gay subculture


[picture above on the left: Maxine Peake in the 2010 BBC film The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister; on the right: 1773 illustration of an English ‘molly’. Molly houses were English taverns where men attracted to men could meet and even cross-dress. This was a male subculture during the 18th century. ‘Molly’ was used to refer to effeminate men interested sexually in only other men.]

“Nonetheless, according to the Foucaultian paradigm [Michel Foucault’s argument that a homosexual identity only arose when sexologists and psychiatrists began to define those who committed certain acts as effeminate homosexual men or masculine lesbians], there was little room for individual agency. Despite the ability of homosexuals to twist expert definitions, they were never seen to originate their own sexual identity.

This Foucaultian paradigm has been breaking down in the last few years. On an empirical level, Foucault’s chronology has been shown to be false. Randolph Trumbach, Theo van der Meer, and George Chauncey have extensively documented gay male subcultures that flourished in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cities, long before sexologists and psychiatrists invented “the homosexual.” Anne Lister’s diaries made clear that women who engaged in passionate friendships could be quite aware of their sexual feelings and act on them, as Martha Vicinus, Terry Castle, Trumbach, and Lisa Moore point out. By discovering Sapphic references in eighteenth-century English diaries, letters, dramas, and pamphlet literature, Emma Donaghue has shown that contemporaries could potentially conceive of lesbian desire, although they continued to perceive it as a sin. Trumbach has also argued that in late eighteenth-century England, a Sapphic role developed for masculine, lesbian women. The theory that individuals could only acquire a “homosexual identity” when it was invented by sexologists– that they are inserted into discourses– does not hold water historically.

These theoretical problems become even more pressing when considering the case of early nineteenth-century lesbianism in England. Although lesbian subcultures probably existed among dancers and prostitutes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Paris, no evidence for such subcultures has been found in England so far. Anne Lister therefore could not have been socialized into a subculture. […] To understand Anne [Anne Lister, an early 19th century upperclass woman who wrote about her romantic and sexual relationships with other women in coded cipher], we must therefore construct a model of the individual acquisition of a sexual identity that is more nuanced than simply acquiring a pregiven role.”

–Anna Clark, Anne Lister’s Construction of Lesbian Identity 

I absolutely think Foucault was spot-on in terms of pointing out the distinct medical turn during the 19th century which prompted 1) the pathologization of certain ‘deviant’ sexualities and 2) the idea of an ultimate sexual truth that determines every aspect of one’s behavior, and that this truth is written on every part of the homosexual’s body (ex: large clitorises in women were thought to be a symptom of lesbianism).  These are the primary points regarding homosexuality, I think, that Foucault stresses in the first volume of his The History of Sexuality which honestly does not even talk about homosexuality too much. These are vital points in the study of the history of sexuality, too. That said, I completely agree with Anna Clark’s argument above. I don’t think any of it— the medical turn, etc— prevented people prior to the 19th century from considering their own sexualities in wildly different ways from whatever discourse on sexuality they were exposed to. Discourse is important, but it is not everything. I don’t think Foucault necessarily thinks discourse is all, actually, but I do think that people (including scholars) who have read Foucault’s History of Sexuality, or have been inspired by it, assume that because medical discourse said X about same-sex attraction that people in the past could only do/be X. Some people (and scholars) also seem to think the concept of somebody being attracted to solely the same sex, or just consistently attracted to the same sex at all, could not happen within the West prior to the 19th century. Frankly that notion is preposterous and grossly limiting… not to mention it has been disproved time and time again on an empirical level… why does it persist?


Putting on the Dish
Written & Directed by Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston, 2015

London, 1962. Two strangers strike up a conversation on a park bench about life, sex and the hostile world they find themselves in as gay men. The conversation might be commonplace, but the language isn’t, because the two men are speaking in Polari.

Polari was a form of slang spoken by some gay men in Britain prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Used primarily as a coded way for them to discuss their experiences, it quickly fell out of use in the 70s, although several words entered mainstream English and are still used today.

Shedding light on a little-known and fascinating slice of gay history, this film is a darkly comic exploration of oppression, resilience and gay subculture in 1960s England.

[above: 17th century illustration of the Tuileries Garden, a popular location for cruising]

“The general French perception in the 18th century was that aristocratic persons commonly succumbed to what was known as le beau vice [intimate relations between the same sex]. The police, however, increased their attempts to suppress homosexuality in the general population, including through entrapment and police harassment. Yet a gay subculture still managed a palpable, though marginal, existence. There were gay taverns in Paris, as well as known places for cruising, such as Pont Neuf and the Tuileries gardens. It is likely that this era’s move away from the death penalty for sodomy helped in the preservation of this subculture.”

— Brent L. Pickett, Historical Dictionary of Homosexuality. Emphasis added.

If you're going to hate people, hate people who:

- are rude to waiters

- don’t tip but can clearly afford to (in America and countries where this is a normal practice anyway)

- are rude to tradies (ie. plumbers, electricians)

- are just generally awful to people who are doing things for them that they can’t do for themselves

- think that their intelligence or job or grades or their dress sense somehow makes them better than you

- refuse to acknowledge other peoples issues when they have been informed about them because it’s not happening to them and they’ll never be in that position, so who cares?

- rapists

- murderers

- mental/physical/sexual/other types of abusers of people or animals

Don’t just decide to hate people because of how they look or how they dress or who they love or what they enjoy doing or what they enjoy listening to or how much sex they have or where they’re from or if they’re male or if they’re female or if they’re neither or if they’re both or if they’re just not your cup of tea.

Or just, you know, don’t hate people.


Nan Goldin documented post-punk new-wave music scene, along with the city’s vibrant, post-Stonewall gay subculture of the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was drawn especially to the Bowery’s hard-drug subculture; these photographs, taken between 1979 and 1986, form her famous work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency — a title taken from a song in Bertolt Brecht‘s Threepenny OperaThese snapshot aesthetic images depict drug use, violent, aggressive couples and autobiographical moments. Most of her Ballad subjects were dead by the 1990s, lost either to drug overdose or AIDS; this tally included close friends and often-photographed subjects Greer Lankton and Cookie Mueller. In 2003, The New York Times nodded to the work’s impact, explaining Goldin had “forged a genre, with photography as influential as any in the last twenty years.”