Queering the Renaissance
Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities
In 1986 the US Supreme Court in the case of Bowers v. Hardwick ruled that the Constitution of the United States recognizes no fundamental right of privacy for consensual acts of homosexual sodomy. Delivering the majority opinion, Justice Byron White declared that “sodomy was a criminal offense at common law and was forbidden by the laws of the original thirteen states when they ratified the Bill of Rights.” Homosexuals engaging in sodomy were therefore not entitled to protection against state laws, like those of Georgia, which criminalized their behavior. Yet, as commentators were quick to point out, the original laws against sodomy, including the Georgia statute under consideration, had drawn no distinction between homosexual and heterosexual sodomy. Henry VIII’s statute of 1533 had prescribed the death penalty for those convicted of “the detestable and abhomynable vice of buggery commyttid with mankynde or beaste,” but had said nothing about the gender of those involved, or indeed about fellatio, which was the offense involved in Bowers v. Hardwick. The effect of the Supreme Court’s judgment was to give tacit protection to heterosexual sodomy, but to allow states to outlaw the homosexual kind. Its objection was not to the act as such, but to the gender of the persons who committed it.
This decision, and the questionable historical assumptions which underlay it, have inspired a great deal of mordant criticism by those who know that past attitudes to homosexual behavior were much more complicated than the majority in the Supreme Court implied and who understandably resent the invocation of what Justice White described as “this Nation’s history and tradition” in support of what they regard as intolerant homophobia. During the last decade, academics have poured out a stream of books which are explicitly intended to create a usable past for today’s gays and lesbians. With the notable exception of the pioneering Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982) by Alan Bray, relatively few of these works have been by historians. Instead, so-called “queer studies” have been predominantly literary in character; and it is the English literature departments which have provided the most energetic practitioners of the new genre.
There are some obvious reasons for this. From Leaves of Grass and The Picture of Dorian Gray to Remembrance of Things Past and Death in Venice, literary texts have been crucial in the formation of the modern homosexual identity. It is poetic discourse that gives us most intimate access to the nuances of sexual desire. Moreover, it is literary scholars who, through their exposure to post-structuralist theory, have become particularly sensitive to the relativity and instability of modern categories of gender and sexuality. They are skilled in reading against the grain of the text and accustomed to detecting those “slippages” which are the clue to the presence of ambivalent meaning and desire. Unfortunately, the déformation professionnelle of many critics reared in this tradition is that they habitually express themselves in prose of such tortuous obscurity that they are unlikely to have much impact outside the academy.…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.