David Higgs, ed. Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600. London: Routledge, 1999. viii + 214 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-15897-8.
Reviewed by Brett Abrams (American University)
Published on H-Urban (May, 2000)
Twenty-one year old Luiz Delgado, in prison for theft, was denounced for sexual relations with his putative future brother-in-law, aged twelve. The violin player was sent to Rio de Janeiro as part of the movement of Portuguese migrants and sexual refugees and set up a tobacco shop. He established homes with two different flamboyant feminine-acting students before his activities came before Inquisition officials who sent the 45 year old to a ten-year exile in Angola. While capturing the age differential that characterized the majority of male sexual relationships into the late nineteenth century, the forming of a couple and the creation of a shared domestic space made this relationship highly unusual.
The seven essays that comprise Queer Sites trace the development of dissident sexualities in Rio and six other cities. The locations investigated include four European capitals, London, Lisbon, Moscow, and Paris, another European city, Amsterdam, and San Francisco. The six authors provide readers with insight into the specific locations that males with same-sex interest used to fulfill their desires between 1600 and today. Editor David Higgs observes that the comparison of these cities can yield information about differences and similarities in sexual cultures. The authors use the source material of social history, including legal records, diaries, and journalistic materials. The essays build upon historian John D'Emilio's argument that urbanization and industrial development created the anonymity, congregation, and freedom from family that offered men and women greater social and economic freedom and allowed homosexual subcultures to develop. Some of the differences among these sexual cultures emerged because of the varied rates of modernization and urbanization. Cultural factors, such as different religious beliefs, led to certain differences, including less persecution of sodomy in cities like Moscow. However, the similarities among these cities appeared more significant.
One important similarity among the sexual cultures of these cities involved the predominance of the adult-youth sexual system from 1600 through the 1700s. In this system, a man could have sex with a woman or younger male (boy) as long as he assumed the active (penetrative) role. Authors Randolph Trumbach (London) and Michael D. Sibalis (Paris) noted that changes in this system emerged in these fastest growing urban centers. The sodomites known in London as Mollys, because they met in molly taverns and had similarities to female prostitutes also called Mollies, and pederasts in Paris taverns in the mid-1700s represented a third category. These groups served as the beginning of the system of opposites. Generally, these men adopted dress and styles associated with women and assumed the passive position in intercourse, earning them the label, gender invert. As George Chauncey noted in his groundbreaking Gay New York, this system dominated the nineteenth century understanding of same-sex behavior within the influential medical community and helped effeminate gay males develop subcultures in urban areas. Sibalis and Gert Hekma (Amsterdam) note that in the early twentieth century, these homosexual males created masked and drag balls in Paris and NWAK, the first homosexual rights group in the Netherlands. NWAK, which established a meeting place and library, could be viewed as godfathers to the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis homosexual political action groups that Les Wright describes as emerging in San Francisco during the 1950s. These groups, along with the medical community, would be among the figures shaping the acceptance of the third sexual system, homosexuality as a sexual object choice.
Another important similarity among sexual cultures emerges upon considering how men with same-sex interest in these various cities used urban locations to meet their needs. Each author details those locations where the men had sex and the establishments where they congregated. Men had sex with one another in urban parks and fields, transportation hubs, public baths, and public toilets. Hekma, Sibalis, Trumbach, Higgs (Lisbon), and Dan Healey (Moscow) note that homosexuals in their cities had a "toilet culture" in which men found toilets useful for meeting men interested in engaging in anonymous sexual encounters. The development of long-term relationships occurred infrequently, and a majority of these men presumably did not adopt a homosexual identity. The expansion of commercial amusements and the consequent development of commercial areas in cities enabled homosexuals to have more establishments that catered to them. The essays of Hekma and Wright corroborate the arguments of Chauncey and others that establishments with homosexual clienteles existed in red light and tourist districts. Sibalis's essay, among others, confirms earlier works that noted that middle-class homosexuals mixed with literary and visual art bohemians in cafes within theater and tourist areas of major cities. The discussion of sexual spaces compliments the work done by previous scholars, including the authors in Public Sex/Gay Space, edited by William Leap. The consideration of establishments builds on work by historians in Brett Breyman's Creating Space for Ourselves.
This book will be useful as an introduction to the transformation of sexuality in those upper division courses examining the history of sexuality or the location of minority groups in cities. However, the very limited discussion of women hampers the book, particularly because recent works, such as Laura McCall and Donald Yacovone's A Shared Experience, indicate a larger public role for women than nineteenth century historians have previously believed. The book opens up avenues for more research into the urban dimension of same-sex populations. Urban scholars could examine the relationship between homosexuals and ethnic neighbors in cities. More work could be done on the link between same-sex presence and urban renewal, such as in current Boston, where two bars located in Bay Village have recently been torn down. Valuable information could emerge from examining the relationship between gentrification and gays and lesbians, such as the revival of Dupont Circle in Washington, DC since the mid-1970s.
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