Sure, Walt Whitman was a big queen, but Abraham Lincoln?
Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Drawing on contemporary accounts of love, affection, and sex between men in 19th-century America, Katz (The Invention of Heterosexuality, 1995, etc.) teases out a history of sexuality in an era determined to veil it. He begins with a portrait of the intense friendship between Lincoln and Joshua Fry Speed, who avowed that “no two men were ever more intimate.” Katz is careful to place such comments precisely within their sociocultural context; along with many other sexual historians, he believes that the words “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” represent recent attempts to construct human sexuality into polarized and opposite extremes. By denaturalizing such a construct and pointing out its problems, Katz elucidates the shifting dynamics of bedroom behavior. The stories here, culled from diaries, journals, newspaper articles, court cases, and other documents, create a living tableau of 19th-century male sex in America. Whitman looms large, taking several lovers and thus several chapters. History’s unknowns, however, provide some of the most illuminating material; the stories of men such as Albert Dodd, William Davis, John Stafford Fiske, and Peter Sevanley must be told if we are to understand the shifting realities of sexuality from generation to generation. The photographs and illustrations— female impersonators, men wrestling, a bathhouse brochure—allow readers to witness the complex but often blatant coding of non-normative sexuality. Although most of Katz’s material concerns personal relationships between men, we do get glimpses into a communal queer culture as well through stories of such institutions as Frank Stevenson’s bar, the Slide, lasciviously dubbed by the New York Press as the “The Wickedest Place in New York.”
History at its best: informative, insightful, at times downright titillating.