J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Gay-Baiting in Colonial Boston

The History News Network has posted an article by Thomas A. Foster titled “Even the Founding Fathers Had to Worry About Gay-Baiting”. The term “gay-baiting” is an anachronism, of course, but the activity it stands for was undoubtedly part of eighteenth-century public discourse. As Foster reports:

A bit of doggerel in a Massachusetts newspaper implied that the Freemasons, that venerable but secretive fraternity, were engaged in homoerotic intimacy. The satire, with a graphic engraving, appeared on the front page of the Boston Evening Post in 1751. Both image and poem mocked the Freemasons in an early version of gay-baiting. The image depicted two smiling men, one bent over receiving a trunnel, or wooden spike, the other, with a hammer raised overhead, ready to strike. It was designed to shock, as were these lines:
I'm sure our TRUNNELS look’d as clean
As if they ne’er up A—se had been;
For when we use ’em, we take care
To wash ’em well, and give ’em Air,
Then lock ’em up in our own Chamber,
Ready to TRUNNEL the next Member.
The poem escaped obscenity by artfully using the term trunnel as a euphemism for the male member. The poem also declared that “we don’t use TRUNNELS with a Sister,” thus portraying the men as sodomites who were solely interested in intimacy with each other.
The woodcut illustrating this newspaper item appears on the cover of the new book Foster has edited, Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America. It’s notable that a printer went to the trouble of creating this woodcut, which presumably had limited use.

Of course, the Freemasons of 1751 weren’t “Founding Fathers.” They were provincial British gentlemen, and American independence was still a quarter-century away. Foster could no doubt justify his essay’s title by saying that since this form of gay-baiting was around in 1751, the same attitudes and behavior were probably still part of the culture in 1776; thus, the U.S. of A.’s founders had to worry about being derided the same way. But by linking the “Founding Fathers” to victims of gay-baiting, Foster’s also employing a common American political tactic, especially beloved by the right but also useful for the left: tying one’s cause today to the nation’s noble founders yesterday.

In fact, the men who suffered the most from public gay-baiting in pre-Revolutionary Boston were Crown officials, the people our “Founding Fathers” opposed. In my article about Pope Night in The Worlds of Children, I wrote of how the Boston press and crowds questioned Customs official Charles Paxton’s masculinity. They pointed out with a wink and a nudge how Paxton remained a bachelor, had fawning manners, and once reportedly dressed in a woman’s cloak to escape an angry crowd.

Shortly before the war began, the Essex Gazette published doggerel about Gen. Thomas Gage that went beyond homosexuality to accuse him of molesting boys:
In truth, it’s judged by men of thinking,
That GAGE will kill himself a drinking.
Nay, I’m informed by the inn keepers,
He’ll bung with shoe-boys, chimney sweepers.
Such gay-baiting fit well into the overall political rhetoric of the Boston Whigs. One of their basic arguments against local pro-ministry politicians was: we are the great majority, and our opponents are corrupt, with secret plans to weaken our society. The 1751 attack on Freemasons—a new, somewhat secretive international association—played on the same prejudices and fears. Raising the specter of secret, forbidden sexual activity as well gave those charges even more resonance.

There were, of course, gay men and/or men accused of being gay among the Continentals. I’ll discuss a couple at some point.

1 comment:

Carey Anthony said...

"I'll discuss a couple at some point."

That I would love to read!
Thanks