In A Problem in Modern Ethics, Symonds, in his detailed discussion of German sexologist Ulrichs’ arguments for homosexual tolerance, reminds us just how little has changed in 120-odd years:
As the result of these considerations, Ulrichs concludes that there is no real ground for the persecution of Urnings [his word for men-loving men] except as may be found in the repugnance by the vast numerical majority for an insignificant minority. The majority encourages matrimony, condones seduction, sanctions prostitution, legalises divorce in the interests of its own sexual proclivities. It makes temporary or permanent unions illegal for the minority whose inversion of instinct it abhors. And this persecution, in the popular mind at any rate, is justified, like many other inequitable acts of prejudice or ignorance, by theological assumptions and the so-called mandates of revelation.
This fin-de-siècle argument is, other than some stylistic markers, barely distinguishable from federal judge Vaughn Walker’s decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger—whose unveiling the other week reignited a conversation about equality, tolerance, and the nature and role of religion and morals in a society which includes men who love men and women who love women. Since there has been a thing called “homosexuality” (or “sexual inversion,” or “Greek love,” or “Urningliebe,” or other terms more recognizable to a Symonds or an Ulrichs), those who make a life out of thinking and writing about it have tried to puzzle through what its relationship is to the rest of our society. And it is remarkably striking that, just as surely as a discussion of men’s love for men will before long come back to Plato (even if by a circuitous, modern, post-classics route), it seems it will come back to marriage and divorce as well.
I remember how surprised I was, a year ago at the Smithsonian, to see a 1963 issue of One magazine with the cover text “Let’s Push Homophile Marriage,” a political rallying cry which, though advanced six years before the advent of gay liberation, though using the vocabulary of a pre-“gay” era, sounded disconcertingly familiar to 21st-century ears. I am even more surprised to see marriage rear its head in the equal-rights discussions of the 19th century: has the movement really, in 120 years, not come so far as all that? Is marriage equality as a 2010 cultural touchstone really so close to the cultural touchstones of 1890 as to make the lasting accomplishments of gay liberation seem like an illusion?
Obviously the past 120 years have brought decriminalization and the eradication of sodomy laws, a product of 1980s Britain and 2000s America largely unthinkable in Symonds’ and Ulrichs’ day, as standard as it already was in some European countries by the end of the 19th century. And yet despite shifts in public opinion and in the law, we seem to be having the same conversations, still unable to make up our collective cultural mind as to whether male homosexuality is a crime against nature or a psychological problem or just the way some people are; whether it’s fundamentally the same as or fundamentally different to heterosexuality; how the law should respect these categories and whether it should notice them at all; how we define male homosexuality as a cultural as well as a psychological category; and why, indeed, the hell it is that we get so exercised about male homosexuality while female homosexuality fades into the background! To the proverbial Martian anthropologist, our microbiological searches for the “gay gene” and endless academic psychological studies would likely seem as strange as Ulrichs’ obsessive taxonomizing of sexual behavior or Krafft-Ebing’s psychological-physiological quackery and a touch of the Freud about all their contemporaries’ early-childhood theories. We have come no closer than Symonds and his contemporaries to understanding why people are gay, and yet we seem just as wedded to an idea of the characteristic’s biological immutability as most homosexual-sympathetic sexologists of the late 19th century were. I suppose a good question to ask would be, why do we keep going around in circles? Why is it so difficult to construct a narrative of the history of homosexuality in which the arc of history bends as unremittingly towards progress as it’s supposed to?
And Christ, reader, have I really signed up to write a thesis about all this?