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.