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Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer

Posted: May 19, 2009 05:00 PM

Homo Sex in Colonial America


No, there was no right word for it that you wanted to use for it if you were doing it. Buggery and sodomy connoted anal penetration and thus were, in many places, punishable by death.

That does not mean that men did not know they were gay (to use today's word), know what to do with their cocks, know when they were smitten with other men, know where to go to find them, know what it meant to get violently rejected, or the reverse, find a friend, in other words, the whole gestalt, to use another of today's terms. A penis has never been something that you pick up and put down and put away idly without consideration.

When both US News and the New Yorker ran pieces on the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007, they were both so annoyingly ignorant of the fact that almost all of its inhabitants were men that I submitted my thoughts to both magazines. US News, which appeared first, of course said No, (they never have liked gays very much), but the New Yorker, which ran their Commemorative Piece a few months later, published the following from my letter to the editor:

"Jamestown was initially an all-male settlement. ...in subsequent years...male colonists outnumbered women by roughly six to one in the 1620's and four to one in later decades... It is difficult to believe that a group of young and notoriously unbridled men remained celibate for an extended period of time. It seems likely that some male settlers deprived of female companionship would have turned to each other instead.


"Settlers in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake often paired off to form all-male households, living and working together. ...it would be truly remarkable if all the male-only partnerships lacked a sexual ingredient... IT SEEMS REASONABLE TO ASSUME, [my caps and bold], that much of the sex that took place... was sodomitical."

These words are from Sexual Revolution in Early America, by Richard Godbeer an associate professor at UC Riverside and published by Johns Hopkins.

My own research for my book, The American People, has revealed that not only were male-only partnerships quite in evidence, but services were often conducted to join the partners "under God," and that, of equal interest, was their adoption of Indian children to raise as their own.

I hope it will not be too much longer before scholars will be able to deal with the fact that Jamestown was in fact not only America's first colony but its first homosexual community.

I tried unsuccessfully to contact Professor Godbeer to thank him for writing as he did. In all my researching of Jamestown, he was the only historian of the profuse number that has written about it with the guts to put forward this very logical assumption.

Now I wonder if my assumption about his gutsy homosexuality or his devotion to the study of The Real Us was more a figment of my wishful thinking. For now comes this. This is The Overflowing Friendship: Love Between Men and the Creation of the American Republic. (Also published by Johns Hopkins; Godbeer is now a full professor of history and gender studies at the University of Miami.) For me, it seems to be a heartbreaking refutation of the possibility he'd put forward in his earlier work. If he is gay, he should be ashamed of himself, and if he isn't he has a lot to learn.

In this new book, Godbeer is hell-bent on convincing us that two men in colonial America could have exceedingly obsessive and passionate relationships (he calls them, variously, "sentimental," "loving," "romantic") replete with non-stop effusive correspondence that rivals anything in Barbara Cartland, and spend many a night in bed together talking their hearts out, without the issue of sex arising in any way. He tries very hard to convince us that then was so different from now, that men, in essence, in all of this behavior, had no sex drives, indeed no functioning penises that perked up when the luscious emotions and activities he is describing completely dominated the lives he is detailing. Oh, no, insists Godbeer. Most of these friendships were not in the least sexual. You know, a sort of I Love You, Man for colonial America. This historian is in such denial that he needs therapy.

His early chapters detail young men obsessively in love with each other, wanting to sleep beside each other night after night, and often doing so, exchanging that word "love," quite generously. One young man relates a dream in which he pulls his friend out of the water: "he seemed to be stark naked and as we were running along hand in hand to the place where his clothes were --I awakened-- greatly agitated by the danger from which we seemed to have escaped." Tormented when apart, greedy for more when together. "...determined we should never part again..." "I will give myself up to you, I will go wherever you go and one shall not go without the other." "I love you very much." "Yours for ever--and ever and ever." These two men were twenty-seven years old.

Godbeer keeps telling us, as if this explains something epochal, that, of course, there was, to be sure, no word for homosexual then. To which I reply, so what? Men in love with other men, by this very act alone, knew who they were without a word for them. And anyway there were hundreds of words for homosexual. I have a dictionary filled with them. The Queen's Vernacular, it's called, which documents centuries of what we called ourselves.

Do you know that men loving men does not require the sexual act to qualify them as homosexuals? My American Heritage unabridged dictionary lists two definitions for homosexuality: the first: "sexual orientation to persons of the same sex; and the second: "sexual activity with another of the same sex." In other words, it is not necessary, nor should it be, to have had sex with another of the same sex, to maintain that a person is homosexual. Why, then, do most academics, indeed why does everyone, insist on this second definition over the first? This definition makes it all but impossible in many cases to claim a person as gay. Gay history gets eliminated as if we never existed. Perhaps this is why this second definition rules.

By the first of these definitions, every person in Professor Godbeer's book would qualify as homosexual, certainly to me, with or without the word. Just because his research has not uncovered smoking cocks does not mean these loving friendships weren't shooting themselves off all over the thirteen colonies and into the Louisiana Purchase soon to come. To use his very own words, "IT SEEMS REASONABLE TO ASSUME."

How does Godbeer know that most of the intimate friendships he describes were sexually chaste? He has no more evidence to prove his case than do those, like me, quick to discern orgies in colonial beds. The argument goes both ways. If one side cannot wave Monica Lewinsky's semen-stained dress, neither can the other side wave immaculate bed sheets.

I do not understand why historians and academics, including gay ones, especially gay ones, refuse to believe that homosexuality has been pretty much the same since the beginning of human history, whether it was called homosexuality, sodomy, buggery, or had no name at all. "What's in a name," old Will Shakespeare, who certainly knew what one was, has Juliet ask us; "That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet."

Isn't it time for us to put a stop to this nonsense that produces retrograde books like this one, another in the long line of what I call the Doris Kearns Goodwinitis School of History As Highway Robbery? Doris is among the most visible and vociferous of our assailants, herself hell-bent on preventing us from claiming Lincoln as one of our own. Doris, if you recall, believes Lincoln could not have been gay because lots of men slept together in the same bed for four years and lots of men wrote love letters full of passion and caring, just like the plethora of ones in Godbeer's book. I wonder if Doris ever actually saw that bed Abe and his lover, Joshua Speed, slept in for four years. It was a very narrow bed, (I slept in wider ones in boys' sleep-away camp), and there is no way that two big men could have slept in it except in each other's arms.

Gay people are victims of an enormous con job. An awful rip-off. A tragic heist. This has been going on for too many years. It is time to call its bluff and grow up. This means recognizing that we have been here since the beginning of the history of people. This means accepting that men loving men, men having sex with men, has been here since the beginning of history. Period and Amen. And that every single correspondent quoted by this Professor Godbeer knew what I am talking about. If they didn't write about it, well who knows why not. I must say that many of these young men sound to me like what we used to call weenies, wimps, sissies, wusses, whatever expression you want to use for the guys who never got chosen for the team. There is not a butch, or masculine sounding fellow among them. Read enough of their endless platitudinous meanderings and you long for some real men to come along and stop their whining and grab their crotches and plant a deep long kiss, avec tongue. Yes, IT SEEMS REASONABLE TO ASSUME they knew how to do this then. We have known how to do all this from the very start of... well anything and everything. And please don't tell me that I'm guilty of applying today's "sensibilities" to something that happened over 300 years ago. You bet I am, and so what?

"Has something changed in the biology of human sexual response whereby young men in bed together who can't keep their hands off each other today and get erections and copiously spurt sperm, whereas two or three hundred years ago they merely embraced, their penises somehow indifferent to all the clutching and loving?" cries Lewis Gannett, the editor of C.A. Tripp's monumental The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. Godbeer tries very hard to convince us of this. Puh-leaze. I'm meant to take this Godbeer seriously? What kind of gay history are they teaching down in Miami? They've been out in the sun too long. Gender studies has gone to their heads.

Sodomy was against the law and depending on the moment in time or place, punishable by death. So of course these guys are not going to write down in their letters An Ode to Your Gorgeous Penis and/or Tush, and stuff like that. The rest of the gay sexual repertory seems to have been acceptable enough to keep you alive, but not that acceptable that you wanted to tell Dear Diary about every jot and tittle. Such honesty is, even today, rarely available in even the Dearest Diaries of Great Modern Gays.

Judging from how much Godbeer quotes from them, much of this romantic friendship stuff appears to have been whipped up by, of all things, newspapers, "for the love of one's country." He quotes from one uncredited editorial: "It would flow outward and transform society as a whole." "It is like a crystal fountain, uncontaminated at its source, issuing its stream along the vale and over the fertile mead, which makes the flowers in spontaneous order spring and flourish, and the valleys smile with pleasure, uniting fragrance over the wide expanse." What upstanding gay man would not respond to this challenge! Go to bed with your best chum and shoot the shit and be an example for all America.

No, I can't prove much of what I am going on about. Just as no historian can disprove it. So why do we let Dick and Doris take us on such low roads? Such "scholarship" as Doris and Dick are going on about says more about modern "interpreters" than it does about what they are claiming to have discovered. IT SEEMS REASONABLE TO ASSUME... that Doris, (or Dick), can't claim with any more definitive authority that Lincoln, for instance, didn't sleep with men than s/he can claim the reverse. And since there is evidently much written about friendship, noble friendship, and very little written about sexual love between men, then that is what Godbeer is writing about and puffing up into something so huge that it is quite hard to buy, in the John Locke sense, who believed man should accept what he is and take joy from it. John Locke was a big deal in those days, to men who could think for themselves.

IT SEEMS REASONABLE TO ASSUME... that erotic same-sex love was surely available on a much broader scale than any "historian" has yet been courageous enough to trumpet, indeed to research with half the skill that has brought us this friendship stuff. Indeed, our history is bereft of scholars willing to stop settling for the nonsense and willing to accept that IT SEEMS REASONABLE TO ASSUME... that is, common sense. That is, putting two and two together and not coming up with two and a half.

Just because they can't locate the hard stuff does not mean that same sex sex did not exist. Even Ron Chernow and James R. Gaines in their respective well-regarded biographies of Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton, and Lafayette, For Liberty and Glory, in laying out all the intertwining relationships between Washington, Hamilton, Lafayette, and John Laurens (Hamilton's great love) admit they could have all been having sex. Of course, each says he doubts it (and of course no reasons are given for this position) but at least they admit the possibility, which in this day of Goodwinitis, is a tidge of progress. "While there is no irrefutable proof that Laurens and Hamilton were lovers," there is "sufficient circumstantial evidence to render indefensible any unqualified pronouncement that they were not," Godbeer quotes, in a footnote, from William Benemann's Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships. But Godbeer says, not in a footnote, "Yet we cannot simply assume that men who loved one another must have wanted to have sex..." Why not why not why not? ask I. The man is a coward and simply not up to fighting off the Goodwinitis that is murdering our past, should he only recognize her highway robbery for what it is.

In fact, his book is overflowing with statements that provoke in me the same angry responses I have when I read Doris when she attacks the love of our Abe and his Joshua:

"Figuring out what these romantic friendships meant to people living in the eighteenth century involves setting aside modern assumptions about love between members of the same sex." WHY?!

"The modern assumption that most people are attracted--sexually and romantically--to either men or women would have surprised early Americans." WHO SAYS?!

"Early Americans in general were taught to believe that all sex outside marriage...was driven by innate moral corruption inherited from Adam and Eve." SO WHAT?!

"We know that there were men in British America who found themselves attracted to other men, yet the modern category of 'homosexual' would have made little sense to them or their neighbors... Strictly speaking, men who practiced sodomy during this period did not engage in homosexual acts, any more than the planter giving his wife 'a flourish' was engaging in a heterosexual act." Again, SO WHAT?!

This ridiculous obfuscation is what they are teaching the kids today in schools?

What with all those Mathers, Richard and Increase and Cotton, and Jonathan Edwards, all rushing around ranting about any kind of sex being a sin, I think gay men were probably scared shitless of what they might be feeling and thinking, much as much of today's youth in similar situations often feel. But from where comes the idea that we were so innocent and unschooled then? If ancient Greece knew about homosexuality and the England of George III knew about it, why couldn't we in New York or Boston or especially Philadelphia, a hot town in those days, have known about it? Yet again, let's get real here, please.

It has been proved that chimpanzees can be homosexual. Chimpanzees have even been seen to cover their erections when they don't want to be seen by other chimps. Well this book is filled with monkeys covering their erect penises, courtesy of the author. It is frightening to read in his footnotes how many citations from other academics Godbeer has corralled to support his non-fucking theories. Gore Vidal calls these people "squirrel scholars."

Godbeer (get ready for it) even insists that this is what made America great, this pitching in all together now one two three let's hear it for the creation of the American Republic, showing the world that we are All Together in our hearts and strong, loving, romantic, sentimental, "patriotic," friendships, this exhibition of blood brotherhood, as D.H. Lawrence, another naïf (and a fucked-up closet case) (but talented), who maintained much the same, called it, this non-sexual love of man for man. "As we will see that spiritual version of male fraternity had radical implications: in the second half of the eighteenth century, it would combine with the culture of sensibility and the ideology of the American revolution to produce a powerful moral vision for post-revolutionary society that placed love between men at its very center." And, again, "...it would acquire a particular and explicitly political significance for North Americans during the revolutionary period when the encouragement of intense and loving male friendships came to be seen as crucial to the nation-building project and its creation of worthy republican citizens." (He does tend to repeat his favorite nuggets. As do I.)

This perfervidness is perhaps where Joseph J. Ellis found his notion of Washington, Hamilton, et al as a band of founding brothers. Well, there is another version of that: George the Father leading his troops into battle by day and, among many other sweet same sex deeds, assigning one or another of his favorites to rotate sleeping in his tent at night. Read the great, GREAT, pioneering UMass-Boston gay historian Charley Shively, and you'll never be able to read Joseph J. Ellis (or James McGregor Burns, Douglas Southall Freeman, David McCullough, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Edmund S, Morgan, etc, etc), or, Richard Godbeer, with a straight face again. (Shively's pivotal essays on very gay Washington, Lincoln, and Whitman are available from Gay Sunshine Press, Gay Roots and Gay Roots Volume 2, and Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers. He wrote his George Washington eye-opener in 1990. He is very sick and old and dying now, Charley Shively is. Would that he could know before he dies that he did not write in vain.)

Does Godbeer even admit to the possibility that the dark ogre of sex lurks over or inside or under any of this? When he does so, it is grudgingly and in his usual context of doubt:

"Though we should beware of leaping to unwarranted conclusions about the kinds of intimacy that 'dear chums' enjoyed when lying 'warm' together, [WHY?!] it is of course not inconceivable that in some instances 'those pleasures' might have included erotic stimulation or even sexual activity. Some letters are a good deal more suggestive than others in expressing nostalgia for nights spent with a close friend. Virgil Maxcy, who lived in Smithfield, Rhode Island, assured his 'chum' William Blanding in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, that he missed sleeping with him: 'Sometimes,' he wrote, 'I think I have got hold of your doodle when in reality I have hold of the bedpost.' A 'doodle' that could be confused with a bedpost was hardly in a state of repose, and Maxcy signed this particular letter, 'your cunt humble.' One cannot help but wonder." 240 pages and Virgil Maxcy's doodle is all we are given and Godbeer cannot help but wonder. Cannot help but wonder? Gee whiz, Godbeer. What does it take to make you really wonder? This is anemic, hetero, sex-panicked, ick-factor, transparently crude bullshit.

Yes, I am now thinking you must be straight. I had assumed you to be an outright and noble gay, fighting to tell us our real and true early American history, unencumbered by all your fucking theories. Excuse me, your non-fucking theories. Straight historians are usually terrible judges of anything gay. That's why we are never included in history.

As I said, Godbeer quotes quite often from newspapers, the press, the big encourager of this "friendship" stuff, as if they were unerring and reliable. The fact that there are few other sources, that sources are slim to non-existent, is, I am coming to sternly believe, no longer an excuse for the promulgation of "theory." IT SEEMS REASONABLE TO ASSUME when Godbeer spoke of a Jamestown colony of almost all men for so many many years "that much of the sex that took place...was sodomitical." What happened to that Godbeer? The longer I have worked on The American People, my own book, the more I have come to see the necessity for reassessing all the paths all "historians" and academics have been walking down and to see them to be misguided and in desperate need of a major re-alignment.

It is incomprehensible to me how queer theory, gender studies, indeed much of gay history, can continue to get away with making these a priori assumptions that sexual "categories" of the past are incommensurate with our own, even when it's all staring us in the face!

I am not saying that these friendships did not exist as non-sexual. I am just saying that many of them obviously were, and it is time to stop denying possibilities because they, in Godbeer's words, albeit buried in another footnote, "are unsupported by surviving evidence." He goes on: "It is surely disingenuous to claim that we face a stark choice between doing so and leaving topics such as this 'unexplored.' There is a middle way that involves unabashed but circumspect presentation of evidence." To which I say, Poo. This, again, is utter bullshit. This book contains precious little of this "middle way." It is all or nothing. To which I say, also in Godbeer's, once-upon-a-time intelligent way: "IT SEEMS REASONABLE TO ASSUME" that our history is being hijacked by Godbeer, and Goodwin, and just about every selfish and unbearably blind usually heterosexual "historian" who denies that we exist. Indeed, how many histories of The American People are we in? None.

I would like to leave the last words to my friend, Lewis Gannett, who is a historian, (he went to Harvard), and who has spent many years of his life fighting to get Tripp's great gay Lincoln book out there, against almost insuperable conditions, and treated with respect: "Why should Benemann's inability to pinpoint forensic-level proof be trumped by Godbeer's blindness to the richness, the detail, the sheer eloquence of these voices from the past, voices that so strongly speak to passion--to be plain about it, to dick in ass! Benemann's lack of definitive 'proof' is so much stronger than Godbeer's almost hysterical insistence that little homo sex can be entertained as historical reality."

Godbeer, old boy, (he went to Oxford), put up or shut up.


Larry Kramer has been writing his The American People since 1978. His first draft, just completed, is some 4000 pages. He and his editor are now rolling up their sleeves.