Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture

Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture

by Siobhan B. Somerville

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Queering the Color Line transforms previous understandings of how homosexuality was “invented” as a category of identity in the United States beginning in the late nineteenth century. Analyzing a range of sources, including sexology texts, early cinema, and African American literature, Siobhan B. Somerville argues that the emerging understanding


Queering the Color Line transforms previous understandings of how homosexuality was “invented” as a category of identity in the United States beginning in the late nineteenth century. Analyzing a range of sources, including sexology texts, early cinema, and African American literature, Siobhan B. Somerville argues that the emerging understanding of homosexuality depended on the context of the black/white “color line,” the dominant system of racial distinction during this period. This book thus critiques and revises tendencies to treat race and sexuality as unrelated categories of analysis, showing instead that race has historically been central to the cultural production of homosexuality.
At about the same time that the 1896 Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson decision hardened the racialized boundary between black and white, prominent trials were drawing the public’s attention to emerging categories of sexual identity. Somerville argues that these concurrent developments were not merely parallel but in fact inextricably interrelated and that the discourses of racial and sexual “deviance” were used to reinforce each other’s terms. She provides original readings of such texts as Havelock Ellis’s late nineteenth-century work on “sexual inversion,” the 1914 film A Florida Enchantment, the novels of Pauline E. Hopkins, James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, and Jean Toomer’s fiction and autobiographical writings, including Cane. Through her analyses of these texts and her archival research, Somerville contributes to the growing body of scholarship that focuses on discovering the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality.
Queering the Color Line will have broad appeal across disciplines including African American studies, gay and lesbian studies, literary criticism, cultural studies, cinema studies, and gender studies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Queering the Color Line is a groundbreaking study that sets a new agenda for critical investigations of the intersecting histories of race and sexuality in the United States. Siobhan Somerville provides a model of interdisciplinary, politically engaged scholarship that is certain to become required reading in queer studies, race theory, and U.S. history as well as American literature.”—Lisa Duggan, New York University

“By offering a new understanding of the emergence of race and sexuality as collaborative entities, Somerville has made an important contribution to the expanding scholarship in African American studies, American studies, queer theory, and cultural studies.”—Robyn Wiegman, author of American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender

“This book pioneers new strategies for understanding the intersectionality of sexuality and race formation. Equally adept at textual analysis and historical contextualization, Somerville demonstrates how the early sexological division of people into homosexuals and heterosexuals was profoundly shaped by the discourse of scientific racism, and she elaborates her argument through a series of subtle reinterpretations of cinematic and literary texts that illuminate the profound—usually inexplicit—interdependence of racial and sexual discourse. A pathbreaking study.”—George Chauncey, University of Chicago

Library Journal
Black and queer studies have, for the most part, proceeded separately; here, Somerville (English and women's studies, Purdue Univ.) examines the intersections between these fields. In five essays, she looks at the writings of Jean Toomer and Pauline E. Hopkins, James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, the film A Florida Enchantment, and scientific racism. Although limited in scope, her essays do address a number of issues significant in turn of-the-century African American and gay life--like "passing" and self-identification--and, in doing so, raise interesting questions about the representation of race and sexual identity in U.S. culture. Recommended for all academic sociology and literature collections.--Anthony J. Adam, Prairie View A&M Univ. Lib., TX Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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Queering the Color Line

Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture

By Siobhan B. Somerville

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7876-1


Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body

"I regard sex as the central problem of life," wrote Havelock Ellis in the general preface to the first volume of Studies in the Psychology of Sex, one of the most important texts of the late-nineteenth-century medical and scientific discourse on homosexuality in the United States and Europe. Justifying such unprecedented boldness toward the study of sex, Ellis explained:

And now that the problem of religion has practically been settled, and that the problem of labour has at least been placed on a practical foundation, the question of sex—with the racial questions that rest on it —stands before the coming generations as the chief problem for solution.

In spite of Ellis's oddly breezy dismissal of the problems of labor and religion, which were far from settled at the time, this passage points suggestively to a link between sexual and racial anxieties. Yet what exactly did Ellis mean by "racial questions"? More significantly, what was his sense of the relationship between racial questions and the "question of sex"? Although Ellis himself left these issues unresolved, his elliptical declaration nevertheless suggested that a discourse of race—however elusive—somehow hovered around or within the study of sexuality.

This chapter begins with Ellis's provocative linkage between "racial questions" and "the question of sex" and explores the various ways in which they were intertwined in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century medical literature on sexuality. I focus on "expert" literature about sexuality, broadly defined to include the writings of physicians, sexologists, and psychiatrists, because it has been integral to the project of situating the "invention" of homo- and heterosexuality historically. Although medical discourse was by no means the only—or necessarily the most powerful—site of the emergence of new sexual identities, it does nevertheless offer rich sources for understanding the complex development of these sexual categories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Medical and sexological literature not only became one of the few sites of explicit engagement with questions of sexuality but also held substantial definitional power within a culture that sanctioned science to discover and tell the truth about bodies.

Previous literary, historical, and theoretical work on the emergence of notions of homosexuality in the late nineteenth century has drawn primarily on theories and histories of gender. George Chauncey, for instance, has provided an invaluable discussion of the ways in which medical paradigms of sexuality shifted according to changing ideologies of gender between 1880 and 1930. He notes a gradual change in medical models of sexual deviance, from a notion of sexual inversion, understood as a reversal of one's sex role, to a model of homosexuality, defined as deviant sexual object choice. These categories and their transformations, argues Chauncey, reflected concurrent shifts in the cultural organization of sex and gender roles and participated in prescribing acceptable behavior, especially within a context of white middle-class gender ideologies.

Although gender insubordination offers a powerful explanatory model for the "invention" of homosexuality, ideologies of gender also, of course, shaped and were shaped by dominant constructions of race. Indeed, although rarely acknowledged, it is striking that the emergence of a discourse on homosexuality in the United States occurred at roughly the same time that boundaries between "black" and "white" were being policed and enforced in unprecedented ways, particularly through institutionalized racial segregation.

Although some historians of the scientific discourse on sexuality have included brief acknowledgment of nineteenth-century discourses of racial difference in their work, the particular relationship and potentially mutual effects of discourses of homosexuality and race remain unexplored. This silence may be due in part to the relative lack of explicit attention to race in medical and sexological literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These writers did not self-consciously interrogate race, nor were those whose gender insubordination and sexual transgression brought them under the medical gaze generally identified by race in these accounts. Yet the lack of explicit attention to race in these texts does not mean that it was irrelevant to sexologists' endeavors. On the contrary, given the upheavals surrounding racial definition during this period, it is reasonable to claim that these texts were as embedded within contemporary racial ideologies as they were within ideologies of gender. My aim is not to replace a focus on gender with that of race but rather to understand how discourses of race and gender buttressed one another, often competing, often overlapping, in shaping emerging models of homosexuality. I suggest that the structures and methodologies that drove dominant ideologies of race also fueled the pursuit of knowledge about the homosexual body: both sympathetic and hostile accounts of homosexuality were steeped in assumptions that had driven previous scientific studies of race.

My approach is both literary and historical in method, relying on a combination of close reading and contextual analysis. I am particularly interested in the discursive strategies of those who sought to explain and naturalize the categories of "black" and "white," "heterosexual" and "homosexual." My goal, however, is not to garner and display unequivocal evidence of the direct influence of racial science on those who were developing scientific models of homosexuality. Further, although the texts that I study here reproduce the culturally dominant racist ideologies of the nineteenth century, identifying the racism of these writers as individuals is not the goal of this chapter. Rather, my focus here is on how these writers and thinkers conceptualized sexuality through a reliance on, and deployment of, racial ideologies, that is, the cultural assumptions and systems of representation about race through which individuals understood their relationships within the world.

I begin with an overview of the history of sexology and scientific racism in the United States. I then suggest three broadly defined ways in which discourses of sexuality seem to have been particularly engaged—sometimes overtly, but largely implicitly—with the discourse of scientific racism. All these models constructed both the nonwhite body and the nonheterosexual body as pathological to greater or lesser extents. Although I discuss these models in separate sections here, they often coexisted despite their contradictions. These models are speculative and are intended as a first step toward understanding the myriad and historically specific ways in which racial and sexual discourses shaped each other at the moment in which medical and scientific discourse articulated a notion of homosexuality.

The Emergence of Sexology in the United States

The field of sexology in the United States developed in conversation with slightly earlier developments in Europe, particularly in Germany in the late nineteenth century. What characterized the growth of sexology as a field was its attempt to wrest authority for diagnosing and defining sexual "abnormalities" away from juridical discourse and to place it firmly within the purview of medical science. Thus what was once considered criminal behavior gradually came to be described in terms of disease, as the title of the German sexologist and psychologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) made clear. Same-sex attraction was one of many such sexual "pathologies," which also included pedophilia, necrophilia, fetishism, sadism, and masochism, among others. Part of Krafft-Ebing's work first appeared in the United States in 1888, when a selection from his Psychopathia Sexualis entitled "Perversion of the Sexual Instinct" was translated into English and published as an article in an American medical journal. During the 1880s and 1890s, American medical journals also began to devote attention to "Urnings" and "Uranism," terms that had first been used by Karl Hein-rich Ulrichs in 1864, to describe the model of a female soul in a male body. Another term, "contrary sexual feeling," adapted from the German Konträre Sexualempjindung, first used by Carl von Westphal in 1869, also began to appear in medical journals of the 1880s and 1890s. Although these texts used differing terms, they shared the assertion that medicine, not law or religion, should be the primary site for determining society's response to those who practiced such behaviors.

In the 1890s, the work of the British sexologist Havelock Ellis became perhaps the most widely influential and authoritative source in American discourses on sexuality. Prominent in the medical community, he was an honorary member of the Chicago Academy of Medicine, a member of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, and vice president of the International Medical and Legal Congress of New York in 1895. His work first appeared in the United States in 1895, when his article "Sexual Inversion in Women" was published in an American medical journal. Apparently the first study of such depth to be published in the United States, this article was included in Ellis's subsequent book, Sexual Inversion, published in the United States in 1900. Initially appearing as the first volume of Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Sexual Inversion became a definitive text in late-nineteenth-century investigations of homosexuality. Despite the series's titular focus on the psychology of sex, Sexual Inversion was a hybrid text, poised in methodology between the earlier field of comparative anatomy, with its procedures of bodily measurement, and the nascent techniques of psychology, with its focus on mental development. Like Ulrichs, Krafft-Ebing, and Westphal, Ellis hoped to provide scientific authority for the position that homosexuality should be considered not a crime but rather a congenital (and thus involuntary) physiological abnormality. Writing Sexual Inversion in the wake of England's 1885 Labouchère Amendment, which prohibited "any act of gross indecency" between men, Ellis intended in large part to defend homosexuality from "law and public opinion," which, in his view, combined "to place a heavy penal burden and a severe social stigma on the manifestations of an instinct which to those persons who possess it frequently appears natural and normal." In doing so, Ellis attempted to drape himself in the cultural authority of a naturalist, eager to exert his powers of observation in an attempt to classify and codify understandings of homosexuality.

Ellis's Sexual Inversion gained attention in the United States partly because of the censorship scandal that surrounded it. On publication in England in 1897, Sexual Inversion was judged to be not a scientific work but "a certain lewd, wicked, bawdy, scandalous libel"; effectively banned in England, subsequent copies were published only in the United States. Yet the importance of Ellis's Sexual Inversion to American understandings of homosexuality lay not only in its reception but also in Ellis's reliance on American sources for his case studies, many of which were provided by Dr. James G. Kiernan, then secretary of the Chicago Academy of Medicine. Although medical and legal practitioners were the primary audience of Sexual Inversion, there is abundant evidence that the book also became an important source for nonexpert readers attempting to find representations of themselves. Letters written by the American literary critic F. O. Matthiessen to his companion Russell Cheney in the 1920s, for instance, mention having read Ellis's works, which apparently had profound effects on Matthiessen's understanding of his own sexuality: "For the first time it was completely brought home to me that I was what I was by nature."

Matthiessen's letter also mentioned that he had "marked and checked some passages that struck me particularly" in the works of another writer, Edward Carpenter. Not medically trained, but widely influential among sexologists in the United States and Europe, Carpenter, a British socialist, proposed understanding those who had same-sex desires through a model of intermediate types. Like Ellis's work, though with a slightly different approach, Carpenter's influential essay "The Intermediate Sex" was first published in the United States in 1911. Carpenter, who had long-term sexual relationships with men, offered an idealized model of inverts as "intermediate types" on a continuum of male and female characteristics, reversing the pervasive pathologization of homosexuality in medical discourses. Responding to negative characterizations such as Krafft-Ebing's, Carpenter wrote, "Nor does it appear that persons of this class are usually of a gross or specially low type, but if anything rather the opposite—being most of refined, sensitive nature." This characterization struck a chord among readers such as Matthiessen, who remarked on the "beautiful pictures [Carpenter] gives of love between men."

The early sexological model of inversion prevailed in the United States until the 1920s, when a notion of homosexuality as "abnormal" sexual object choice began to emerge. By that time, Sigmund Freud's views on sexuality, which had been widely circulated since the 1910s, began to be popularized. Psychoanalytic discourse defined itself in part through its differences from sexology, which had relied largely on physiological models. Freud viewed the debates about whether homosexuality was congenital or acquired as specious and instead argued that homosexuality played a part, to differing degrees, in everyone's sexuality. Thus, in contrast to the earlier sexologists, he refuted models that set "homosexuals" apart as a discrete group. Yet the older model of inverts as a special type did not disappear altogether, from either expert or popular discourse. As Eve Sedgwick has noted, "universalizing" models (such as Freud's) and "minoritizing" models (articulated by Ellis, Krafft-Ebing, and others), while contradictory, have both continued to coexist simultaneously as explanatory frameworks for homosexuality in American culture.

Part of the reason that Freud's views did not fully supersede the models of the early sexologists, as my discussion will suggest, may be that minoritizing accounts resonated with and reinforced prevailing American models of racialized bodies. Psychoanalysis did not incorporate an explicit discourse of race, perhaps intentionally as a response to growing anti-Semitism in Europe. As Sander Gilman has suggested, "As virtually all of Freud's early disciples were Jews, the lure of psychoanalysis for them may well have been its claims for a universalization of human experience and an active exclusion of the importance of race from its theoretical framework." In contrast, with their emphasis on physiological models, sexologists appealed to those invested in somatic theories, reinforced in the United States by concurrent discourses about racial difference.

It is worth noting here that although my discussion focuses on medical and sexological texts, the delineation of that genre of writing as separate from other spheres is, of course, highly unstable. Despite their claims to scientific objectivity and truth, these writers' investigations were inevitably shaped by contemporary political and cultural ideologies. Further, as Lisa Duggan has demonstrated, some of these writers, particularly Ellis, drew on newspapers and popular accounts both for the "data" of their work (i.e., case studies) and for the subsequent interpretation of those "data." There was considerable overlap between the sensationalistic accounts of "lady lovers" that appeared in newspapers and the supposedly "scientific" studies of writers like Ellis. Popular and scientific representations should be considered with equal skepticism; each was inextricable from the ideological biases of the day.

Nineteenth-Century Scientific Racism

Before turning to my readings of particular sexological studies, it is useful to discuss briefly the history of scientific studies of race in the nineteenth century In the United States, the term "race" has always been contested. In nineteenth-century scientific usage, it might refer to groupings based variously on geography, religion, class, or color. Scientific studies of race before Darwin tended to fall into two general schools of thought, monogeny and polygeny, both of which foregrounded the question of racial origins.

Monogeny, which had been the prevailing theory in eighteenth-century studies of racial difference, held that all of the so-called races were members of the same species and that they had descended from common ancestry. Racial differences were thought to be caused primarily by environmental conditions. Conveniently, monogenist theories meshed with the standard Christian origin narrative, in which, at the moment of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, humankind had begun to disperse and degenerate into multiple races from a single original source represented by Adam and Eve. Some proponents of this theory of degeneration believed that these differences were fixed and irreversible; others held that degeneration might be reversed in appropriate climates. Although monogenists emphasized environmental factors as the key explanation for racial differences, it is important to emphasize that monogenists did not generally advocate racial equality. Samuel Stanhope Smith, a major authority among monogenists, held that whites were the pure and original race from which others had degenerated. His ideas, developed primarily in his Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species, first published in 1787, held sway until the 1830s.


Excerpted from Queering the Color Line by Siobhan B. Somerville. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

Lisa Duggan
Queering the Color Line is a groundbreaking study that sets a new agenda fpr critical investigations of the intersecting histories of race and sexuality in the United States.
—Lisa Duggan, New York University

Meet the Author

Siobhan B. Somerville is Assistant Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Purdue University.

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