviant sexual object choice. These categories and their transformations, argues Chauncey, reflected concurrent shifts in the cultural organization of sex/gender roles and participated in prescribing acceptable behavior, especially within a context of white middle-class gender ideologies.
While gender insubordination offers a powerful explanatory model for the “invention” of homosexuality, ideologies of gender also, of course, shaped and were shaped by dominant constructions of race. Indeed, although it has received little acknowledgment, it is striking that the “invention” of the homosexual occurred at roughly the same time that racial questions were being reformulated, particularly in the United States. This was the moment, for instance, of Plessy v. Ferguson the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that insisted that “black” and “white” races were “separate but equal.” Both a product of and a stimulus to a nationwide and brutal era of racial segregation, this ruling had profound and lasting effects in legitimating an apartheid structure that remained legally sanctioned for over half of the twentieth century. The Plessy case distilled in legal form many widespread contemporary fears about race and racial difference at the time. A deluge of “Jim Crow” and antimiscegenation laws, combined with unprecedented levels of racial violence, most visibly manifested in widespread lynching, reflected an aggressive attempt to classify and separate bodies as either “black” or “white.”
Is it merely a historical coincidence that the classification of bodies as either “homosexual” or “heterosexual” emerged at the same time that the United States was aggressively policing the imaginary boundary between “black” and “white” bodies? Although some historians of sexuality have included brief acknowledgment of nineteenth-century discourses of racial difference, the particular relationship and potentially mutual effects of discourses of homosexuality and race remain unexplored. This silence around race may be due in part to the relative lack of explicit attention to race in medical and sexological literature of the period. These writers did not self-consciously interrogate race, nor were those whose gender insubordination and sexual transgression brought them under the medical gaze generally identified by race in these accounts. Yet the lack of explicit attention to race in these texts does not mean that it was irrelevant to sexologists’ endeavors. Given the upheavals surrounding racial definition during this period, it is reasonable to imagine that these texts were as embedded within contemporary racial ideologies as they were within ideologies of gender.
Take, for instance, the words of Havelock Ellis, whose massive Studies in the Psychology of Sex was one of the most important texts of the late nineteenth-century medical and scientific discourse on sexuality. “I regard sex as the central problem of life,” began the general preface to the first volume. Justifying such unprecedented boldness toward the study of sex, Ellis explained, “And now that the problem of religion has practically been settled, and that the problem of labour has at least been placed on a practical foundation, the question of sex—with the racial questions that rest on it—stands before the coming generations as the chief problem for solution.” Despite Ellis’s oddly breezy dismissal of the problems of labor and religion, which were far from settled at the time, this passage points suggestively to a link between sexual and racial anxieties. Yet what exactly did Ellis mean by “racial questions”? More significantly, what was his sense of the relationship between racial questions and the question of “sex”? Although Ellis himself left these issues unresolved, his elliptical declaration nevertheless suggested that a discourse of race—however elusively—somehow hovered around or within the study of sexuality.
In this article, I offer speculations on how late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century discourses of race and sexuality might be not merely juxtaposed, but brought together in ways that illuminate both. I suggest that the concurrent bifurcations of categories of race and sexuality were not only historically coincident but in fact structurally interdependent and perhaps mutually productive. My goal, however, is not to garner and display unequivocal evidence of the direct influence of racial categories on those who were developing scientific models of homosexuality. Nor am I interested in identifying individual writers and thinkers as racist or not. Rather, my focus here is on racial ideologies, the cultural assumptions and systems of representation about race through which individuals understood their relationships within the world. My emphasis lies in understanding the relationships between the medical/scientific discourse around sexuality and the dominant scientific discourse around race during this period, that is, scientific racism.
My approach combines literary and historical methods of reading, particularly those that have been so crucial to lesbian and gay studies—the technique of reading to hear “the inexplicable presence of the thing not named,” of being attuned to the queer presences and implications in texts that do not otherwise name them. Without this collective project to see, hear, and confirm queer inflections where others would deny their existence, it is arguable that gay and lesbian studies itself, and particularly our knowledge and understanding of the histories, writing, and cultures of lesbians and gay men, would be impoverished, if not impossible. In a similar way, I propose to use the techniques of queer reading, but to modulate my analysis from a focus on sexuality and gender to one alert to racial resonances as well.
My attention, then, is focused on the racial pressure points in exemplary texts from the late nineteenth-century discourse on sexuality, including those written by Ellis and other writers of the period who made explicit references to homosexuality. I suggest that the structures and methodologies that drove dominant ideologies of race also fueled the pursuit of scientific knowledge about the homosexual body: both sympathetic and hostile accounts of homosexuality were steeped in assumptions that had driven previous scientific studies of race. My aim is not to replace a focus on gender and sexuality with that of race but, rather, to understand how discourses of race and gender buttressed one another, often competing, often overlapping, in shaping emerging models of homosexuality.
I suggest three broadly defined ways in which discourses of sexuality seem to have been particularly engaged, sometimes overtly, but largely implicitly, with the discourse of scientific racism. All of these models pathologized both the nonwhite body and the nonheterosexual body to greater or lesser extents. Although I discuss these models in separate sections here, they often coexisted, despite their contradictions. These models are speculative and are intended as a first step toward understanding the myriad and historically specific ways that racial and sexual discourses shaped each other at the moment that homosexuality entered scientific discourse…
…The Mixed Body
The emergence of evolutionary theory in the late nineteenth century foregrounded a view of continuity between the “savage” and “civilized” races, in contrast to earlier scientific thinking about race, which had focused on debates about the origins of different racial groups. Proponents of monogeny, on the one hand, argued that all races derived from a single origin. Those who argued for polygeny, on the other hand, argued that different races descended from separate biological and geographical sources, a view, not coincidentally, that supported segregationist impulses. With Darwin’s publication of Origin of the Species in 1859, the debate between polygeny and monogeny was replaced by evolutionary theory, which was appropriated as a powerful scientific model for understanding race. Its controversial innovation was its emphasis on the continuity between animals and human beings. Evolutionary theory held out the possibility that the physical, mental, and moral characteristics of human beings had evolved gradually over time from apelike ancestors. Although the idea of continuity depended logically on the blurring of boundaries within hierarchies, it did not necessarily invalidate the methods or assumptions of comparative anatomy. On the contrary, the notion of visible differences and racial hierarchies were deployed to corroborate Darwinian theory.
The concept of continuity was harnessed to growing attention to miscegenation, or “amalgamation,” in social science writing in the first decades of the twentieth century. Edward Byron Reuter’s The Mulatto in the United States, for instance, pursued an exhaustive quantitative and comparative study of the mulatto population and its achievements in relation to those of “pure” white or African ancestry. Reuter traced the presence of a distinct group of mixed-race people back to early American history: “Their physical appearance, though markedly different from that of the pure blooded race, was sufficiently marked to set them off as a peculiar people.” Reuter, of course, was willing to admit the viability of “mulattoes” only within a framework that emphasized the separation of races. Far from using the notion of the biracial body to refute the belief in discrete markers of racial difference, Reuter perpetuated the notion by focusing on the distinctiveness of this “peculiar people.”
Miscegenation was, of course, not only a question of race but also one of sex and sexuality. Ellis recognized this intersection implicitly, if not explicitly. His sense of the “racial questions” implicit in sex was surely informed by his involvement with eugenics, the movement in Britain, Europe, and the United States that, to greater or lesser degrees, advocated selective reproduction and “race hygiene.” In the United States, eugenics was both a political and scientific response to the growth of a population beginning to challenge the dominance of white political interests. The widespread scientific and social interest in eugenics was fueled by anxieties expressed through the popularized notion of (white) “race suicide.” This phrase, invoked most famously by Theodore Roosevelt, summed up nativist fears about a perceived decline in reproduction among white Americans. The new field of eugenics worked hand in hand with growing antimiscegenation sentiment and policy, provoked not only by attempts for political representation among African-Americans but also by the influx of large populations of immigrants. As Mark Haller has pointed out, “Racists and [immigration] restrictionists . . . found in eugenics the scientific reassurances they needed that heredity shaped man’s personality and that their assumptions rested on biological facts.” Ellis saw himself as an advocate for eugenics policies. As an active member of the British National Council for Public Morals, Ellis wrote several publications concerning eugenics, including The Problem of Race Regeneration, a pamphlet advocating “voluntary” sterilization of the unfit as a policy in the best interest of “the race.” In a letter to Francis Galton in 1907, Ellis wrote, “In the concluding volume of my Sex ‘Studies’ I shall do what I can to insinuate the eugenic attitude.”
The beginnings of sexology, then, were related to and perhaps even dependent on a pervasive climate of eugenicist and antimiscegenation sentiment and legislation. Even at the level of nomenclature, anxieties about miscegenation shaped sexologists’ attempts to find an appropriate and scientific name for the newly visible object of their study Introduced in 1892 through the English translation of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, the term “homosexuality” itself stimulated a great deal of uneasiness. In 1915, Ellis reported that “most investigators have been much puzzled in coming to a conclusion as to the best, most exact, and at the same time most colorless names [for same-sex desire].” Giving an account of the various names proposed, such as Ulrichs’s “Uranian” and Westphal’s “contrary sexual feeling,” Ellis admitted that “homosexuality” was the most widespread term used. Far from the ideal “colorless” term, however, “homosexuality” evoked Ellis’s distaste for its mixed origins: in a regretful aside, he noted that “it has, philologically, the awkward disadvantage of being a bastard term compounded of Greek and Latin elements” (p. 2). In the first edition of Sexual Inversion, Ellis had stated his alarm more directly: “‘Homosexual’ is a barbarously hybrid word.” A similar view was expressed by Edward Carpenter, an important socialist organizer in England and an outspoken advocate of homosexual and women’s emancipation at this time. Like Ellis, Carpenter winced at the connotations of illegitimacy in the word: “‘homosexual,’ generally used in scientific works, is of course a bastard word. ‘Homogenic’ has been suggested, as being from two roots, both Greek, i.e., ‘homos,’ same, and ‘genos,’ sex.” Carpenter’s suggestion, “homogenic,” of course, resonated both against and within the vocabularies of eugenics and miscegenation. Performing these etymological gyrations with almost comic literalism, Ellis and Carpenter expressed pervasive cultural sensitivities around questions of racial origins and purity. Concerned above with legitimacy, they attempted to remove and rewrite the mixed origins of “homosexuality.” Ironically, despite their suggestions for alternatives, the “bastard” term took hold among sexologists, thus yoking together, at least rhetorically, two kinds of mixed bodies—the racial “hybrid” and the invert.
Although Ellis exhibited anxieties about biracial bodies, for others who sought to naturalize and recuperate homosexuality, the evolutionary emphasis on continuity offered potentially useful analogies. Xavier Mayne, for example, one of the earliest American advocates of homosexual rights, wrote, “Between whitest of men and the blackest negro stretches out a vast line of intermediary races as to their colours: brown, olive, red tawny, yellow.” He then invoked this model of race to envision a continuous spectrum of gender and sexuality: “Nature abhors the absolute, delights in the fractional. . . . Intersexes express the half-steps, the between-beings ” In this analogy, Mayne reversed dominant cultural hierarchies that privileged purity over mixture. Drawing upon irrefutable evidence of the “natural” existence of biracial people, Mayne posited a direct analogy to a similarly mixed body, the intersex, which he positioned as a necessary presence within the natural order.
Despite Carpenter’s complaint about “bastard” terminology, he, like Mayne, also occasionally appropriated the scientific language of racial mixing in order to resist the association between homosexuality and degeneration. In The Intermediate Sex, he attempted to theorize homosexuality outside of the discourse of pathology or abnormality; he too suggested a continuum of genders, with “intermediate types” occupying a place between the poles of exclusively heterosexual male and female. In an appendix to The Intermediate Sex, Carpenter offered a series of quotations supporting his ideas, some of which drew upon racial analogies: “Anatomically and mentally we find all shades existing from the pure genus man to the pure genus woman. Thus there has been constituted what is well named by an illustrious exponent of the science ‘The Third Sex.’ … As we are continually meeting in cities women who are one-quarter, or one-eighth, or so on, male … so there are in the Inner Self similar half-breeds, all adapting themselves to circumstances with perfect ease.” Through notions of “shades” of gender and sexual “half-breeds,” Carpenter appropriated dominant scientific models of race to construct and embody what he called the intermediate sex. These racial paradigms, in addition to models of gender, offered a Carpenter a coherent vocabulary for understanding and expressing a new vision of sexual bodies…
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