Sex or Sexuality?

The American culture has historically rejected change and therefore its citizens find a threat in ‘others.’ The list of peoples that Americans reject, the ones that don’t fit the WASP bill is endless, ranging from immigrants of foreign lands to Native Americans indigenous to their own land, from blacks to politically active women. This non-acceptance of equals dates back centuries before the United States was colonized and is something that citizens continue to cling to. One highly discriminated group that has yet to gain equality is the LGBT community. “Not ancient at all, the idea of heterosexuality is a modern invention, dating to the late nineteenth century” (Katz, 349).


The war on gays began when urban culture really took off, around 1880. It was a change triggered partially by technological innovation. “New Yorkers did not need to leave their armchairs to go slumming in the Bowery, for a new kind of metropolitan press had emerged in the city in the 1880s and 1890s that constructed a mass audience by focusing the public’s attention on precisely such manifestations of urban culture” (Chauncey, 39). Labeled as faries, pansies, degenerates, male prostitutes, and inverts, gay culture was far from its present day state. “Dressing entirely as a woman was hardly necessary to indicate that one was a fairy. In the right context, appropriating even a single feminine – or at least unconventional – style or article of clothing might signify a man’s identity as a fairy… Dark brown and gray suede shoes were “practically a homosexual monopoly” (Chauncey, 51-52).


A major difference in how society viewed the gay community over a century ago stems from how American culture defined sex and sexuality.  Since respectable women were thought to be pure and asexual, men took on the role of sexuality. Sex was not seen as mutual, but rather the man’s act of penetration, and therefore the object of which he utilized was of little concern. This allowed male prostitutes to flourish, serving gay and “normal” men alike. “Many men did find it relatively easy to substitute a fairy for a prostitute, since both offered immediate sexual satisfaction, as well as the pleasures and amusements of bawdy “female” companionship” (Chauncey, 84).

Like all societal impurities, the upper class looked down on what they called inverts. In spite of this, “gay culture was tolerated by – and integrated into – working-class culture and the degree to which social and sexual interactions between “queer” and “normal” men were central to gay life” (Chauncey, 45).  Even so, there is a great difference between tolerance and respect. Gays were given the same lack of deference as female prostitutes and other societal outcasts.

“As late as 1901, Dorland’s Medical Dictionary, published in Philadelphia, still defined “Heterosexuality” as “Abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex” (Peiss, 352). Americans used the term heterosexual in a very different way than we do today. In the blog, Homosexuality: More than Just Sex, Shari states that, “it is important to examine relationships between two individuals of the same sex that are not just rooted in sexual attraction.  Companionship and survival instincts are different aspects of homosexuality that cannot be ignored.” Though the current generation knows homosexuality as someone physically attracted to the opposite sex, this was not the case at the turn of the 20th century. Many men who frequented male prostitutes savored the companionship that it provided. Sometimes they would even marry, and “some men were so confident of their status as “normal” men that they readily acknowledged their relationships to others” (Chauncey, 87).

The treatment of faries demonstrates how strict and intolerant American culture in the late 1800s, and provides a background to understanding the current roadblock of LGBT movement. While the way that society views homosexuality has changed completely, American prejudice is still going strong.