How would a British matron be verbally absuive to a gay man in 1860?
June 2, 2016 9:42 AM   Subscribe

I would like to know the terms a venerable but extremely acerbic British lady (Think Dowager Countess but deliberately mean) in the 1860's would use to be verbally abusive to a gay man, starting with the mildest possible terms and escalating to full blown, hate crime levels of verbal vitriol.

This is by far the oddest question I have ever pictured myself asking :( But it is for a project, so.....

Thank you, and I apologize if this question is uncomfortable for anyone.
posted by Jacen to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'd imagine "sodomite" would be somewhere in the upper levels.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:58 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm not entirely sure such a person WOULD say anything. A lot of women in that era may not have even have known what homosexuality was, let alone dress anyone down for being gay. The word Homosexual wouldn't have entered the lexicon until 1869.

The first ones to create a rudimentary vocabulary to define homosexuality were sexologist that surfaced in Europe towards the end of the 19th century. “Homosexuality” was first used, as mentioned, in 1869, by Karl Maria Kertbeny.

Also, there is context. What rank is the gay person? If they were of a lower social class than said woman, say a servant or someone of that ilk, then she might not say a word, but fire them without a reference, which would be catastrophic in those days.

Victorians were well known for ignoring that which they didn't approve. If it were a son or daughter, there might be cold civility and an insistence upon a traditional marriage with many children. Failing that, disinheritance.

There is some slang that exists from that time, "sod" is a shortening of sodomite. "Marjery" was apparently a rent boy. And "Nancy" is a perennial. However, where on earth would a respectable grande dame come across such appellations?

I think what you're envisioning would be completely out of character for myriad reasons.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:03 AM on June 2, 2016 [17 favorites]

I remember reading disapproving commentary in newspapers about when Oscar Wilde came to the states. While I think it may have been veiled references to him being homosexual (or just about him being different or effeminate) they talked about his clothes. I know a writer once referenced "little lord Fauntleroy".
But that is 20 years later.
I don't think an 1860's woman would ever refer to homosexuality but a direct reference might be something about a "crime against nature", and indirect one might be something about how he spends too much time in a questionable house in the company of degenerate men.
posted by ReluctantViking at 10:14 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Shirt-lifter might be in her vocabulary. It's old-timey.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:48 AM on June 2, 2016

I have some epigrams in a book at home which snidely insult gay men, but if I remember correctly they were 1500s-1600s stuff and, like most of the bawdy stuff that made it into print, mostly disappeared in the 1800s. I can dig them up if you think they might be helpful.

Also from an earlier era (early 1700s) is Fanny Hill. I've only skimmed it, but you might find something useful in the part where she "rouses the villagers to try to hunt the two men down and punish them." Should be able to find it in here or here somewhere. (Or maybe not. Try here instead.)
posted by clawsoon at 10:50 AM on June 2, 2016

The mildest terms might be a third-party reference to fashion, such as, "You ought to consult Mr. ---- on these matters. He is quite the aesthete, and has impeccable knowledge of ladies' dress, don't you, Mr. ----?"
posted by Countess Elena at 10:51 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Perhaps "rather a queer fellow"?
posted by jgirl at 11:23 AM on June 2, 2016

I remember reading disapproving commentary in newspapers about when Oscar Wilde came to the states. While I think it may have been veiled references to him being homosexual (or just about him being different or effeminate) they talked about his clothes. I know a writer once referenced "little lord Fauntleroy".

This isn't good advice for this situation, because Oscar Wilde was a famous dandy and aesthete in his day, long before he was put on trial for his sexuality. Well-off Europeans in the USA would also have been considered "different" and potentially more cultivated/mannered at that time (see for example the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville), which is probably more of what those writers were getting at.

I'm also almost 100% positive that being a dandy in terms of fashion was not popularly correlated with homosexuality. To the extent that the average person would even be aware of or have a name for homosexuality in 1860, as Ruthless Bunny says.

"Invert" (used as a noun) is the only solid predecessor for homosexual I'm aware of which is about sexual identity and not specific sexual acts (as "sodomite" would be). On the other hand, it was coined by Havelock Ellis, who was born in 1859. So probably too late for your date.

"Perversion", "Deviant", and other such vague terms for specific sexual activity is probably more what you're looking for, since the concept of homosexuality as a form of identity describing the whole person, rather than as specific proscribed sex acts, was only just barely starting to emerge during this period. And by barely starting to emerge, I mean that I'm not positive that a gay man in 1860 would have homosexuality as a self-concept, let alone that an elderly woman of good social standing would be aware of such things. If she's going to say anything at all, it's going to be about sex acts, not a person "being gay" as we understand it today.
posted by Sara C. at 11:25 AM on June 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

Also, "queer" in its sense of denoting homosexuality or effeminacy dates from the 1890s, so that won't work at all.
posted by Sara C. at 11:33 AM on June 2, 2016

I do think such a person would be more likely to simply cut the man dead than to rant at him. You could perhaps have someone else refer to the snub? "Cut him dead" would be a period correct idiom.

Homosexual acts ("buggery") were still punishable by death until 1861 so your matron could presumably make a reference to wishing to see the gay man hang if she wanted to threaten or frighten him.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:36 AM on June 2, 2016

I've seen 'pederast' used for homosexuals in old(-fashioned) sources. I think homosexual acts were sometimes referred to as 'the Greek sin' (or 'the sin of the Greeks'?). Like others have pointed out, using those words would probably sound like a very straightforward and crass accusation; if it needs to be veiled a little you could have her talk about something like 'evil vice' or 'corruption', or maybe 'acts of wickedness'?

But maybe your aristocratic lady really does have a shockingly crass side to her, and is knowledgeable of more slang-ish, lower class pejoratives. In Victorian times, homosexuals were sometimes called 'mollies' (just look up the wikipedia article on Molly-houses). The etymology seems to stem from 'mollycot', which wikipedia tells me was used for men interested in traditionally female activities. Among the hidden gay subculture, people called each other with women's names or with female titles such as Ladyship. Googling around, mandrake, he-concubine and he-strumpet also caught my eye as old-timey terms for homosexuals. Maybe your ladyship has learned her vocabulary from this vicious 18th century pamflet?
posted by sively at 12:11 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

‘Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England’ by Neil McKenna sounds like it'll have some great source material. Sounds like "Mary-Ann" might be somewhere in the middle of your matron's cutting remarks, though it's unclear whether "Fanny and Stella" were gay or trans. If your gay man likes drag, she might make reference to "a certain house in Wakefield Street, Bloomsbury" alongside the "Mary-Ann" jibe.

The work of Jeff Evans might have some clues, too. "Victorians more liberal than their Sixties counterparts, study suggests..."

Did your man have any boarding school (bullying, beating and buggery) or navy (rum, sodomy and the lash/rum, bum and bacca) experience? Fagging was an elite British boarding school thing for centuries, sometimes involving male-male sexual abuse, so you could certainly put a verb form of that in there somewhere if he's upper-class.
posted by clawsoon at 12:16 PM on June 2, 2016

I imagine a lady like that being all about the insinuations.

"...but you wouldn't know about that, would you?"

"...but perhaps you'd prefer"

Stuff like that. It's brutal in the right context. The Dowager's frenemies wouldn't use epithets, but they would be much more devastating in their own ways.
posted by amtho at 1:28 PM on June 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Fagging was an elite British boarding school thing for centuries, sometimes involving male-male sexual abuse, so you could certainly put a verb form of that in there somewhere if he's upper-class.

I think if you told a C19 public school man that he had fagged in his day, he would probably just give you a puzzled look. Of course he did! Fagging is running errands and doing scutwork. If it were used as an insult concerning an adult's relation to another adult, it would be more of a suggestion that the former had a lower status or a lack of proper pride rather than that he was getting buggered by the latter.

I agree with those who have said that a woman in this time would probably be less likely to think of a man as gay than as someone who had had some sex with other men. The last execution for sodomy in the UK was in the 1830s and the gross indecency law wasn't passed until the mid-1880s. I would hit the OED for "sodomite" and "bugger" and see if you can find a period citation.
posted by praemunire at 2:58 PM on June 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

"You have recently returned from Italy, have you not, Mr Jones?"

"Indeed, Madam, I passed the winter in Naples as travelling-companion to Lord Fitzherbert."

"The modern custom of Italian travel is one of which I cannot approve. Italian manners are foppish and effeminate. Of Italian morals I forbear to speak. To a young man raised in the purity of an English home, the air of Italy acts not merely as a stimulant but almost, I might say, as an intoxicant."

"Lord Fitzherbert was compelled to travel on account of his health. Indeed, his physician positively insisted upon it."

"Compelled, did you say? I have heard of certain young men compelled to travel abroad, not for their health's sake alone, but by an urgent necessity to remove themselves from English society and from the rigours of English justice."

"Indeed, Madam, I scarcely know what you mean."

"Do you not, Sir? I refer to those who have committed offences of an unmentionable kind. Need I speak more plainly?"

"Madam, I fear you are labouring under a misapprehension. Lord Fitzherbert's character is of the very highest."

"Then you must be unaware of the rumours that have lately been in circulation. To be plain with you, Mr Jones, both you and your boon-companion are under suspicion of a most unnatural crime."

"This is intolerable!"

"As intolerable to public opinion as it is vile, detestable and odious to morality. Leave this house, Sir, before my groom lays his horsewhip upon your shoulders."

"Madam, I .. I .."

"It was for sinners such as you, Sir, that Hell was made bottomless."
posted by verstegan at 3:17 PM on June 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

It should be noted that the Grand Tour and travel to Italy was de rigeur for well-bred British men during your period.

Traveling to Italy would vehemently NOT have been an insinuation that one was gay. It was a rite of passage for educated young gentlemen of the time.
posted by Sara C. at 3:44 PM on June 2, 2016

Best answer: This timeline of slang for male homosexuality might help.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 4:22 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Traveling to Italy would vehemently NOT have been an insinuation that one was gay.

I beg to differ. Italy and the Grand Tour were widely associated with sodomy in the minds of English readers. Defoe wrote of 'the Torrid Zone of Italy / Where Blood ferments in Rapes and Sodomy'. (For more examples, see G.S. Rousseau's article 'The Pursuit of Homosexuality in the Eighteenth Century'.) This is perhaps more a phenomenon of eighteenth-century grand-tourism, but I allowed myself a bit of artistic licence in imagining that a Dowager Countess in 1860 might have been quite old-fashioned in her prejudices. (Later on in the nineteenth century, of course, the stereotype of the English homosexual exile in Italy would reassert itself: John Addington Symonds, Horatio Brown, and so forth.)
posted by verstegan at 4:34 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Defoe wrote of 'the Torrid Zone of Italy / Where Blood ferments in Rapes and Sodomy'.

This is the stereotype of Italy as a barely-civilized place where people were constantly running around murdering each other in feuds and having illicit sex of various kinds. I don't think you can even say for sure in Defoe's time that "sodomy" referred solely to anal sex practiced on a male partner.
posted by praemunire at 4:41 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Italy and the Grand Tour were widely associated with sodomy in the minds of English readers

Sure, but accusing someone of traveling to Italy would pack the same punch in 1860 as accusing someone of traveling to San Francisco would in 2016. It wasn't a euphemism for gay sex, it was something that all men were expected to do. If you assumed everyone who underwent the Grand Tour was homosexual you'd have to assume every man you knew was homosexual.

And, again, I really can't impress enough on OP that this is not a phenomenon that well-bred 19th century women would have any knowledge of at all. At best, the character in question might know of concepts like "unnatural acts", "degenerates", "perversions", etc. in a hazy sort of way. It's extremely farfetched that someone like this would know enough about specific same-sex acts and early gay culture (remember, this was a capital crime at the time!) to go around accusing people.
posted by Sara C. at 5:04 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here's the epigram I was thinking of, from the Spectator Book of Epigrams (1993). However, it's from 300 years before what you're looking for, so it's not actually of much use:

Against a Maidenly Man

For to be married yesterday,
To Church a gallant jetted gay:
His crisped locks wav'd all behind,
His tongue did lisp, his visage shind.
His roving eyes rold to and fro
He fisking fine did mincing go.
His lips and painted seemed sweet:
When as the Priest came them to meet,
(A pleasant scouse, though nought of life)
He askst of both which was the wife?
- Timothe Kendall, Flowres of Epigrammes, 1577, after the Latin of Theodore Beza

I find it interesting that both "gay" and "mincing" were used so early, although, again, the 1500s and 1600s were much lewder than the 1800s.
posted by clawsoon at 6:30 PM on June 2, 2016

Best answer: Would she be educated enough to have read (whether told to or illicitly on her own) Homer? Or Shakespeare's take on Achilles's relationship with Patroclus?

THERSITES Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk: thou art thought to be Achilles' male varlet.

PATROCLUS Male varlet, you rogue! what's that?

THERSITES Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs, loads o' gravel i' the back, lethargies, cold palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas, limekilns i' the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take again such preposterous discoveries!

PATROCLUS Why thou damnable box of envy, thou, what meanest thou to curse thus?

THERSITES Do I curse thee?

PATROCLUS Why no, you ruinous butt, you whoreson indistinguishable cur, no.

THERSITES No! why art thou then exasperate, thou idle immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarcenet flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal's purse, thou? Ah, how the poor world is pestered with such waterflies, diminutives of nature!

PATROCLUS Out, gall!

THERSITES Finch-egg!

ACHILLES My sweet Patroclus...
posted by clawsoon at 6:41 PM on June 2, 2016

Just n'thing that this situation as described sounds so impossibly anachronistic that it kind of doesn't make sense to even try to put it into language. Notably:

-- The cultural concept of "being gay"-- i.e., of "sexual orientation" as a fixed set of sexual preferences that somehow defines who you are-- is at best in its infancy in the 1860s, and absolutely not well-developed enough to enter the headspace of a middle-aged lady at the time. There aren't "heterosexual" or "homosexual" sexual identities; there are just sexual acts, a tiny minority of which are OK, the rest of which (including visiting prostitutes, masturbation, gay sex outside of marriage, straight sex outside of marriage (particularly with someone of a much lower class), probably some sexual acts inside marriage (oral sex?)) are broadly and non-unanimously categorized as "vicious". Obviously, different people would be inclined to different kinds of sexual "vice" at different points, but I'm not aware of any sense that one's current flavor of preferred sexual peccadillo is somehow an integral and unchanging part of one's personality, available either for praise or for blame. (This, to my knowledge, is true all the way from the Middle Ages through the lateish 19c. Plenty of Renaissance poetry, for instance, praises beautiful boys as objects of desire to roughly the same extent as hot girls, without any particular concern about what sort of person would turn toward one vs. the other.)

--To the extent that sexual behavior does define any kind of an identity, my sense is that it has a lot more to do with whether one prefers to be the active or the passive/ feminized/ recipient partner in the sex act. You'll note on Bloxworth Snout's timeline that the early insulting slang for male homosexuality per se overwhelmingly focuses on the shamefulness of being a "bottom," not simply on being a dude who fancies dudes. (Ditto clawsoon's Shakespeare quote, where the insult is decidedly against Patroclus for getting fucked by Achilles, not Achilles for fucking Patroclus). Plenty of kings and other high-status figures, from James I through Byron, have male "favorites" without particularly losing face for it (assuming they don't meddle in politics); but those favorites are uniformly younger, prettier, lower-status men, making it clear that it's still the King who's on top.

(Conversely, male effeminacy is pretty widely scorned without being at all stably linked to gay sex; in fact, IIRC there was a countercurrent of thought (not universal) that reasoned that since like attracts like, dandies and other effeminate gents were probably especially attractive and attracted to the ladies.)

-- Thus, to mount any sort of plausibly period critique, your matron would need to dig pretty deep into the specifics of exactly what this gentleman has been getting up to in the bedroom. As various people have noted, for a Victorian lady, even assuming she had that kind of working knowledge, coming out and explicitly voicing it, showing in a conversation that (a) she understands these things, and (b) she cares, would be impossibly shameful-- involving far more loss of status for her than for the man in question. For a working-class man or a servant, she'd never have the discussion at all; for a near relation of her own class, the most I can see would be some escalating diatribe about being "plunged into vice" and "shameful conduct"-- but again, it's hard to see how this would look different from the equivalent speech one gives to one's college-age son who's been spending too much on the wrong sorts of loose women.
posted by Bardolph at 7:05 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Again, the existence of homosocial/homoerotic relationships throughout history is not at issue here.

What it as issue is how those relationships would have been seen*, whether they would have been discussed or even speculated about in polite company, and whether someone like OP's character would have known enough about the specifics to surmise about such things beyond generalities like "wickedness" or "unnatural intercourse".

The era when homosexual signifiers are understood by the general public, is very, very recent. Like since 1970, recent. Even open homophobia of the sort OP wants to write about is something much more associated with the 20th century, simply because it wasn't widely known about among the general public before the turn of the century. It honestly would make much more sense to set this in 1930, because at least then the emotions and motivations underlying the scene would make sense. And, yeah, you could throw in a lot of the anachronistic fun slang mentioned upthread.

*My guess is that these literary references would have been glossed over or not heavily explicated by the average person, in the Victorian fashion of ignoring anything indecorous. Not to mention there's probably a reason Timothe Kendall didn't become a major English poet... (though frankly I'm not sure that poem means what you think it means.)
posted by Sara C. at 7:06 PM on June 2, 2016

Interesting... so making it a capital crime didn't make it salaciously scandalous thing that people talked about? Certainly crossdressing was national headline news in both 1870 (Fanny and Stella) and 1880 (Hulme). Couldn't a sufficiently well-read, well-connected and cynical older woman put a few clues together and figure out that someone was involved in homosexual acts, even if they didn't have an understanding of it as an orientation? Enough to privately rip someone apart with? I don't doubt the naiveté of young Victorians, but surely an occasional older Victorian woman, someone not so nice, would have some knowledge?
posted by clawsoon at 7:57 PM on June 2, 2016

I am totally going off Dorothy Dunnett here, but "catamite" gets slung around quite a bit in her books set in Scotland in the 16th c., so a well-read 19th c. lady might reach for that one...
posted by zinful at 8:04 PM on June 2, 2016

Certainly crossdressing was national headline news in both 1870 (Fanny and Stella) and 1880 (Hulme).

I think that shows exactly the situation, to be honest. Crossdressing was so scandalous as to be newsworthy. Crossdressing. A man wearing the clothes of a woman* was unthinkable and salacious! So, yeah, a venerable stiff upper lipped matron isn't going to be concerning herself with it. Even if she'd gotten a whiff of its existence through improper gossip over brandy snifters or whatever. It's not something she's going to be openly on the lookout for and looking to cause a scene over, if she even knows it's a phenomenon.

Not to mention that both cases you mention are a decade or more after OP's period, in a time when this stuff was evolving very rapidly. In 1860 the term "homosexual" hadn't been coined yet. By the 1890s you have a lot of the stuff we associate with modern homophobia ("queer" as a slur, celebrities having their reputations ruined in the press, etc). So saying "but this source is from 1880 so therefore..." doesn't mean a lot.

*Which doesn't necessarily imply homosexuality, btw.
posted by Sara C. at 9:03 PM on June 2, 2016

I really can't impress enough on OP that this is not a phenomenon that well-bred 19th century women would have any knowledge of at all.

That's what most people assumed until recently. But new research has revealed a very different picture. The work of Charles Upchurch has shown that court cases involving sex between men were reported in the mid-Victorian press far more widely than anyone suspected. See, for example, Upchurch's 2013 article 'Politics and the Reporting of Sex between Men in the 1820s' (Google Books):
There is something of a paradox in the discussion of sex between men in Britain in the nineteenth century. For generations it was thought to have been unspeakable and unspoken-about in this period, and the discussion of it is almost entirely absent from nineteenth-century diaries, novels, parliamentary papers, and other sources. Yet for most of the nineteenth century, sex between men was regularly discussed in the mainstream newspapers, primarily through articles about court cases ranging in length from one paragraph to multiple columns of text. These stories were carried in newspapers directed at the upper, middle and working classes, although the amount of detail and the frequency of coverage varied from paper to paper. Over six hundred substantial reports relating to sex between men were printed in the Times between 1822 and 1871 alone, with some years seeing as few as three or four reports, and others having as many as thirty-seven or thirty-eight. The Weekly Dispatch had about two-thirds as many as the Times, while the Morning Post had just under half as many as the Times. There was some coverage of court cases related to sex between men before 1822 and after 1871, but in those periods the number of reports dropped substantially, and the amount of detail in most reports was often only skeletal.
The chronology is important here. Upchurch argues that there was a falling-off of newspaper reports after 1871, because of the moral panic over the Boulton and Park case. The subsequent news blackout lasted for about twenty years, until the Wilde trial in 1895. But there is every reason to suppose that an upper-class woman in 1860 would have had some awareness of the subject, simply from reading the daily newspaper, even though, as I tried to suggest in my little jeu d'esprit above, her vocabulary for talking about it would probably have been limited to terms such as 'unnatural crime' or 'offence against nature'. The Victorians were less innocent, and less inhibited, than we tend to think.
posted by verstegan at 1:40 AM on June 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I read your question and thought: "popinjay".

That's all I've got.
posted by ZipRibbons at 1:48 AM on June 3, 2016

And, again, I really can't impress enough on OP that this is not a phenomenon that well-bred 19th century women would have any knowledge of at all.

I'm under the impression that this was rather the Victorian ideal for women - to be too pure to even know about the existance of what were then considered as various types of vices - rather than necessarily the reality. And that like in all times, women talked to each other, to their servants, they listened and eavesdropped, inferred and deduced, secretly read risqué pamphlets and books if they got their hands on them (or gossiped about them with those ho had). They were not necessarily the naive, delicate flowers their male contemporaries imagined (and described in literature), although maintaining the appearance of one in public was of course vitally important. I'm not saying they would have had a detailed understanding of the mechanics of same-sex intercourse, but the general idea of men laying with men as with women surely would have been known to a woman who had reached a certain age and married.
posted by sively at 3:46 AM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Interesting... so making it a capital crime didn't make it salaciously scandalous thing that people talked about?

Yes, but you'll note that the sodomy law in England is just that-- a law against anal sex-- not frottage, not kissing another guy, not general sexual fooling around, etc. It's the act that's proscribed, not any sort of broader cluster of behaviors and desires that in the 21st c we'd map coherently onto "being gay" (because that didn't exist as a cultural formation at the time). So again, while your matron may well be aware that this is something that goes on, for her to be shocked and hurl direct insults on that ground will require her to find words for the 19c equivalent of "I heard that you put your penis in another person's butt."

Even in the 1880s-90s, after some of the thinking about this takes a more recognizable turn in the wake of Darwin and Continental psychology, "sodomy" is not an unproblematic stand-in for "man having sex with a man." I recall reading that Oscar Wilde, for instance, mostly stuck to intercrural sex (the most common kind for the Athenians, as well)-- hence his decision to prosecute for libel someone who called him a "sodomite", and as part of the trial, to try to distinguish firmly between pure, elevated high-aesthetic appreciation of a beautiful younger man and mere grubby sodomy (of the sort that gets reported in the article verstegan linked). Douglas's defense in that trial succeeded in making the case against that distinction, but it was not an easy or un-complex argument, and it drew in a lot of other ideas whose relevance takes work to understand, at least from from the perspective of our current, very different thinking about how sex works and why it's important. Actually, if you're interested in one available register for discussing desire and sexual interaction between men, those trial transcripts are a helpful read-- but again, we're talking extreme late 19c, and things have already changed a lot from 1860.
posted by Bardolph at 4:19 AM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I know we're not supposed to discuss things in Ask, but this is a fascinating discussion, and I'm glad the mods haven't cracked down.
posted by clawsoon at 4:40 AM on June 3, 2016

Hey, my PhD is in 19th century British literature and gender and sexuality! And with that said, I have to agree that this wouldn't really be a thing. The concept of being gay, or homosexuality as a preference, didn't really exist until later in the century. Boys had sex with boys at school, and then they grew up and got married to women, and those were not considered to be contradictory. Some men still visited male prostitutes, or would take male lovers, but it was more likely to be seen as arrested development ("why can't you grow up, the rest of us have") than sexual preference.

(This is outside of the UK, but Gustave Flaubert's letters (he's French) talk about how during his travels in the Middle East he visits young male prostitutes because that's just a normal form of tourism-- get a taste of local sexual mores along with the cuisine.)

Later in the century, the criminalization and clinicalization (giving it a diagnosis) of homosexual behavior began to shape into an idea of homosexual identity.

But in 1860? Way too early.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:25 AM on June 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

So, this is the curse of the specialist, but I just want to add— there is this idea that “Victorians” were the same from 1830-1900. But just as US citizens in 1970 had wildly different worldviews and life experiences than US citizens in 1990 did, the same is true of the 19th century. 1860 and 1880 are not remotely the same. “Homosexuality” as a concept had a meaning in 1880 that it simply didn’t in 1860, and a different meaning in 1885, and a different meaning in 1890.

The Dowager Countess on Downton may be viewed as “Victorian” in that universe, but she’s actually unrecognizable compared to mid-century codes of conduct. Trying to apply the cultural moment of those characters to mid-century is like...assuming Sylvia Plath must have had a twitter account because poets today do.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:04 AM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm under the impression that this was rather the Victorian ideal for women

I think this is a little bit of overreach.

Do I think that (some) Victorian women probably knew that a broad category of Sexual Vices existed? Sure, of course. Things happen, people talk, Victorian women weren't actually stupid or blind.

Do I think someone whose entire character has thus far been defined for us as the height of propriety would have a high enough degree of knowledge about specific same-sex acts to be able to suss out that someone partakes in them*, and then publicly rake him over the coals about it using specific language? No.

At most, it would be "unnatural intercourse", would not under any circumstances be spoken of publicly, and probably would not have been truly understood in the way that the average person in 2016 has a reasonable idea of what gay sex involves. Keep in mind that even in the 1920s, you have salacious novels about homosexuality using terms like "the love that dares not speak its name", and not, like "scissoring".

*This is actually the main crux of what feels anachronistic, to me. It's one thing if OP's character is going to witness two men having sex and then berate them for it. But the whole "x and y signifiers make me think this person is probably gay, despite the fact that I myself am not gay" is wholly a late 20th century phenomenon.
posted by Sara C. at 9:17 AM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Aye, I was thinking of the walking-in-on-them (or watching them through a keyhole) as probably the most straightforward way to get around the general lack of knowledge.

I was also wondering if there were any childhood rhymes or taunts that we've lost because Mother Goose was horrified by their impropriety and didn't write them down. Did kids put Molly-houses and Mary-Anns into rhymes that passed along distorted clues about male-male sex? (That was my own first exposure, though I didn't understand it at the time - playground jokes where the punchlines were "Frosted Flakes" and "Fruit Loops".)
posted by clawsoon at 9:30 AM on June 3, 2016

Response by poster: This was a super informative discussion, thank yall! I learned quite a bit.
posted by Jacen at 10:57 PM on June 3, 2016

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