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Putting a Name to the Confusion

“A man who kissed or embraced an intimate male friend in bed did not worry about homosexual impulses because he did not assume that he had them. In the Victorian language of touch, a kiss or an embrace was a pure gesture of deep affection at least as much as it was an act of sexual expression,”

says Anthony Rotundo, attempting to define the boundaries between romantic friendship and erotic love, in relation to same gender friendships, in the late nineteenth century (Miller 4). Same gender relationships could exist on a physical level, expressing affection, without bringing up questions of sexual preference. Further, F.S. Ryman, a gentleman in his twenties, wrote of the very few documents ever discovered from the Victorian age regarding intimate encounters and the emotions attached to them. He has helped give us an idea of what some male relationships were like back then. In his diary, August of 1886, he describes spending the night in his best friends arms with out sexual intentions.

“…Now in all this I am certain there was no sexual sentiment on the part of either of us… I am certain that the thought of the least demonstration of unmanly & abnormal passion would have been as revolting to him as it is & ever has been to me, & yet I do love him & I love to hug & kiss him because of the goodness genius I find in his mind” (Duberman 45).

The ability to express love for another male through affection became more questionable short there after as the distinction between romantic and erotic love was less muddy. Until this point, no one got forced into feeling shame because they made it clear that they cared deeply for each other on a close-friendship level. An intimate or affectionate moment between two males never acquired a homosexual context. Male friends could kiss each other, lacing friendships with a more profound level of compassion, without the threat of being labeled as a homosexual. Culturally, this type of behavior had no definite wrong or abnormal connotation strapped to it. As Neil Miller describes, “In the 1870s, a concept of homosexual identity–or of gay and lesbian community–was barely articulated” (Miller xvii). In America, the idea of homosexual love was beyond societal understanding. Prior to the introduction of homosexuality people were free to care about each other on levels without the constraints of any insecurity base on a the possibility of getting a label.

While the concept of homosexuality did not exist in the United States, changes were happening in Europe with the issue. Right around the 1870’s affectionate relationships between males acquired a label.

“It was the sexologists… who were to define same-sex love, to give it a name. The term homosexuality was actually used for the first time in 1869 by Karl Maria Kertbeny, a German-Hungarian campaigner for the abolition of Prussia’s laws that criminalized sexual relations between men. Homosexuality was not the only term that the late nineteenth century found to describe sexual relations between persons of the same sex. The term inversion was even more widely used. And in 1870, the German physician Karl Westphal invented the phrase “contrary sexual feeling,” in detailing the history of a young lesbian. These expressions all had a clinical tinge to them. Then there were the more sympathetic, but no less problematic, terms- the “third sex” and the “intermediate sex” (Miller 13).

These terms and phrases had not yet come across the Atlantic to penetrate the English language in American society except for sexual inversion on a moderate level outside of the clinical sphere. In 1892, however, homosexuality appeared. Prior, the concept of homosexuality was not yet present in the United States. George Chauncey, who has made a thorough study of the medical literature on the subject, persuasively argues,

“Sexual inversion, the term used most commonly in the nineteenth century, did not denote the same conceptual phenomenon as homosexuality. ‘Sexual inversion’ referred to a broad range of deviant gender behavior, of which homosexual desire was only a logical bit indistinct aspect, while ‘homosexuality’ focused on the narrower issue of sexual object choice” (Halperin 15). The introduction of homosexuality gave the people something to think about. Chauncey states, “The differentiation of homosexual desire from ‘deviant’ gender behavior at the turn of the century reflects a major reconceptualization to the nature of human sexuality, its relation to gender, and its role in one’s social definition” (Halperin 15). Once more, an excerpt from Ryman’s diary illustrates his ability to be truthful and express, accurately, with affection how he feels about his best male friend. He was also able to get the same in return.

“I confess I like the orental custom of men embracing & kissing each other if they are indeed dear friends. When we went to bed Rob put his arms around me & lay his head down by my right shoulder in the most loving way & then I put my arms around his neck & thus clasped in each others arms we talked for a long time till we were ready to go to sleep & then we separated as I cannot sleep good with anyone near me” (Duberman 44).

The introduction of homosexuality has crippled this aspect of many relationships. Sharing a bed with one or even two other men was quite common do to living conditions of the time. Naturally, this resulted in the developing of much deeper ties between such men. However, as Miller confirms, “In an era where there was no name for such feelings beyond that of friendship, where no labels were assigned for sexual orientations and attractions, it was easy to indulge in “ tight-lipped equivocations” and denials- even to oneself” (Miller 10). There were no phrases, word, terms, or definition, not even descriptions that could get more specific than sexual inversion, which cover a tremendous range of deviancy. As a result, one could easily deny the abnormality behind the kiss or embrace given to a male friend Halperin states, “in other words, sexual preference for a person of one’s own sex was not clearly distinguished from other sorts of non-conformity to one’s culturally defied sex-role…” (15).

In 1895, four years after Whitman’s death, Oscar Wilde would give a sense of clarity, to the courtroom he stood before, as to what was meant by, “the love that dare not speak its name” (Miller 4). In the words of the intellectual Peter Gay, “Whitman was the product of the age in which homosexuality wasn’t labeled or understood, the age that “chose the spurious safety of ignorance over the risky benefits of knowledge,” (Miller 4).

Homosexuality’s emergence into American society gave everyone something to think about and their relationships to reconsider.

“Physical contact was an incidental part of sharing a bed, but it happened- and, in the context of a very affectionate relationship, this contact could express warmth or intimacy. It could even express erotic desire. In the absence of a deep cultural anxiety about homosexuality, men did not have to worry about the meaning of those moments of contact” (Miller 5).

It takes no scholar to recognize that the excerpts from Ryman’s diary raise unexpected, disquieting questions.

“When was the last time any of us, like Ryman one hundred years ago, slept cuddled in the arms of a close friend—a friend, not a lover, not a trick? When was the last time we fantasized about doing so? How many of us have ever done so, or fantasized about it? If, like me, your answers to the above questions are “never,” “never,” and “rarely,” my guess is your mainstream male, gay or straight—though I’d also guess more gays than straights take for granted certain limited expressions of physical—touching, kissing, and hugging—with their friends” (Duberman 46).

These in today’s world are mostlikely uncomfortable to answer. That goes to show what the invention of homosexuality has done for the world. The love one has for another of the same sex is crippled in expressing that love effectively through affection, as the fear of being labeled as a homosexual has become more powerful than the unshared love remaining in his heart.


Duberman, Martin Bauml. About Time: Exploring the Gay Past. New York: Gay Presses

of New York, 1986.

Halperin, David M. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Miller, Neil. Out of the Past/ Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. New

York: Vintage Books, 1995.

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