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Identifying as gay or lesbian, or just having same-sex sex, forces negotiation of a common set of social tropes: self-presentation, accessibility, community, safety, danger, and a division between public and private life. Julie Abraham’s broad and insightful intellectual and cultural history Metropolitan Lovers: The Homosexuality of Cities similarly forces us to confront how and why these abiding terms of homosexuality are the same underlying tropes of “the city.”
The associations between homosexuality and urbanity might seem obvious at first glance but, as Abraham impressively contends, we have glossed over the nuanced and contradictory understandings of homosexuals and cities in our attempts to argue for or against what homosexual and cities should be and do. Abraham’s central argument “that homosexuals became, over the course of the past two centuries, simultaneously model citizens of the modern city and avatars of the urban; that is, models of the city itself” (xvii-xix) dons the conflation as it pries it apart. Her revelation of a trans-temporal and transatlantic symbiotic infrastructure of city and homosexual traverses disciplinary boundaries as it asserts a fundamentally historical argument in everyday proportions. Literature from Balzac to Baldwin, sociological studies originating out of the Chicago School around 1900, and political rhetoric of the gay rights and liberation movements of the late twentieth century share, in Abraham’s narrative, the same theoretical tracks. As their urban and homosexual subjects parallel one another and converge, Abraham unravels a constant flow of penetrating, and inescapable, connotations for how gay and straight people have thought, wrote, talked about, and imagined homosexuality for two centuries and, most important, how they have lived their lives in and out of cities.
Many understandings of the homosexuality of cities have been dominated by gay male subjects and blind to the central presence of lesbians. Abraham explodes this insularity and places lesbians—as object of analysis, not yet subject of agency—as the originating trope of the sexualized city. In The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1835), Honoré de Balzac uses lesbianism to inscribe the male authoritative observer of the city, always watching and ready to pay for pleasure that he would not have found elsewhere (9). The lesbian becomes the symbol of an urban underworld that is at once inviting and threatening, no doubt for the same reasons. Émile Zola’s Nana (1880) picks up this thread of the all-knowing male who can participate in the secrets of the city just as the natural femininity of the female can partake in the artificiality of love through prostitution and lesbianism. By the 1920s and 30s, Walter Benjamin based his understanding of modernity, in the form of ‘the great city’ of Paris, on Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857), a collection of poems with lesbians as many of their subjects (25). Harking back to ancient Greece, Benjamin read these poems, according to Abraham, as “the rhetorical exchange of an industrial, political modernity to a sexual modernity” (29). Surprisingly, Baudelaire has nothing explicit to say about industrialization or cities but instead hearkens back to ancient Greece and provides for the presence of lesbians in cities, once sifted through Balzac, Zola, and other writers, as both ahistorical and historical. Baudelaire, Balzac and Zola certainly provided a rich tapestry of human desire and experience, but it is Abraham who parses out their imaginatively conflated themes that have allowed for a constant re-imagination of the changing material circumstances of city life for almost two centuries.
Before Abraham’s contribution to sexuality and urban studies, many more localized and literary works assessed the connections between homosexuals and cities, whether analytically or imaginatively. From the beginning of LGBT studies, scholars have considerably mined the work of Oscar Wile and Henry James (both homosexual), which has also been long-standing touchstones for urban studies. Abraham offers a new mode of looking at these figures and their creations not as questions of visibility and concealment, or passing, but as legibility (41). Reframing their convergence on questions of legibility complicates the idea that gay and lesbians could either be “out” or “closeted.” Closeting is an historically-specific notion but it is one of many contemporary understandings of sexuality, as Abraham claims, that we use to reclaim or denounce homosexuality in history, especially as Benjamin constructed it in relation to the city. Abraham extracts the multiple meanings of legibility to show how homosexuals like Wilde and James helped write the modern city into existence, or make it legible, as its interpreters (41), adding to the arsenal of literary interpretations of the city that sociologists and historians would use as evidence throughout the twentieth century. Abraham also proffers an illuminating relationship between homosexuals and criminals. Wilde was sentenced to prison for “gross indecency,” that is, for homosexual acts illegal in England. But in Paris, where homosexuality was not illegal, the criminal and homosexual were compatriots in their lives of concealment and display as much as their degeneracy (53), rendering both as creative geniuses (58). For contemporary readers programmed to distance themselves from any diseased or degenerate depiction of homosexuality, these associations are shockingly fresh. They further a new wave of LGBT scholarship that is complicating and deepening the historicity of homosexual identities and subjectivities. Abraham has taken us all a large step forward.
By tracing the through-line from Balzac to the Marxists and urbanologists of the twentieth century that influenced the systematization of social degenerates as a particular species, or type, of the city, Abraham destabilizes what has normally been cited as the beginnings of gay and lesbian identities: scientific diagnoses at the end of the nineteenth century. One of Abraham’s strongest implicit claims is that for as long as the city has existed, so has the homosexual—not just defined by sexual acts but by a selfhood interwoven with the metropolitan, whether projected onto subjects or asserted by them. Before German Richard von Krafft-Ebing, one of the central pioneers of sexual science, conceived of homosexuality as a psychic disorder, American Dr. George Beard conceived of the city as inciting severe anxiety (92). The diagnosis of the noise and crowded streets of the city as stimulation of the nerves to the point of degeneracy provided a framework for Krafft-Ebing’s types of sexual malady that were similarly tied to urban life. Other tropes of the city inevitably developed from these claims. While the individual could lose support and sustenance by foregoing family in the country and becoming an anonymous, masked individual in the city, the fear of chosen communities in the city both exacerbated fears of degeneracy as well as offered hope for the salvation of social outcasts. Under these paradoxical claims, female social reformers like Jane Addams founded settlement houses located in city ghettos that fostered a lesbian community under the pretense of the need for a neighborhood to come together to better living conditions (119). In this way, this generation of lesbians invented social work (114).
Abraham continues her narrative through Radclyffe Hall and Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), and others and gives fresh readings of their contributions to understandings of the city and homosexuality. But as she proceeds deeper into the twentieth century, and mid-century is given the least amount of attention, her analysis feels thinner. This is mainly because Abraham has developed her terms in the first half of the book, and there are fewer analytical surprises that animate her discussion of the twentieth century. The reader’s joy comes from seeing how these terms play out and how much their modern incarnations were predestined. This is quite an analytical feat. For within the maps she provides of nineteenth century literature and urban studies, Abraham gives the key findings of late twentieth century LGBT historians, such as the importance of industrialization and capitalism to the freedom to form sexual identities and the secret maps of gay male cruising spots and community hangouts, an air of self-evidence. The mid-nineteenth century testimony of Friedrich Engels on the working conditions and labor relations of the industrialized city (19) and the late nineteenth century guidebooks to the city that evidenced fascination with the secret stores of the urban underworld (48) clearly presage our ‘historical,’ contemporary scholarly understandings. Abraham’s story of homosexuals and cities continues to shape the past and the future, but its deep resonance resides in its ability to trouble and question readers’ present relationships to cities and their own sexual identity.
The Homosexuality of Cities
By Julie Abraham
University of Minnesota Press