Two Hearts that Beat as One, Life in the
British Armed Forces, East Kent Mounted Rifles, 1921
dread of homosexuality makes, of course, no sense if homosexuality
really could be limited to
those few percent that most population surveys suggest.
Homosexuality can only be a global threat if globally present.”
– Henning Bech[i]
Elizabethan England, male friendship was valorized as the highest
possible human relation. Male friendships were affectionate, erotic,
and most certainly involved sex. Sodomy, on the other hand, was
demonized, punishable by death. Allan Bray notes that the codes
describing friendship and sodomy were virtually identical, but the
two were rigorously and anxiously distinguished.[ii]
Friendship did not cross class difference. Sodomy involved the
transgression of social hierarchies. And according to the
Elizabethan world view, social hierarchies were simultaneously
cosmic hierarchies. Sex and even love between men of different ages
and classes had earth-shattering implications. Sodomy admitted a
terrifying disorder to the embattled chain of being.
relationships, including erotic exchanges, were encouraged in
medieval nunneries. But if a woman was found to have penetrated
another with an object, she could be put to death.[iii]
Lillian Faderman writes of love between women from the Renaissance
to the present, noting that society appeared to condone romantic
friendships and even lesbian sex. But when women wore male dress and
usurped masculine privileges, they were persecuted and sometimes
executed. Same-sex passions were permissible –
but only within limits defined by acquiescence to class and gender
friendship remained a possibility and even an expectation until
homosexuality came on the scene. From the mid-19th century,
homosexuality was produced as a concept by social and economic
conditions, sexologists, anti-feminists, psychoanalysts, and people
who wanted to craft a life around their same-sex attachments. Sex
between people of the same gender took on new meanings and
consequences with the advent of homosexuality. In prior centuries,
the consequences of engaging in acts of sodomy could include exile,
imprisonment, torture, castration, and death, but not psychological
treatment, scientific scrutiny, and self-acceptance. Delight in
flesh within a passionate friendship would not likely demand the
break-up of a marriage, the restructuring of identity, and coming
out of the closet.
Laurencin, The Kiss, 1927
there is a minority called homosexual, friendships lose their
fluidity. Relationships that previously could include interludes of
sex in a lifetime of loving become possessed of a need to disavow –
or claim –
the possibility of same-sex eroticism. In 1852 Emily Dickinson could
write unselfconsciously to her beloved sister-in-law, “Susie, will
you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me
as you used to? . . . . I hope for you so much and feel so eager for
you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you –
that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel
hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast . . . .”[iv]
Dickinson’s niece deleted all of the sexual implications from the
letters published in the 1920’s, aware that love between women was
condemned as perversion. The identification and stigmatization of
same-sex eroticism as homosexuality, and the corresponding effort to
display the absence of sex in same-sex relationships, did not happen
all at once and overnight. Even today some passionate friends hang
on doggedly to their “innocence,” pursuing a range of romantic
and sensual expressions without either claiming or repudiating
a study of the sex life of American white, middle-class women
undertaken from 1918 through the 1920’s, Katherine Davis found
that 50 percent of single women had intense emotional relations with
women and 50 percent of these relationships were decidedly sexual.
Among married women, 30 percent had fallen in love with other women,
and half of these relationships were sexual.[v]
Alfred Kinsey, in his research into Sexual
Behavior in the Human Male in the 1930’s and 1940’s, found
that 37 percent of men surveyed reported at least one homosexual
contact to the point of orgasm. Another ten percent of males were
more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years. He
concluded that 50 percent of men had some kind of homosexual
experience. Subsequent sex researchers have failed to reproduce
these statistics. A 2001 survey of Canadians found that only 2.6%
have had a sexual relationship with a person of the same sex (and
that no residents of Alberta were among them!). In the U.S.A. a 1992
survey found that only 7.1 percent of men and 3.8 percent of women
reported some type of sexual contact with a same-sex partner since
It seems that the incidence of same-sex eroticism has significantly
declined in the years since Davis and Kinsey did their research. As
homosexuality becomes increasingly visible in the culture, it is
increasingly absent from same-sex relationships.
same-sex passions and attachments no longer take place in an
unscrutinized, unstigmatized field, the possibility of sex between
men and between women declines.
Freud remarked in 1915 that “all human beings are capable
of making a homosexual object choice and have in fact made one in
The possibility and promise of same-sex eroticism is everywhere
visible, in sports, movies, advertising, religious imagery, and the
largely homosocial environments of work and leisure. Yet these same
spaces are governed by what Henning Bech describes as the
“imperative of repudiating homosexuality.”[viii]
The possibility of same-sex eroticism is conjured, only to be
disavowed. Same-sex sexuality is denied, camouflaged, or blatantly
expressed, only to be clearly separated (shown as belonging only to
and homosocial spaces –
locker room, girls’ school, sports team, kitchen, army barracks – could, and once did, radiate with erotic energy.
These spaces are increasingly marked by what Bech calls “absent
homosexuality.” Homosexuality is conjured and repudiated, through
queer-baiting, posturing about heterosexual conquests, silence about
the beauty of each others’ bodies. Absent homosexuality affects
all friendships. Intimate same-sex relationships must continually
repudiate homosexuality, or claim it, or be avoided altogether.
Homosexualized, while they are defended against and deprived of
homosexuality, intergenerational relationships are seized and
destroyed by the awful omnipresence of absent homosexuality. Absent
homosexuality becomes an emptiness at the heart of all human
Castaigne, Bull Dance, 19th C engraving
describes absent homosexuality as “a major organizing power of
modern societies, on a par with other great agents such as capital
Absent homosexuality continually manages the possibility of same-sex
eroticism, confining it to ghettoized enclaves and pathologized
persons. All same-sex passions are stigmatized. Unlike passionate
friends of past centuries, every homosexual constitutes a social threat.
rich history of same-sex passion notwithstanding, previous eras
afforded no space for being
homosexual. Passionate friendships involved sexual acts, not whole
identities. When sex between men and between women can happen
without being identified as queer, same-sex passions can actually
facilitate the functioning of existing class and gender hierarchies.
Homosexuality is different from this; it carries within it the
radical revisioning of legal, social and institutional limits.
Michael Foucault describes it thus: “To be gay is to be in a state
of becoming. . . . To be gay signifies that [the sexual choices one
makes] diffuse themselves across the entire life; it is also a
certain manner of refusing
the modes of life offered; it is to make a sexual choice into the
impetus for a change of existence.”[x]
anxious, desperate, soul-destroying disavowal of homosexuality that
confronts us everywhere paradoxically affirms or even creates a
radical space for homosexual existence. The fear of homosexuality
pervading 21st-century Western culture establishes being queer as a
lived otherness with mythic dimensions. Absent homosexuality locates
the possibility of homosexuality outside of the homosexuals,
effectively queering every human relationship. In the form of
disavowal and the presence of absence, homosexuality is everywhere.
Queer is a state of becoming that we are still calling, as it calls
us, into life. ▼
Henning Bech, 1997, (62). Emphasis original.
Karin Lofthus Carrington in Hopke et. al., 1993.
The Letters of Emily Dickinson, eds. Thomas H. Johnson and
Theodora Wars (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958),
Letter 96, quoted in Lillian Faderman, 1981, (176).
Margot Francis, 1996, (36-7).
Edward O. Lauman, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael and Stuart
Michaels, The Social
Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), reported in
Francis Mark Mondimore, 1996, (89).
Sigmund Freud, Standard
Edition Vol.7, (145-146 n.).
Henning Bech, op.cit., (55).
quoted by David Halperin, 1995, (77-78).