Thursday, October 6, 2011

FF:Another Way to Love: GLBT Culture in the Age of Steam

A tender photo of a Japanese couple (1910s, judging by the cut of the suit) (Buzzfeed)

October is GLBT History Month here in the United States and encourages everyone, both Queer and heterosexual alike to explore an often unspoken record. While homosexuality has only been brought to the forefront of civil issues in the Western world in the past sixty years, it's certainly (as old as sex itself) been present- albeit trapped under the ice, conveniently shoved into the back of the bookshelf, or simply ignored outright. If we view LGBT history (like steampunk) through the Euro-American lens it can seem pretty stuffy or one-note (that note being hard labor if we read a lot of Victorian novels). But it's not all doom, gloom, and repression, folks! There were plenty of cultures and nations around the world during the 19th century who accepted homosexuality, bisexuality, and even transgendered folks as a common occurrence.

Before we get into it, I'd like to preface this article, considering the political climate in some countries (including my own) these days that this piece is about alternate sexuality and gender identity. On top of that, it addresses it (and unions thereof) in a sympathetic, positive manner (I know that makes me a bad academic, but I'm also a proud straight ally). If you disapprove of this or aren't comfortable with these facts, I would really suggest you find a different article to read. Also all of the images are safe for work. All right? Is the unpleasant disclaimer business done with? Rockin'.

Got to hand it to Wilde, he has fine taste in train wrecks lovers, 1894

On Criminal Law
The Age of Steam was a little odd as far as LGBT legislation was concerned (a little queer? Sorry.. sorry, I know, history is srs biznis). While many countries in the west like Prussia, Britain, and Russia were criminalizing or putting stricter punishments on homosexual acts others like the Ottoman Empire, Italy, and the Netherlands were de-criminalizing it. In Japan, where homosexuality had flourished for centuries, the Western-influenced Meiji enacted a law making it illegal... only to repeal it in 1880! In many places homosexuality wasn't outright illegal but carried a heavy social stigma (didn't mean that a desperate Queer individual couldn't find some companionship in a specialized brothel). Not surprisingly, most of the records of out and proud GLBT individuals from the Western world at the time come from the artistic class... showing that some things just really don't change.

Two women at the turn of the century pose in Paris (buzzfeed)

Tribadism, Sapphic Love, and "Romantic Friendships"
In the 19th century lesbians both had an easier, yet more difficult time of it. On one hand, romantic friendships or "Boston marriages" were in vogue; where women engaged in passionate, heady friendship with one another. These included sharing beds, sending very intense love letters to one another, and in many cases being more loving than the womens' actual marriages to their male husbands. Since extant records don't give many more details, it's very much up to interpretation as to how many of these romantic friendships were simply for fashion, actual platonic love, or genuine lesbian affection (or bisexuality, which we'll discuss later).

Unlike homoerotic acts between men, lesbianism wasn't outlawed in the Victorian era under the infamous 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act (the very same law that nabbed dear Oscar in 1895) reportedly because Queen Victoria believed that women weren't capable of such acts! (Which, my dear readers, is a myth. The real reason why parliament never added lesbian acts into the CLAA was to avoid women becoming aware of such things. Oscar Wilde's reincarnation Stephen Fry told me so.) Not to say that independent lesbians didn't exist or that they were all under the radar: there was quite the burgeoning scene in Paris at the time, particularly at establishments like Le Hanneton. Writers such as Radclyffe Hall and Amy Lowell not only identified as lesbians during the Age of Steam, they flaunted it in their works.

The ever-dapper Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery)

Elsewhere in the world lesbianism was mostly underground. China discouraged it as it damaged the Confucian ideal of complete female filial piety and dedication to the family. A scant 10% of brothel clients in Tokugawa Japan were women, and no one knows how many were then pursuing ladies (lesbian behavior wasn't banned or not transpiring, it just wasn't as accepted as male-male relations). But some Non-European lands had a warmer reception to female love- like Siberia! The Chukchi, neighbors of the Koryaks, held female shamans in high regard and many took multiple wives. Likewise, many indigenous African groups allowed women to become warriors, own slaves, and marry other women if they so chose.

A Japanese male sex worker and his client, 1788 by Kitagawa Utamaro (glbtq)
Brothers in Arms, Mandrakes, and Nanshoku
Think of 19th century homosexuality and one purple velvet-clad name comes to mind: Oscar Wilde. And it's true, while Wilde was the face of proper Victorian ideals' war against sodomy there were many others around the world in the same struggle. Some men, like American artist Charles Demute or German writer/philosopher Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs were unapologetic and out- but most were forced to keep their desires a secret, only coming out in old age or posthumously. Like women, it can be hard to determine just who was gay in the 19th century since men also had intense friendships for the likes of which 'bromance' just doesn't cut it to describe. This includes going on long trips together, wearing matching outfits, and kissing or holding hands in photographs, making certain modern bloggers have a hell of a time trying to find extant depictions of a documented gay couple.

See what I mean? But ah well, it's fun to pretend.
But what about outside of the West? Glad you asked. There are a few surprising places during the steam age that not only had long, outstanding traditions of homoseuality but also retained them, even during this time of pressure to Westernize. The Ottoman Empire decriminalized homosexuality in 1858 and while they didn't exactly put the welcome mat out for gays. It just wasn't really a surprise considering the Ottoman preoccupation with dressing attractive adolescent men up as female dancers (a tradition called kocek that dates back to the 16th century). Said dancers were adored by men of the court, who would get into sometimes lethal fights over their affections. Furthermore there is the stipulation that anal intercourse is not banned by the laws of Islam, a loophole that many a sultan and imperial official took advantage of. Persia had a similar mentality and homosexual 'postures' show up from time to time in court miniatures. (Shah Abbas was particularly a fan, as shown in rather blatant images I can't put on this blog, sorry.)

Japan's culture of homosexuality was born in pederasty from the monastic and samurai orders. When the Tokugawa regime pacified its warrior class in the 17th century, homosexuality moved from bushido to the brothel- where prostitutes would pretend to be younger than they were in an effort to keep working. The floating world of prostitutes, illicit love affairs, and trysts with actors filled the public imagination (even women found it tempting) and was embodied in the various shunga (erotic) ukiyo-e prints. It was believed that as long as affluent men partook in these desires and still were able to produce heirs with their wives, it was completely acceptable; even healthy! When the Meiji Restoration banned homosexuality it lasted less than ten years before being repealed again- some believe because of this long tradition.

Colette by Jacques Humbert, 1896. (wikicommons)

Swinging Both Ways in the Age of Steam
To be honest, most of the alternate sexuality happening during the 19th century was quite clinically bisexual. Sure, Victorian housewives had their 'Boston marriage' and some gents were 'jolly old bachelors' (SERIOUSLY, Pickering and Higgins in Pygmalion/My Fair Lady? They have to have had something going on...) but that sort of lifestyle is easier to cover up with a heterosexual partner. And that's a lot of what happened. They carried out their social, national, and religious duty and got married and produced children... while carrying on affairs with the gender of their choice. One royal example of this was Gustav V, who ruled Sweden between 1907-1950 and married Victoria of Baden, with whom he sired three sons. However, after the cherished monarch's death the truth came out about his twenty-year relationship with a commoner named Kurt Haijby. The Swedish government had paid handsomely for silence about the king's... ahem.. companion so the announcement was quite a shock for the populace.

Gustav V:Got Sweden through two world wars, instated child welfare, snogged a wine seller on the side. (lgbtq)
Bisexuality also flourished amongst artists (big surprise). Salons, dance halls, and cabarets attracted the dejected and artistic in droves and with it became hotbeds of multisexual experiences. French dance star and author Colette had various female affairs (including Josephine Baker) during her heady days at the Moulin Rouge before settling down (if you would call it that) into a string of three marriages.

A Navajo couple c. 1868- the one on the left is a 'nahdleehe', or two-spirit (Indian Country Today)

Exceptions to the Rule: Third Genders
When male and female just fail to describe a person's individuality there are third genders, which are only recently really being recognized in modern western society. But various cultures around the world acknowledged the folks who just couldn't figure out which box to check on the census form.

Perhaps the most famous example of this acceptance was the Native American concept of the "Two-Spirit", or a person who literally had both male and female spirits inside of them. Depending on the tribe (since many, but not all, ascribed to the two-spirit philosophy) it was believed that these people had special spiritual abilities. In some cases a two-spirit took on tasks attributed to both genders (i.e. hunting and making clothes, in the case of the Lakota) while in others the individual dressed and worked as their desired gender.  In the case of marriage, two-spirits reportedly engaged in relationships with either gender- though it was typically bad luck for two of them to get together.

We'Wha, a famous Zuni two-spirit who was a respected potter and even met President Grover Cleveland in 1886. She was warmly received by the Washington elite because of her affable nature. (

Another interesting third gender of note are the Italian Femminielli (literally 'little woman-man', a genuine affectionate term), a Neapolitan identity that really caught on in the 19th century. A femminiello is a male-bodied person who dresses, lives, and behaves as a woman- often as a prostitute. They aren't necessarily transgendered, nor are they simply transvestites either. Really they're their own, very fabulous thing. And much like the two-spirits, even in veeerry Catholic Italy they weren't reviled- in fact it was considered good luck to have a femminiello on the block and they were often asked to babysit!

There are loads of third genders around the world, so many that PBS made this handy map! Others of particular note are the Fa'fafine of Samoa (also known as wakawahine in Maori and mahu in Hawaii) where male bodied individuals took on the chores and status of mothers and matriarchs. The Bugis people of Indonesia have no less than FIVE GENDERS, including Calalai ('false man'- female bodied, male identity), Calabai ("false man", the inverse), and Bissu (all gendered, for when you just can't decide).

A Victorian-era Femminiello. Don't tell the other 3rd genders, but this one's my favorite. (

Seeking Acceptance
While Gay-Straight Alliances and GLAD didn't exist in the 19th century, there were still places for closeted individuals to find some modicum of acceptance in countries where alternative sexuality was outlawed or looked down upon. One trend in Imperial Great Britain was to seek colonial office and sent elsewhere in the Commonwealth. According to some archaeologists studying extant records, a surprising number of British and French provincial governors and officers during the 19th and early 20th centuries were gay or bisexual. They were by no means the majority, but it was a road sought often enough by the gentry or middle class looking to escape constricted Victorian society.

A similar strategy used in the United States and Canada was to go west. Some sought the solitude to pursue both a livelihood and their passions (yes, there were in fact gay cowboys. Not all of them and certainly not as pretty as Heath Ledger, but they existed. When there are few able-bodied men handy, cattle ranchers are a little more inclined to look the other way) while others hoped to find peace in more remote communities.

For those unwilling to leave their homes and jobs, there were the risky venues of the 'molly-houses' (the forerunner to the gay bar, a combination pub and brothel). While the better of these establishments like the infamous White Swan in London catered to their clientele and kept things discrete in back rooms, there was still the risk of being raided by the police (... which the White Swan did in 1810) then all the joys of trial and punishment.

Two men in 1906 (fyqueervintage)
What we can see from this globetrotting survey of alternative sexuality is that the world wasn't as suppressed and stuffy in the 19th century as we thought. But we've also come a long way and have just as far to go in our modern times. Which is why I'm so happy to see LGBT people just as much as people of different ethnicity, nationality, economic class, and religion taking part in steampunk. I like to think that it's a safe place for everyone to express themselves (I swear, I see people get more irked about my opinion on goggles than a transitioning young woman deciding what to wear to her first steampunk outing. And it had better stay that way.) And should you be an LGBT individual looking for a creative outlet or to meet new people- I would recommend steampunk, the community tends to be very welcoming. Just don't insult the goggles. Believe me.

Helpful Links
-An article from Indian Country Today that details a revival in the "Two-Spirit" identification as a source of solidarity and pride for GLBT American Indians.
-Out From Behind the Curtain is an LGBT group on the Steampunk Empire community (free and open to join).
-GLBTQ is the encyclopedia of gay culture and contains many interesting articles on homosexual themes in literature and GLBT historical figures.


  1. thank you so much for this, it really opened my eyes! I am a Bi woman, and I knew NOTHING about some of these traditions, and I just wanted to thank you for passing on your knowledge!

  2. So elated to have found this! Intriguing work...Merci mille fois!

  3. Dear miss Kagashi, I'm a homosexual man that has always been attracted to other men, especially men with goggles :P With that being said, I think this is one of the most interesting readings I've stumbled upon lately, and not surprisingly, it's on your blog just like the few previous ones! ;)

  4. A fascinating post - so much I wasn't aware of. All your work in putting this together is much appreciated. Off to share the link.

  5. The first women you picture might be from the Takarazuka Review. It was/is an all female theatre troup out of Japan. All roles are played by women and the "male"s are usually expected to dress and act as men. They were formed in right around the right time. They're an interesting group if you want to check them out sometime.

  6. Wow. Fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing!

  7. Calalai and Calabai both are translated as "false man" - I'm assuming one of those should be "false woman"?

    At any rate, excellent article. :D

  8. Fantastic post here! witnessing for myself how open the steampunk community is to the lgbt pretty much cemented my love for it :) thank you for sharing this insight.

  9. Wow your articles are so in depth! I am involved in the Seattle area Steampunk group and have a few gay friends (I myself am not GLBT). Every January we have a Steampunk Exhibition Ball that supports the Center for Sex Positive Culture.

  10. What a gorgeous, considerate and well-cultivated article. Thank you for birthing it!

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