Marc Stein on "Sodomites and Gender Transgressors" in Old New York

Historians in the News
tags: New York City, urban history, LGBTQ history

Today on Gotham, Katie Uva interviews Marc Stein about his new project, a digital exhibition that analyzes commentary on “sodomites” in New York newspapers of the 1840s.

Can you tell us a bit about the structure of the project: how did you settle on a digital exhibit, what is Queer Pasts, and how can a person access this material?

Queer Pasts is a new digital history project that I have been coediting with Lisa Arellano for the publisher Alexander Street/ProQuest since 2021. It’s available primarily through college, university, and public library subscription, commonly bundled with other Alexander Street and ProQuest databases such as Women and Social Movements. We publish six peer-reviewed exhibits per year. Each exhibit features an introductory essay and 20-40 primary sources (scanned and converted into searchable texts). My first Queer Pasts exhibit focused on a groundbreaking 1968 study of prison sexual violence in Philadelphia; the 1840s New York sodomites project is my second. These types of digital primary source projects encourage readers to develop their own interpretations, guided by the questions, frameworks, and recommendations of the project editor. For teachers who like to work with students on the craft of history and the challenges of interpreting primary sources, these types of projects can be useful. As a historian who has worked primarily on the 1940s through the 1980s, I challenged myself by turning in this project to a much earlier period. In a sense, the primary source documents genre allowed me to do so with greater comfort, since we do not necessarily expect our project editors to provide fully-developed analytic conclusions.

What are the newspapers you worked with, and how do they fit into the broader world of 1840s New York periodicals?

In doing this project, I was greatly influenced by Jonathan Ned Katz’s work on the 1840s sodomites (published in his book Love Stories), but also by the work of Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz on that era’s “flash press,” a collection of provocative, sensational, nativist, racist, and anti-Semitic newspapers, aimed primarily at young white men and focused in many respects on entertainment, sports, leisure, prostitution, and vice (see their book The Flash Press). My exhibit features twenty-seven items originally published in three sets of New York City newspapers from October 1841 to October 1842. Eighteen were published in The Whip or The Whip and Satirist; six in The Flash or The Sunday Flash; and three in The Weekly Rake. The majority of the items were previously discovered and discussed by the four historians just mentioned, but I found several additional items about sodomites, added a set of articles about trans subjects, and suggested some new avenues of investigation and interpretation in my project introduction.

What exactly is meant by “sodomites,” and were there other terms coming in and out of fashion at the time for people whose behaviors or identities we might recognize as “queer” today?

Sodomites were people who engaged in sodomy, and the word “sodomy” is derived from the biblical story of the city of Sodom. Religious scholars have long debated the nature of the evils of Sodom that led to its destruction, but the nineteenth-century term sodomy commonly referenced anal sex, oral sex, and/or same-sex sex. European historians (including Randolph Trumbach and Charles Upchurch) have identified communities of sodomites, and repressive campaigns against those communities, in large urban centers such as London, Amsterdam, and Paris in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but U.S. historians have not. We have ample evidence of queer acts and desires, but not gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans identities and communities, in colonial America or the United States before the late 1800s. That’s part of what makes this set of documents from the 1840s so interesting and so significant — they might allow us to push back the clock on when such identities and communities emerged in the United States. I find the term “sodomite” fascinating in part because it’s suggestive of both act and identity — it’s an identity based on an act. It’s also fascinating because while in theory the term could reference men, women, and people who engaged in cross-sex oral or anal sex, in practice (at least in this set of documents) it was commonly used for older and aggressive men accused of abusing and coercing younger men and boys. That’s quite different from the contemporaneous “female husbands” recently explored by Jen Manion or the somewhat later “drag queens” explored by Channing Joseph, the fairies by George Chauncey, the lesbians by Lisa Duggan, or the homosexuals and inverts by multiple scholars.

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