In the forty years since the Stonewall riots, and the emergence of the gay liberation movement, a process of historical archaeology has been underway. Its aim has been to make the hidden past visible.
This timeline of anniversaries is a look into what we now know of this hidden past, and also the revealed present.
Birth of the poet Walt Whitman
1819, 190 years ago
The first edition of Leaves of Grass, which Whitman would continue to revise throughout his lifetime, was published in 1855. His Calamus poems, which first appeared in 1860 and were later revised, celebrated the ‘love of comrades’, and caused something of a scandal. He exerted a great influence on early gay pioneers, and in particular on Oscar Wilde.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865) he was known to have tended to injured soldiers, and from this rumours abounded. Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, the pompous Salmon P. Chase, refused to employ Whitman on the grounds that his work was immoral.
“Many will say it is a dream, and will not follow my inferences: but I confidently expect a time when there will be seen, running like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong, and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown.” Democratic Vistas, 1871.
Karl Maria Kertbeny
1869, 140 years ago
First recorded use of the term homosexuality by Karl Maria Kertbeny. The newly coined word was part of his work on the broader classification of sexual types.
Kertbeny was a campaigner for the abolition of Prussia’s laws on sex between men. The death penalty had been abolished in 1794 but such acts were still a criminal offence. At this point in time the word used to describe same-sex relationships was the pejorative term invert. The inversion was the assumption of the female role by the male, and vice-versa.
In one of his most influential works, The History of Sexuality Volume I, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that as a result of the nineteenth century predilection toward classification, the homosexual for the first time in history was “a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”
Cleveland Street Scandal
1889, 120 years ago
A brothel for homosexual male activity in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, London, was discovered by police.
The press did not take up the cause until the editor of the North London Press, Ernest Parke, made it into a high profile public scandal. An amendment to the Criminal Act of 1885 had made illegal “gross indecency” – this meant sexual contact between men, whether in private or in public. It was punishable by two years of prison with or without hard labour.
The police questioned messenger boys who worked at the brothel. One of the men they implicated was Prince Albert Victor, who was the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, grandson of Queen Victoria, and second in line to the throne. There ensued a cover-up, which Parke then tried to reveal. The Prince died in 1892, although it was rumoured that this was faked to remove him from the line of succession.
The Green Carnation
1894, 115 years ago
Publication of The Green Carnation, by Anonymous (Robert Hichens). The lead characters Esmé Amarinth and Lord Reginald Hastings are closely based on Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’), both of whom the author knew.
The words of the characters were gathered from the sayings of their originals, after Hichens had spent nearly a year “in the company of the men”.
Withdrawn from circulation in 1895, the book had done its damage, and was used as evidence in the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895.
It was republished in 2006.
The Institute for Sexual Science
1919, 90 years ago
The Institute for Sexual Science, founded by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, opens its doors in Berlin.
Hirschfeld had founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee along with publisher Max Spohr, lawyer Eduard Oberg, and writer Max von Bülow in 1897. It aimed to undertake research to defend the rights of homosexuals, also to repeal the section of the German penal code that criminalized homosexuality, Paragraph 175.
The Weimar Republic, which replaced the imperial government of Germany in 1919, marked a new age in which Hirschfeld’s Institute was made possible. It held Hirschfeld’s vast library on sexual category as well as providing educational services and medical consultations.
The Nazis attacked the Institute in 1933 and burnt many of its books.
The Society for Human Rights
1924, 85 years ago
The Society for Human Rights, the first homosexual rights organization in America, founded in Chicago by Henry Gerber.
The Society issued the first publication for homosexuals in America, Friendship and Freedom.
The Society only lasted a matter of months. It was accused of being a “sex cult” and arrests were made concerning rumours that it practised orgies with children present. No one was brought to trial during this witch hunt.
Dr Harry Benjamin
1949, 60 years ago
Dr Harry Benjamin, a German endocrinologist, treats transsexuals in the US with hormones.
In 1948, Dr Alfred Kinsey had brought to Benjamin’s attention a male child who wanted to become a girl. Benjamin had to this point worked with transvestism but quickly came to understand that this was different altogether.
He went on to introduce the term transsexualism in 1954.
Christine Jorgenson, whose story hit the press in 1952, was one of Benjamin’s patients.
Benjamin also published one of the first significant books on the subject, The Transsexual Phenomenon, in 1966.
Sir John Wolfenden
1954, 55 years ago
Sir John Wolfenden, Vice Chancellor of Reading University, UK, appointed to head an enquiry into homosexuality that sets the stage for law reform.
The prosecution of homosexual acts increased in the 1950s after a relative lull in wartime. In 1938 there were 316 prosecutions for “gross indecency”. In 1955 there were 2,322. The increase for “homosexual assault” in the same time frame went from 822 to 3,305. The “purge”, as it was known, was started under Herbert Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the House of Commons under the Labour Government of 1945-1951.
When the report was completed in 1957 it recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”. It took ten years, and a new Labour government, to translate this into law.
One Magazine lawsuit
1954, 55 years ago
US Post Office refuses to mail the Mattachine Society magazine One, claiming it was obscene.
The first edition of One Magazine was published in January 1953. It was sold openly on the streets of Los Angeles. The US Postal Service declared the magazine ‘obscene’, which prevented the mailing of the November issue.
One sued, and won its case in 1958, as part of the landmark First Amendment case, Roth v. United States. The magazine continued to be published until 1967.
SF election campaign of 1959
1959, 50 years ago
In the election campaign of 1959, challenger Russell Wolden accused the incumbent Mayor of San Francisco, George Christopher, of turning the city into “the national headquarters of the organised homosexuals in the United States”.
The charges backfired, the press rallied behind Christopher, and Wolden lost at the polls.
Nevertheless, there followed under Christopher a three-year-long crackdown on the city’s gay bars.