A Transatlantic War of Words: HIV Researchers’ Contests for language and symbolic power in the 1980s

New York and Los Angeles emerged as epicenters of an unidentified ‘cancer’ in the early 1980s. As the disease spread, it evoked panic, naive complacency, and/or determination to quickly overcome the malady (Shilts 2003).  The mysterious disease also inspired contests over narrative and the power to name the epidemic.

As  the ‘cancer’s’  link to gay men became clear, it attracted biblical references to ‘plague’ and eschatological  statements about imminent apocalypse and judgement.  Jerry Falwell’s passionate pronouncements arguably tower over all other declarations of doom of the period. AIDS, he asserted, was a ‘definite form of judgement upon a society’. This theme would be replayed at several points as the new disease inspired hysteria and fear (Rowan 1983). Yet, the confusion surrounding the disease and the battle to find words to describe it was not confined to the ignorant masses, the self-righteous, and those seeking justice.  Cooler heads engaged in scientific research on AIDS also passionately disagreed over the nature of the disease and its implications.

Transatlantic Inter-laboratory Wars for Recognition and Credit

Relationships among scientists studying the disease  in the United States and Europe gathered tensions of their own, even as public debate pitted gay AIDS activists against unsympathetic opponents.

By 1983 the effects of AIDS upon the immune systems of gay men were well known yet the genesis of the pathology remained mysterious. The suspected causes of AIDS included two types of the Human T-Cell leukemia virus,  and other previously unimaginable suspects, as scientists sought to unmask the cause for the weakened immune systems of gay men (Gallo and Montaigner 2003).

Parisian scientists at the Pasteur Institute reported having been first to have finally identified HIV as the ‘unknown virus that was causing immunodeficiency in humans’ (Barré-Sinoussi 2003).

However, the Parisian claim would be fiercely contested by US scientists in what is argued by Rawling (1999) to be the the “most long-standing and protracted public arguments in contemporary science”. Indeed, across the Atlantic, the National Cancer Institute claimed and gained widespread  credit for the discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS (Rawling 1994).

Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘Language and Symbolic Power’ 

Read alongside Pierre Bourdieu’s (2001) explorations of ‘language and symbolic power’, the conflict over credit for discovering HIV in the early 1980s makes for an  instructive study in  the ‘economics of linguistic exchanges’.

Bourdieu contends that the study of language needs to transcend more ‘intellectualist’ approaches to linguistics that approach language as ‘an object of understanding’ rather than ‘ an instrument of action’.  Where the former, ‘intellectualist’ approach departs from an ‘objective’  conception of language, and as such confronts it as structured by convention and principles – Bourdieu attends, rather, to the social context(s) from which language emerges. In Bourdieu’s view, language is not solely concerned with “grammaticalness”  but is concerned with the social ‘acceptability’ of words.

In a similar manner, while more objectivist understandings of language attend to ‘relations of communication’,  at the centre of Bourdieu’s approach is an understanding of  language as situated within ‘relations of symbolic power’. Thus the process of communicating is not only a quest to generate and establish meaning but it is also an exchange of words that carry ‘value and power’.

Communication thus is a reflection of one’s position within a broader social structure and their relative ‘symbolic power’ within a given context. Indeed,  context  is  key in Bourdieu’s thinking:  language is viewed as not only a ‘competence’ but a social knowledge of when and where to speak. The right to speak and the acceptability of one’s words are intricately tied to  social context and the degree to which one’s audience in a given ‘field’ legitimize and validate one’s speech.

Language is thus produced and circulated depending on the ‘structure’ of the given ‘field’ (the ‘field’ being a hierarchy  and network  of social relations).  That is to say, while  words may have a ‘kernel’, root meaning, as they are exchanged across hierarchies within a given context, they begin to mirror structures of power. The more dominant within a given field, then, influence and determine what  constitutes ‘legitimate’ language, and the contrary.

The Medico-Scientific field, language and symbolic power

The discovery of  HIV as the cause of AIDS inspired protracted conflict over credit for the breakthrough: perhaps revealing the degree to which  science around HIV and its discovery was enmeshed in power struggles – even as gay activists were engaged in similar struggles in the public square.  Over the course of the 1980s, scientific clashes over the discovery of HIV became tied to nationalistic narratives and battles to demonstrate US scientific dominance. Indeed, Rawlings (1999) and Altman (1986) argue that the struggle for first credit for the discovery of HIV was intricately tied to the need to project US power.   More particularly, the claims of Robert C Gallo on having been first to discover HIV were constructed in Americanist terms and deployed as evidence of American  scientific supremacy.  Rawlings also recounts the interventions of Prime Minister Chirac and Ronald Reagan as the conflict over attribution of credit assumed diplomatic implications.

To borrow from Bourdieu, it could be argued that scientific discourse over HIV  gave rise to a power struggle to ‘structure’ the  research field alongside nationalistic and maybe even linguistic lines. The contest for credit superceded the need to  produce  knowledge about the disease as science became a means to establish a transatlantic power structure and assign symbolic power to those who could claim precedence in the discovery of HIV. The ability to gain credit arguably not only offered a means to narrate history correctly, it  was also tied to concerns about the social hierarchy of the HIV research ‘field’.

Bourdieu contends that “language is worth what those who speak it are worth.”  Perceived through this sociolinguistic lens, the battle for dominance was a contest to determine the value and worth of Parisian and French research on HIV, which in itself would be a ‘symbolic asset’ to be deployed at a later stage. Winning the argument would act as a form of ‘symbolic capital’ that could be subsequently used to increase the ‘value’ of French research. Being able to establish their dominance in this debate would underscore the distinctiveness of French research and create the capacity for future  (symbolic and perhaps even material?) ‘profits’.

This case of transatlantic conflict not only serves to challenge assumptions about the ‘objectivity’ of ‘science’, it also underscores the degree to which struggles for power in the early days of HIV  and AIDS extended beyond the more public debates (over delayed government responses and such) to the more cocooned fields of scientific research.

Author: George Katito


Altman, Dennis. AIDS in the mind of America. Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986.Barré-Sinoussi, Françoise. “The early years of HIV research: integrating clinical and basic research.” Nature medicine 9, no. 7 (2003): 844-846.

Pierre, Bourdieu. “Langage et pouvoir symbolique.” Paris, Fayard (2001).

Gallo, Robert C., and Luc Montagnier. “The discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS.” New England Journal of Medicine 349, no. 24 (2003): 2283-2285.

Rowan, C. ‘Jerry Falwell, God, and AIDS’ in Gainsville Sun, July 15 1983

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, 20th-Anniversary Edition. Macmillan, 2007.

Mobilisation Without Borders: American Influence on the Netherland’s 1977 homodemonstratie

The first large-scale march by gender and sexual minorities in the Netherlands took place in 1977 in response to events that were unfolding in Dade County, Florida.

While it was not the first to take place in the Netherlands (in January of 1969,  protests in the Hague sought the repeal of the Dutch ‘Article 248bis’ that  imposed an unequal age of consent for homosexuals)   25 June 1977 was unprecedented  in its scale. It also would become the first of yearly, national marches that conformed to the (then) nascent, globalized institution of  ‘pride’ marches. (Hekma 1989, Hekma 2004)

Before Pride: Franco-German Influences on Dutch Attitudes

Thanks to a French imperialist project, the Napoleonic Code was instituted in the Netherlands in 1811. The code legalized homosexuality. Post-Napoleon, liberal laws toward homosexuality remained in place.

A century after the Napoleonic Code, ‘article 248bis’ came into force in 1911, instituting laws that undermined the liberal legal attitudes enshrined in the law. The legislative instrument set the age of consent for homosexuals at 21, while the heterosexual threshold was set at 16.

The institution of article 248bis, however, met with a progressive social and academic stance (resistance) on homosexuality influenced by Magnus Hirschfield’s Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (WhK) – the Scientific- Humanitarian Committee – in Germany.

Hirschfield and the WhK had established themselves as the first organization to seek social and legal protection for gender and sexual minorities at the dawn of the twentieth century. Hirschfield has also sought to explore, through academic methods, homosexuality not as an illness but rather an orientation among other diverse expressions of sexuality and gender. This was revolutionary for the time.

Jacob Schorer oversaw the Dutch chapter of the same organisation, the Nederlandsch Wetenschappelijk Humanitar Komitee (NWHK), that sought the same ends. After spending time in Berlin and having worked alongside Hirschfield, Schorer was part of a Dutch milieu that challenged conservative thinking on sexuality.

The Conservative Turn: Paragraph 175 goes Dutch

The Nazi  invasion during the Second World War resulted in the introduction of Paragraph 175 that made homosexual acts criminal in the Netherlands. As such, this effectively halted Hirschfield and Schorer’s earlier work.   In Germany the WhK’s work was effectively destroyed, with several pages of research being burnt by the regime. As is widely known, homosexuals were sent off to concentration camps during the period.

Post World War II Netherlands and Dade County, Florida

The end of the war witnessed the emergence of new organizations fighting for expanded rights for gender and sexual minorities.  The sexual revolution of the 1960s further liberalized attitudes toward formerly transgressive expressions of sexuality. By 1973, article 248bis had been repealed, and the view that homosexuality was a form of mental illness had become antiquated in the Netherlands.

Local struggles to transform attitudes, science and laws related to sexuality  reflected developments elsewhere in Western Europe at the time. However, in 1977, Dutch gender and sexual minorities sought to weigh in on policy discourse taking place beyond the North Sea and  the Atlantic- in Dade County, Florida.

At the time, the now infamous ‘Save Our Children’ campaign, led by Anita Bryant was seeking to overturn an ordinance that ended discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodation based on sexual orientation. The ordinance was subsequently successfully overturned in a widely-supported special election.

June 8, 1977 Miami Herald

June 8, 1977 Miami Herald

One of the cornerstones of Bryant’s argument was that the ordinance would have ultimately endangered children who would now be subject to homosexual propaganda. Furthermore, Bryant’s campaign contended that sexual minorities would now turn to recruiting young children to become as they are, given their inability to reproduce as same sex couples.

Bryant’s movement inspired mass responses in the Netherlands and was the chief motivation for its first large scale march among gender and sexual minorities in June of 1977. This would subsequently evolve into the now institutionalized, annual marches that one finds in cities across the world. In 1979, it was adapted to local tastes as ‘Roze Zaterdag’ (Pink Saturday), generally held during the last week of June or the first of July, evidently timed to coincide with Stonewall commemorations  at the time

A Dutch call to respond to developments in Miami.

A Dutch call to respond to developments in Miami.

Local, American policy discourse turned into a matter of significance in a  vastly different context that had already made progress toward the liberalization of attitudes related to gender and sexual minorities. In this regard, the Dutch example is an interesting case in the motivations for social mobilization. The local policy rewards were limited for the Dutch, yet, solidarity seemed to be an adequately strong motivation for the first mass, national ‘homo-demonstration’ (‘homodemonstratie’) to take place in 1977. The Dutch example, and others, also raises interesting questions about the contemporary relevance of gay pride marches given their emergence as reactions to policy discourses of a particular moment.


Hekma, Gert. “Homoseksualiteit in Nederland van 1730 tot de moderne tijd.” (2004).

Hekma, Gert, Kraakman, Dorelies, Lieshout, Maurice van, Radersma, Jo (red.), Goed verkeerd. Een geschiedenis van homoseksuel mannen en lesbische vrouwen in Nederland. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam 1989.
Author: George Katito

The 1726 Raid of Mother Clap’s Molly House: Georgian London’s ‘Stonewall’ moment?

In Eighteenth Century London, a subculture of effeminate men became visible as many of them were prosecuted and their fates publicized in newspapers and caricatured in literary publications (Norton 2006). Their public humiliation through ‘sodomitical trials’ was widely consumed by an audience that spanned the Atlantic. Georgian London’s subcultures based on male same-sex eroticism became more visible within a context of a modernizing economy, a rapidly reforming political context and a wave of ‘globalisation’. This points to a precedent to recent transatlantic exchanges that have shaped current cultural practices related to male same-sex eroticism and contemporary non-conventional same-sex domestic arrangements.

The unmasking of London’s ‘gay’ (to impose a term that really does not apply to the time) subculture seems to find a parallel to a similar ‘unmasking’ of gay male subculture(s) in New York of the late 1960s. Two events in particular share a thought-provoking correspondence. In the early 18th Century, ‘molly houses’ became the target of law enforcement raids with one particularly infamous incident: the raid of Margaret Clap’s ‘molly house’.(‘Molly’ in the early 18th Century referred to effeminate males. ‘Molly houses’ it would follow, brought together effeminate men and other men seeking to socialize and meet potential sexual partners.) Margaret Clap ran one such establishment that was ultimately raided and shut down in 1726.  The trial Margaret Clap, among other trials in the 1720s, brought attention to a new, distinct  molly ‘sodomite’ identity arguably in a comparable manner to the unveiling of ‘gay’ identity relatively more recent ‘Stonewall’ raid in 1969 New York.  The latter has produced new cultural constructions of male same sex relationships that have traveled across the Atlantic and taken shape through exchanges facilitated by the technologies of  the late 20th century and those of the present.

Comparing Georgian London’s Raids to Stonewall

The raids in Georgian London appear to be unprecedented. This may be interpreted as evidence of the novelty of such spaces in London. It could well be that London under the Hanover’s was a place were contest of authority flourished. Parliamentary power was on the increase, political power was more fiercely contested as party political contours took shape. Monarchy was increasingly constitutional. As the century progressed, radical voices demanding freedom of press also began to emerge. It would be reasonable to imagine that this enlightenment provided an ideal setting for non-traditional domestic set-ups and spaces for socialization to emerge.

Lyons (2003) argues that  the 18th Century raids rather marked an important shift toward intolerance in a city and context that had not been averse to male same-sex intimacy before.  King James I’s court and that of the restoration were clearly not offended by erotic behavior between males.  The royal court(s) housed a “well-established cadre of aristocratic men who practiced male sodomy” (Lyons 2003).  The 17th Century actually understood such liaisons – particularly as they involved aristocratic male encounters with younger men of lower economic standing – as a marker of upper class male masculinity.  There was thus an implicit tolerance, if not praise, of homoeroticism.

The subsequent Hanoverian London raids of the 18th Century thus signaled a distinct shift. Following through on Lyon’s logic, the notion of ‘molly sodomites’ and the feminization of male-same sex activity recast homoerotic behavior as less socially tolerable and as a distinct identity. Where 17th Century male same sex activity did not demand that its’ participants construct an identity around sexual practice, the publication of the 18th Century raids constructed the ‘molly’ effeminate sodomite as a particular identity within the Georgian city. It is tempting then to draw some parallels between an event such as Margaret Clap’s molly house raid in 1726 to that of Stonewall in 1969. After all, it would appear that heavy-handed policing in both contexts contributed to the emergence of new cultural terminologies to define same- sex couplings and sexual practices.

Georgian London’s ‘sodomite’ culture and its workings were observed by sailors traversing the Atlantic, reported through the witness accounts of immigrants, and ultimately consumed by an early colonial American audience. Lyons (2003) offers evidence of books, newspapers, and other publications that were also transported across the Atlantic that described the now visible and increasingly established subculture. The visibility of a male same-sex subculture was emerging at a moment of expanding empire and the growth of the Atlantic world, thus allowing for an unprecedented global transportation of bodies and ideas. Indeed, some of the men that inhabited similar subcultures  in France and the Netherlands were also forcibly (or otherwise) immigrating across the Atlantic even as new ideas about the place of gay male sex in the city spread.  At the same time, New England colonies sought to reinforce laws that already discouraged same sex erotic behavior.

In an era of significantly more intense global diffusion of ideas, language, and information the 1969 raids on Manhattan’s Stonewall bar also fueled the construction of gayness, articulated and diffused through the significantly more advanced  technologies of the time. A notable difference between the two periods would be the scales of literacy and access to information. The raids on Georgian molly houses were published to be ultimately consumed by a minority of literate and relatively well to do elites in London and abroad. The contrary holds true for Stonewall.

Similarities in Philosophy and Practice?

Georgian London, as New York of today (and perhaps less so New York of 1969) was at the cusp of significant prosperity for the moneyed and nouveau riche. It was a period where the appearance of wealth was highly prized and had tone reflected in architecture and urban space. Georgian London’s real estate market was thus driven by both the urge to keep up appearances, even as developers sought to maximize their returns on property through ‘maximum rent’ (Cruickshank 2010).  The context within which the molly subculture became visible was one in which speculation over land and competition for maximum profits were high (again, this perhaps sounds more akin  to present day New York?). The social and economic consequences of this competition for space and disciplined urban space for maximum rent gradually included ‘hunting down and hanging’ of men who had sex with men (Curickshank). Evidently, Manhattan’s Stonewall raids and riots did not produce a similar set of consequences. In New York’s case, modern day ‘mollies’ retaliated and emerged as a stronger unit.

Perhaps what may be said to be similar is that the raids in Georgian London and Manhattan’s Stonewall inn were crucial moments in defining what Henri Lefebvre refers to as the ‘philosophies’ or ‘ideologies’ that defined urban life in both cities. Lefebvre (1968) contends that urban life has long been been informed by rudimentary philosophies about what elements, functions, and structures constitute a city. These subsequently form the basis of more technical applications of such ideas through strategic and political decisions. At their fullest realization, philosophies about the city may evolve into doctrines that then justify the uses of the city.

The molly house raids had the unintended consequence of acknowledging the presence of men who have sex with men as a fundamental element of city life, albeit as an unwanted component, while also asserting that the city was also a space with the purpose of forming moral character. These twin trends toward acquiescence and belligerence subsequently traveled across the Atlantic as cosmopolitan centers in British North America also recognized sexually transgressive practice as an element of urban life (Lyons 2003). In a comparable manner, and in a loose application of Lefebvre’s concept of philosophy of the city, Manhattan’s Stonewall riots also reinforced gay men’s position as an established element of urban life and at present, this rudimentary philosophical shift in the late 1960s seems to be growing into a broader doctrine that asserts the legitimacy of gay presence in cities on the European and American sides of the Atlantic.

Author: George Katito


Cruickshank, Dan. The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital. Random House, 2010.

Lefebvre, Henri. “Le Droit à la ville, Paris: Anthropos.” Paris:(2nd ed.), Ed. du Seuil, Collection Points (1968).

Lyons, Clare A. “Mapping an Atlantic sexual culture: Homoeroticism in eighteenth-century Philadelphia.” William and MarQuarterly (2003): 119-154.

Norton, Rictor. “Mother clap’s molly house: the gay subculture in England, 1700-1830.” Stroud, UK: Chalford, 2006.

Transplanting ‘le Village’ of New York in Paris of the 1980s

A central instrument in the creation of a transatlantic movement for LGBT rights has been urban space. Through participation in urban land markets, gay men have increased their visibility and accumulated political and economic capital. In turn, this has provided a basis upon which to make policy and political demands.

The perceived early successes of Manhattan in appropriating commercial and residential urban space for a gay clientele inspired savvy entrepreneurs in Paris. Indeed,the late 1970s and 1980s witnessed the emergence of New York inspired urban spaces for gay men marked by Americanized symbols, names, and aesthetic sensibilities (Gai Pied 1982).

While  France had a long-held reputation of (relative) openness to minority sexualities, it is only in the 1980s that Joel Leroux opened ‘le Vllage’ the first bar to overtly dub itself ‘gay’. This inspired several other  entrepreneurs to open similarly Manhattan-influenced spaces.

'Le Subway' First Gay bar on Rue Sainte Croix de la Bretonnerie, opened in 1989. The Street would become a core of the city's gay 'Le Marais'. Source: Hexagone Gay http://www.hexagonegay.com/region/paris80-marais.html

‘Le Subway’ First Gay bar on Rue Sainte Croix de la Bretonnerie, opened in 1989. The Street would become a core of the city’s gay ‘Le Marais’.
Source: Hexagone Gay http://www.hexagonegay.com/region/paris80-marais.html

Yet, with a geographically small centre, a highly regulated housing market, and an infamously and increasingly exclusive bourgeois urban center –  the ability to compete and bid for residential property in the heart of Paris and create a sustainable  gay neighborhood of  the scale and quality of  ‘le Village’ of late 20th Century in New York has been more problematic.

Instead, while there is sense of Le Marais being a gayborhood of sorts, it largely functions as a playground with spaces for consumption, while residential location and choice among gay men tends to be distributed across the city and outside of its bounds (Giraud 2009).

Tamagne (2014)  partly attributes this relative absence of robust gay urban residential life in the centre of Paris to a tendency for the city’s population – and its gay residents in particular –  to ‘liv(e) on its past charms and glory’. The romanticization of Paris is argued to effectively stifle  the reality of  actually living a Parisian urban life.  That is to say, while attention is dedicated to preserving the city’s past charms, the capacity and will to actually maintain a charmed Parisian life becomes weaker, in Tamagne’s view.  Her arguments  seem to correspond  to some degree with David Harvey’s (2012) discussion in Rebel Cities about Disneyfication, i.e. that the ideas attached to fabled and beloved cities could produce a paradox whereby the city’s ‘charms and glory’  lead to the loss of the city’s distinctiveness. Concretely, the romanticized reputation of Paris appeals to a certain type of tourist capable of purchasing a ‘local’ experience of its gay quarters at rates that out-price those living in the metropolitan  region.

What appears to be at work in Paris is a property market in which residential location choice is not necessarily driven by a need to live and play within close proximity to the ‘village’. Commercial properties have more wherewithal to establish themselves in the center of the city, if only because they can afford to bid for rent at higher prices.  The transportation network in the city also seems to be functional enough to make decisions to enter and exit ‘gay’ urban space easier, without necessarily relocating.

Manhattan has thus served as a viable model and aspiration for New York inspired kitsch and consumption in Paris since the 1980s. Transplanting  New York’s neighborhood culture and residential location choice on the other hand has (arguably) been more complicated.

Author: George Katito


 Gai Pied. “Guide de Paris”, été 1982

Colin Giraud, « Les commerces gays et le processus de gentrification », Métropoles [En ligne], 5 | 2009, mis en ligne le 18 mars 2009, consulté le 16 décembre 2014. URL : http://metropoles.revues.org/3858

Harvey, David. Rebel cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution. Verso Books, 2012.

Tamagne, F.  ‘Paris: Resting on its Laurels?’ in Evans, Jennifer V., and Matt Cook, eds. Queer Cities, Queer Cultures: Europe since 1945. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.

Between Foucault and The Village People: A Transatlantic reflection on Bodies, Race, and Power

The cast of the Village People’s multicultural makeup is a testament to formidable powers of marketing and music business prowess. It is also an instructive note in Atlantic history for the pedantic and those unable to enjoy disco music without dissecting its socio-economic, political, and historical implications.

The original cast of The Village People brought together figures from different historical periods of transatlantic contact in the American story. The Cowboy represents a figure typically associated in modern imaginations as fighting against the ‘Indians’, a signal to some  of  the conflict and distrust between settler and native populations  Where the former is a key figure in celebrations of settler colonialism’s success, the latter  is ultimately invariably framed as a victim of loss of land and culture. Yet, in the context of The Village People and disco music, these differences are subsumed under liberty, freedom and a sense of camaraderie among the macho gay fantasy characters.

Settler Colonialism’s implications on native American cultures are well known: The arrival of European settlers reconfigured and largely displaced existing cultures and forms of social and political organization. In this process and in subsequent  quests for narrative, the native figure appears in history as either a valiant but unsuccessful defender of homeland, deceived or disenfranchised.

The cowboy, a relatively much newer concept, encapsulates  attitudes of self-reliance  and individual ingenuity. He also represents a celebrated use of violence to subdue native populations. The theme of violence against native populations, indeed, forms a core element of Atlantic settler colonialism. Delaney, for example, recounts how violence, rape, murder and enslavement formed a core part of the  mechanisms used to establish a European presence in the Americas (2011). The bodies of native inhabitants of the Americas were thus redefined at first contact as objects over which domination would be exercised and  reinforced.

For queer native Americans or rather, ‘two-spirited’ people,  first European contacts were particularly brutal.  Colonization restructured norms and moral values, and  criminalized  previously acepted effeminate men. Colonial contact also added an additional layer of condemnation and sociocultural exclusion for those that transgressed gender boundaries. In recent years, two-spirit activism has sought to reclaim a pre-colonial acceptance of native American people with fluid gender identity.

In the context of disco, however, the complex history of subjugation and violent repression is forgotten and danced away. However, if Morgensen’s (2011) reasoning is to be borrowed and applied to a popular culture gay fantasy ensemble, it could be argued that the much loved Village People serve to actually ‘naturalize’ relations born out of exclusion and colonial  oppression.  The group’s multiculturalism arguably suggests equality while ennobling a broader structure born out of imperial competition.

Granted, the suggestion of The Village People’s complicity in sustaining an oppressive racial order rooted in settler colonialism by hiding behind a veneer of multiculturalism  could be viewed as far fetched or tortured logic. However,  this opinion is arguably best substantiated when read alongside Foucault’s reflection on the late middle age political context that gave rise to colonial expansion  (and the restructuring of native American life).

Reflecting upon The Village People’s Indian character through Foucault

Foucault’s ‘Society Must Be Defended’ delivered to the College de France in Paris provides an insight into the legal and political forces that shaped the visio mundi of the very first European settler colonists. At the core of their frameworks for comprehending power was monarchy, supported by several jurists that had re-emerged with vigor at the end of the middle ages. In other words, power was primarily defined in relation to monarchy and the imposition of law. Yet, the power of the law was ‘all about the king: his rights, his power, and the possible limits of his power’.

The chief implication of power based on monarchy and judicial power was a strong claim to legitimacy to rule based on  theories of ‘right’ to rule and legitimacy. Monarchs and those who served in their service thus ultimately presided over networks of ‘relations of domination’ as ‘right’ was asserted and legitimacy enforced by the agents of monarchs.

Monarchies descending from the late middle ages thus sought to establish monopoly over war while also fostering political life that consisted of ‘multiple subjugations that (took) place and function(ed) in the (entire) social body’. Dominance and subjugation would also be sustained through the use of power to punish, torture, and imprison.

The implications of these basic tenets of  medieval rule were manifest in the use of brute force in the Americas in the service of all powerful monarchs, and in the creation and sustaining of  new networks of power and subjugation. Right and legitimacy thus empowered agents of monarchies to deploy violence and force in service of Kingly power.

Viewed in juxtaposition with Foucault’s reasoning, The Village People’s most historical figure, the native American, serves a self contradictory role – he simultaneously signals the past through attire and aesthetic while simultaneously depoliticizing and rendering it invisible.

The Village People, it would turn out, are a potentially instructive case-in-point for a reflection on the degree to which the performance of multicultural harmony may be self-defeating. After all, in this case, multicultural bodies serve to mask structural privilege and domination rooted in medieval monarchy and the judiciary-based structures of power about which Foucault spoke so eloquently.

However, given that The Village People emerged as a French business effort inspired by Greenwich Village – the group was conceived by two French music producers while walking in New York – perhaps a more down-to-earth analysis of the disco group would explore this creative process of transatlantic exchange.

Author: George Katito


Delaney, Carol. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem. Simon and Schuster, 2011.

Foucault, Michel, and François Ewald. ” Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Vol. 1. Macmillan, 2003.

Scott Lauria Morgensen. Spaces between us: Queer settler colonialism and indigenous decolonization. U of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Memory and Space in James Baldwin’s New York – Paris 1948 Transatlantic Displacement

Displacement, Memory, Affect and Space

Memory informs and determines our interactions, demands upon, and actions within, given geographies. It also plays a vital role in our projections into the future, structuring our expectations of what is possible within given spatial constraints. In effect, our ability to reach back into time consciously, or otherwise, disciplines our most profound emotional and psychological dispositions about space and the possibilities it presents.

Owain Jones (2011) captures this dance between memory and space eloquently. “(W)e are conglomerations of past everyday experiences”  he observes and adds that these past experiences are inseparable from their particular “spatial textures and affective registers”. Space, then, could be understood as both a product, and a manifestation, of memory and  the emotions attached to the past.

Transatlantic crossings – or maybe travel and immigration in general – complicate this ongoing relationship between memory, place and affect. Arrivals and departures force new intersections between spaces that are embedded in disparate experiences of the past. Indeed, the transcendence of spatial constraints through travel produces effects ranging from disturbance and/or displacement to synthesis.  Colonial transatlantic crossings, for example, have lead to conflicts based on, or over, memory and have lead to the erasure and replacement of subjugated schemes of memory with those of colonizing travelers. Conversely, transatlantic  love liaisons and marriages have led to syntheses of memory and the creation of cosmopolitan urban cultures along the Atlantic.

Travel, displacement, and immigration, thus, invariably challenge existing relations between memory, space, and affect for both the local and itinerant (or immigrating) parties.

James Baldwin’s New York – Paris Voyage

James Baldwin’s experience as a gay man (even though he rejected this title) of color who relocated to France in 1948 offers an instructive case in the temporal and affective implications of  queer of color transatlantic crossing  in the late 1940s and 1950s.

For Baldwin, Paris represented a space beyond the present, a blank canvass. In an interview granted to The Paris Review in 1984 (which shall be the source for this article), Baldwin reflected on his reasons for moving to Paris – ’I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge’. Where New York City had claimed his adolescent, queer friend and pushed him to commit suicide, Paris offered an alternative temporal context unburdened with the memories that marked New York.

New York had ‘beaten’ his friend to death, and in his view, New York, and post World War II United States were places where he, as a man of color would soon find that he had also ‘been beaten, and (deliberately so).’ He lamented that if he had chosen to stay he would soon learn that ‘The Whole Society ha(d) decided to make you nothing and they don’t even know they’re doing it’.

It is this schema of negative memories that he carries across the Atlantic to Paris, where urban spaces in Europe become,to him, timeless realms without a past. Devoid of emotional baggage and oppressive memories, Paris literally nurses him back to life after being on the brink of death as a result of poor nutrition and living on the borders of poverty. Indeed, a key reason for his departure from New York is a need to escape “the streets and the authorities and the cold”. The operational words there being  ‘the authorities’. Baldwin is deeply in debt  in New York and fears that his ‘luck was running out’ and he needed to escape the prospect of ‘jail or killing someone’. Paris, for him, carries none of the time pressures associated with New York. It exists in the future. Time, in Paris, is not running out or catching up with him, it is nonexistent. Paris is eternal, at least to begin with.

Once he regains physical health in Paris, Baldwin spends several hours writing and arguing around Saint Germain des Prés at Café de Flore and in Hotel Verneuil. His transatlantic crossing provides him an opportunity to not only transcend the spatial constraints of New York but to redefine and attach new meanings to the memories that he associated with this home city. His experience of Paris as a space out of time and in the future informs his re-entrance into New York and the US as a regression in time that he confronts with anger and a will to bring his home country into the future.

Baldwin brings memory, affect, and the space(s) of Paris and New York into a complex, transformative  transatlantic experience that redefines his self conception and his articulation of his past and future. Yet, perhaps the most intriguing relationship between affect, memory, and space  tied to Baldwin is played out in his trailblazing work of fiction, Giovanni’s Room, that he authors while in Europe.  In the novel, an American man in Paris contends with his sexuality and struggles to reconcile memory, the present, and the future even as he negotiates being in multiple spatial contexts.

In fiction, as in life, Baldwin offers an interesting insight into the complex ways in which time and space interacted with a queer body traversing the Atlantic at the end of the 1940s.

Author: George Katito


Interview: James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction no. 78 in The Paris Review, Spring 1984, No. 91

Jones, Owain. “Geography, Memory and Non‐Representational Geographies.” Geography Compass 5, no. 12 (2011): 875-885

Oscar Wilde, Victorian moral geographies and Empire

Oscar Wilde challenged the moralism of Victorian England and is frequently cited as the leading victim of Victorian puritanism (Adut 2005).

His evident and much publicized transgression of dominant views on gender  and sexuality culminated in his stigmatization and imprisonment.  However, it could be argued that while Wilde’s case exposed  processes that controlled bodies and morality at home, it also laid bare the mechanisms that were central to sustaining empire beyond the Atlantic.

Indeed, empire involved the spread of the same legal and criminal technologies of surveillance and punishment that Wilde fell victim to – structures that are still very much in place in much of Britain’s (African) former colonies.

In 1895, Wilde was under trial for his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. A dashing, younger, Lord Douglas became the object of Wilde’s affections and was showered with letters and telegrams – among them a sonnet. Subsequently,  Wilde’s  romantic communications were discovered by Douglas’s fellow student at Oxford who leverages his knowledge by extracting a bribe from Wilde.  Other blackmailers emerged to siphon off even more from Wilde. Yet, the downfall of Wilde was catalyzed not so much by blackmail but by Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, John Sholto Douglas. Wilde then felt compelled to respond with libel charges against the Marquess who continuously insinuated  (and placed his insinuation into writing) that Wilde was a “sodomite”.  Wilde was placed under trial to determine whether there was substance to Douglas’s claims.  During the trial, Wilde’s literary work was deployed against him, with Pictures of Dorian Gray’s homosexual subtext cited as evidence of his immorality – to which he famously responded that literary work cannot be immoral but rather either good or bad. More crucially, Wilde was confronted with ‘evidence’, in the form of gifts to young men from lower social classes, of his sexual liaisons with other men. Such liaisons contravened the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1895), the piece of legislation that would be the basis of his two year prison sentence. The same legal-moral  framework would undergird empire and form a key means of justifying and  governing the colonies.

Similarly strict regulation and criminalisation of non-heteronormative desire would ennoble colonial structures and civilizing missions. Just as the chastisement and imprisonment  of Wilde provided a morally satisfactory State response to a body that transgressed Victorian England’s moral imagination, similar discipline and surveillance of bodies would be central to the colonial project.

Wilde’s fate, viewed in retrospect, offers a potentially fruitful ‘site’ upon which to reflect upon Victorian England’s ‘moral geographies’ even as the most  extensive colonial empire expanded and established itself.

Author: George Katito


Adut, Ari. “A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde1.” American Journal of Sociology 111, no. 1 (2005): 213-248.

Matless, David. “Moral geographies of English landscape.” Landscape research 22, no. 2 (1997): 141-155.

Old Bailey Archives

A Queer Take on Christmas: Exploring the Possibilities of Incarnational Theology in Transatlantic Religious Debates on Human Sexuality

Transatlantic Crossings and Religion

Religious belief and liturgical practice have been productive as they has traveled across the Atlantic. Belief and practice  structure socioeconomic patterns of inclusion and exclusion, networks of political power, and the boundaries of cultural normativity. They also infuse daily practice and moderate the temperament and rhythm of lives in the communities on either side of the pond.

The effects of religion, positive and otherwise, have been long debated in public arenas since the first European arrivals decided to stay on in the Americas. Some viewed transatlantic immigration as an opportunity to live out aspirations of astute, puritan forms of Christianity, thus catalyzing the advent of God’s kingdom on earth. Others viewed Atlantic crossings as a golden opportunity to escape religious zealotry and  seek greater liberty of conscience (Godbeer 2002).

The New World presented – and continues to provide – ideal conditions for experiments in faith and non-faith to flourish.

However, even within the New World’s context of religious plurality, Catholic and other branches of Apostolic Christianity have also managed to sustain and establish themselves across the Atlantic. North America, and the Americas in general, are therefore pivotal not only to experiments and sects but to the established religions of the Old World.

The Catholic Church embodies this centrality of the New World to the Old Church  and Old World quite aptly at the moment in its choice of Pope. Similarly, the global Anglican communion has been radically animated by the vibrancy of North American Episcopalianism. This has been most visible in discussions in recent decades on the place of sexual and gender minorities in the Anglican Communion.

Bref, Catholicism and Anglicanism have been crucial transatlantic exports that have transformed life and faith in the New World, while being substantially altered themselves through transatlantic exchange.

Transatlantic Religious debates on human sexuality

As religious traditions from the Old World have settled into the New World over the past three centuries (a relatively short time when placed into historical perspective), debates on human sexuality have been persistently present. In Alta, California, Spanish arrivals debated over, and at times deployed, sexuality as part of the larger mechanism of conquest of local native populations (Voss 2000). In Jamestown, debates on the regulation of mores and social practices were frequently fraught as the  ambition and morality frequently came into tension (Godbeer 2002). Sexuality, more broadly, was pervasive and infused the language used to describe the New World as ’fertile’ or whose ‘maidenhead’ presented opportunities for the Crown(s) (Goodbeer 2002).

In much more recent years, the discussion has turned to same sex couplings and their morality. The range of actors has considerably expanded with many more voices (evangelical and pentecostal sects and such) weighing in on questions about the regulation of sexual mores and morality. To give some insight into scale, the Religious Congregations and Membership Study (2010) estimates an approximate 334,000 Catholic and Protestant and other Christian Denomination in the United States.

The contours of the debate, notwithstanding the immense diversity of voices, have tended to fall along predictable lines. Support or dissent has largely revolved around whether same sex relationships are scripturally sound and whether there can be evidence of any biblical sanction of such non-conventional arrangements. Religious responses in favor of same sex couplings have tended to appeal instead to the spirit of sacred texts rather than on literalistic approaches to biblical writings.

Liberal, interpretivist views on Sexuality

Interpretivist approaches to sacred texts have been at the core of liberal Christian stances toward sexuality, most notably in the Episcopalian church. This commitment to the spirit of the scriptural text was most dramatically asserted in the appointment of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, his sexuality notwithstanding.

The fallout and backlash within the Anglican communion has been widely publicized. (At the time, the Lexington-Herald Leader dubbed Robinson the most controversial leader within the Anglican Communion since Henry VIII).

In more recent years, Pope Francis in the Roman Catholic Church has been co-opted as a symbol of a more tolerant form of Catholicism, particularly following his now famous ‘Who am I to judge?’ response to a question about gays in the Church. Placed in transnational perspective, Pope Francis may be argued to be a metaphor for the progressive contribution of the Church in the New World to religion in the Old.

These New World attitudes to sexuality follow a longer record of progressive religious movements that have emerged in, or have gained momentum from, the Americas. American nuns, as a case in point, have played a key part in influencing not only their domestic culture through the provision of social services to underserved communities but they have also influenced and transformed the broader Catholic culture (Coburn 1999).  The 20th Century liturgical movement, for instance, resonated with (and to some degree reflected) American perspectives on the reform of Catholic ritual and worship (Pecklers 2000).

That the Church in the New World is a key component to progressive views on sexuality within Christianity is coherent and in keeping with precedent.

However, the tendency to limit debate on sexuality to questions of translation of scripture and to contests between literalism and interpretivistic approaches to scripture could be missing an opportunity to delve into foundational questions about the human condition and the body.

Missed Opportunities? Factoring in Incarnational Theology

« ..Christum; quia in ipso inhabitat omnis plenitudo divinitas corporaliter’
De Epistola ad Colossenses

Whether one ascribes to Christianity or not, it has often presented thought-provoking perspectives on the human condition.

At this time of year, one of those intriguing propositions comes into focus (beneath the din of consumerism).

The incarnation posits several assumptions about what it means to be ‘human’ and problematizes the complex relationship between space and time while also forcing a reconsideration of the concepts of ‘divinity’ and transcendence (among other things).

The complexity of the Christian concept of incarnation presents a tantalizing, but arguably underexploited, opportunity to enrich discourse on human sexuality. Barring questions on the historicity of Jesus and those about the merits of assuming that divine intervention in human affairs is plausible – the incarnation presents a potentially rich site upon which to reflect upon what it means to be human.

In the incarnation, a key tension between divinity and the human condition presents itself. On the one hand, it brings to the fore the notion of divinity, and requires a consideration of the parameters of transcendence – an outlining of what it means to be divine. Here, the incarnation challenges the assumptions that divinity consists in ‘ominpotence, omnipresence, and ominiscience’. Indeed, in incarnation, Christ appears as bound by limits to His power, knowledge, and presence. Yet, Orthodox Christological arguments maintain that the incarnation results in Jesus’ nativity as a simultaneously human and divine being. The nativity thus either presents a contradiction, an impossibility, or a clarification of the contours of what being ‘human’ or ‘divine’ are – notably that, perhaps divinity is not necessarily solely about being all-powerful, all-knowing or present everywhere, and that being human is maybe tied to more than questions about our bounded reason, power and presence.

Embedded within the incarnation account, therefore, are questions not only about divinity but also of humanity itself. In asserting that Christ is ‘fully human’ yet ‘fully divine’ some ontological questions arise. Does the Christ figure derive his humanity only by being constrained in presence, power, and knowledge (not being omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresence)? And if so, is this sufficient grounds upon which to define what it means to be human?

There is also the crucial Credal precept that Christ enters time and space, yet is unstained by sin. Yet, on the other hand, orthodox Christology asserts his full humanity. This would then imply that being human is not necessarily only defined by the subject’s propensity to sin. The incarnation challenges us to broaden our conception of the human condition and to define it beyond our capacity to be good or otherwise.

In Rea’s (2009) collection on philosophical theology, Thomas V Morris presents the incarnation as an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the definition of human – distinguishing between individuating factors (« the cluster of properties essential for an individual’s being the particular entity it is ») and factors that unite us all as a human kind (« properties without which… an individual would not belong to the particular natural kind it distinctively exemplifies »). This distinction implies that while we each have characteristics that define us as individuals, there remains the broader question of what then qualifies us as members of the same ‘natural grouping (this has been questioned and addressed by more able minds across the ages).

Bref, the incarnation account presents an opportunity to reflect upon what it means to be human, in light of the Christian mystery of Christ embodying both humanity and divinity..

Debates inspired by the incarnation about the definition of humanity – and more specifically, what it means to be human in relation to space, time, and knowledge are all potentially productive axes for a richer religious discussion on queer bodies.

For, depending on how one responds to these questions – or rather these sub-questions of the larger one of what it means to be human – it becomes possible to rethink what value is attached to bodies and minds that do not conform to heteronormative standards.

It is likely, I suspect, that in seriously attending to the incarnation story and its Christological implications, one would find it difficult to exclude or discriminate against queer bodies and persons. Hopefully, progressive Christian public discourse on sexuality will increasingly reflect on some of the  discursive opportunities embedded in the incarnation story and in orthodox Christology. It could be key to liberalizing attitudes toward sexual and gender minorities.

Author: George Katito


Coburn, Carol, and Martha Smith. Spirited lives: How nuns shaped Catholic culture and American life, 1836-1920. Univ of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Godbeer, Richard. Sexual revolution in early America. JHU Press, 2002.

US Religious Congregations and Membership Study, 1952- 2010.

Pecklers, Keith F. The unread vision: the liturgical movement in the United States of America, 1926-1955. Liturgical Press, 1998.

Rea, Michael C., ed. Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology: Trinity, incarnation, and atonement. Vol. I Oxford University Press, 2009.

Voss, Barbara L. “Colonial sex: Archaeology, structured space, and sexuality in Alta California’s Spanish-colonial missions.” Archaeologies of sexuality (2000): 35-61.

On Liberty and Offense: 1970s Radical Homosexual Groups in Spain

Notions of liberty and ‘liberation’ are topical once again in the wake of tragic events in Paris. At the core of the debate is the particular notion of  liberty of expression and the difficulties of defining and protecting ‘liberty’.

As in the past, ‘liberation’ is currently being brought into tension with fundamentalist religion. And it is in this  tension that awkward questions arise: What place does religious sentiment have in a secular republic seeking to assert liberty? At what point does ‘liberty of expression’ become illegitimate and bastardly?  Does the freedom of expression afford one the liberty to offend? How worthwhile is it to defend ‘liberty’?

The late 1960s and 1970s offer a potentially instructive moment to reflect upon current events.  Indeed, this widely-explored period was an interesting point in time  where aggressive calls for the liberation of minds and bodies became central, often  being played out before an offended audience.

Along the shores of the Atlantic, various groups including the then much-loathed homosexuals demanded liberty in a spurt of radicalism and tumult.

Among the several countries in the North Atlantic where ‘liberation movements  became visible at the time was Spain that hosted a network of radical homosexual groups seeking to break down medical and legal practices that approached homosexuality as criminal and pathological.

The Franco dictatorship that fell in the mid 1970s had consolidated homophobic attitudes.  Indeed, under Franco’s Spain, homosexuals were  assigned to particularly brutal treatment, even by the period’s standards: they were sent to concentration camps and subjected to humiliating medical centers in addition to the default universal stigmatization  of the time (Marlin 2014).

In Franco's Spaih homosexuals were imprisoned in large numbers, sent to concentration camps and 'medical centers'.   Source: http://www.lamarea.com/2013/11/24/campos-de-concentracion-para-vagos-y-maleantes-en-espana/

In Franco’s Spain homosexuals were imprisoned in large numbers, sent to concentration camps and ‘medical centers’.
Source: http://www.lamarea.com/2013/11/24/campos-de-concentracion-para-vagos-y-maleantes-en-espana/

Yet, radical and liberationist ideas took root in Spain as they had elsewhere on the continent and beyond the Atlantic. The Movimiento Español de Liberación Homosexual (MELH)  emerged in 1971, drawing inspiration from the Communist Worker’s Group and other  similar groups at home and abroad. The  Frente Homosexual de Acción Revolucionaria (FHAR) also emerged and  sought to undermine  hostile  Franquista positions toward homosexuality. The very presence of such resistance signaled a remarkable assertion of liberty.

In decades immediately prior to the 1970s,  oppressive, homophobic legal and medical frameworks had taken root. These effectively overrode the decriminalization of homosexual acts  that  had been enshrined in the Napoleonic Code framework adopted in Spain as far back as 1822 (Altmann 2006). ‘Laws against vagrancy’ adopted just prior to Franco’s rise were aggressively enforced to criminalize homosexuality along with other subsequent stringent laws that framed homosexuals as security threats, criminal, and pathological.

Nonetheless, as elsewhere, radical calls for liberty did not survive beyond the 1970s.  By 1978, radical  homosexual groups in Spain had declined significantly in vigor and lost much of their support.Radical groups for gay liberation took the route of almost all other similar movements along the Atlantic. The burning desire for liberty dissipated.

This (arguably) raises, in light of current events in France, an interesting question about  the trajectory of  calls for liberty and liberation.On January the 11th,2015  millions marched across Paris in an act of defiance, to assert liberty of expression and to proclaim liberation from fear. Yet, if the 1970s, a moment of a consuming appetite for liberation that engulfed Madrid as much as it did London and San Francisco shows anything, it is that radical protest has a short life span.

(As an interesting but not entirely irrelevant aside, it bears mentioning that the slain staff of Charlie Hebdo were  products of May 1968 . Prior to the terror attack, however, their brand of radical challenge was  rapidly disappearing.)

In post-Franco Spain (after 1975), the once radical, offensive gay liberation movement evolved (as it did elsewhere) into a  more inclusive, ‘sensible’, alliance that worked less against the  grain.Spain would became one of the first countries to legalize gay marriage and still remains one of the more open societies to sexual minorities. This transition from radical gay liberation to inclusive and integration-minded  activism, however,  has never fully assuaged offense from the religious establishment.

The Spanish case of gay liberation provides  food for thought in many  (perhaps slightly contradictory) respects. Firstly,  radical and offensive assertions of liberty are very difficult to maintain in the long term. Boredom sets in and provocation grows old and tedious. Secondly, fundamentalist readings of religion thrive  on offense and cannot be assuaged by capitulating to their demands. Moderation and avoiding confrontation does not necessarily defeat  the permanent sense of offense among religious extremists.

These thoughts lead to a third:  Seeing that one can neither avoid offense in the quest for liberty nor sustain provocative, radical liberationist protest  in the long term, it could  well be that challenging the status quo is a worthwhile endeavor, while its lasts.

By George Katito


Altmann, Werner. “” Vicio repugnante en lo social, aberración en lo sexual, perversión en lo psicológico y defecto en lo endocrino”. Un ensayo bibliográfico sobre la homosexualidad y los homosexuales bajo la dictadura franquista.” Iberoamericana (2001-) (2006): 193-210.

Marín, Lucas Jurado. Identidad. Represión hacia los homosexuales en el franquismo. Editorial La Calle, 2014.

Queer Questions about Jamestown

Richard William Cornish presents a queer (awkward and otherwise) episode among several heroic tales of perseverance, valor, ambition,  and tenacity associated to the Jamestown Colony.

Richard William Cornish, master of the ship Ambrose was executed in 1624 for the ‘ crime’ of having abused his position of power to lure William Cowse into bed.

It is a bawdy incident captured in Cowse’s court testimony about Cornish’s advances in tortured detail (some deleted, ostensibly for indecency according to sensibilities of the time).

Cowse recounts how Cornish invited and then forced him into bed while  changing Cornish’s bedsheets.  Cornish is accused of having:

« Called to this Examinat [i.e. examinee, witness], to lay A Cleane payre of sheete into his bed, wch this Exam[inee] did, And the said Wm went into the bed, and wold have this Exam com into ye bed to him, wch this Exam refusinge to doe the said Richard Williams went owt of the bed and did cut this Exam cod peece . . ., and made this Exam unredy.. »

Walter Mather, who appears to have been discretely  witnessing the event (that is, peeping or eavesdropping), attests to the event, contributing to Cornish’s  ultimate condemnation.

The case raises questions regarding precedent and prevalence of similar practice in subsequent years.

More importantly, it  also presents questions about power, masculinity, and gender in the colony:   In what ways did non-heterosexual sexual practices correspond to disparities in the distribution of power? The Cornish case exposes what seems to be a sexualized power difference.

Furthermore, it exposes the fluid nature of sexual desire and attraction, even in the 17th Century. Masculinity (as gender/sex) in this case does not necessarily imply desire for the opposite sex. In later parts of Cowse’s testimony, Cornish is reported to have proposed a more or less permanent arrangement that Cowse reportedly refuses.

The case also raises questions about the intersection between sexuality, crime and punishment. In this instance, the death sentence is deployed, in accordance with Virginia’s ‘Lawes Divine, Morall, Martiall’ (see article 1.9 of the code below):

« No man shal commit the horrible, and detestable sins of Sodomie upon pain of death; & he or she that can be lawfully convict of Adultery shall be punished with death. No man shall ravish or force any woman, maid or Indian, or other, upon pain of death, and know ye that he or shee, that shall commit fornication, and evident proofe made thereof, for their first fault shall be whipt, for their second they shall be whipt, and for their third shall be whipt three times a weeke for one month, and aske publique forgivenesse in the Assembly of the Congregation. »

Cornish’s case, thus, seems to be a potentially productive site upon which to launch a broader reflection on the personal lives of the men at Jamestown.

Similar lines of inquiry, however, have raised concerns about ‘liberals’ turning Jamestown into a gay village of sorts. Nonetheless, delving into uncomfortable questions about intimacy and desire in colonial Virginia holds  the promise of delving into broader reflections about the nature of power. The challenge lies in balancing curiosity on one hand, with faithfulness to the heroism of those young men that crossed the Atlantic and changed the course of human history.

Rictor Norton (Ed.), “The Trial of Richard Cornish, 1624”, Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. Updated 15 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/cornish.htm&gt;.

Tarter, Brent. “Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.

Author: George Katito

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