19th Century Queer Context

Attitudes towards homosexuality in Europe and the U.S. in the 19th century followed different trajectories. For instance, in 1811, the Netherlands abolished any law criminalizing homosexual acts. In 1813, Bavaria followed the same path of abolishing laws criminalizing homosexuality. However, France was not so friendly to its homosexual citizens. On October 28th, the Marquis de Custine was beaten and left for dead after propositioning a male soldier in Saint-Denis. Following this scandal, he recovered and lived the rest of his life as an open ‘sodomite’ with his partner Edward St. Barbe. Russia, in 1832 criminalized “muzhelozhstvo,” which courts interpreted to mean anal sex between men. Men caught were stripped of their legal rights and sent to Siberia for four to five years. 1871 was the year Paragraph 175 was added to the German Criminal Code which made homosexual acts between men illegal (19th-Century in LGBT Rights).

In the 19th century US, “homosexual identity found its first social foothold  . . . not in sexuality or homoerotica, but in idealized conception of the wholesome and loving male friendship . . . . This ideal came from and was enforced by the male-centric institutions of boy’s boarding schools, all-male colleges, the military, the frontier, etc. – fictional and non-fiction accounts of passionate male friendships became a theme present in American Literature and social conceptions of masculinity” (LGBT History).  Many famous poets during this time period, like Walt Whitman, wrote poems on the beauty of different male figures (LGBT History). It is also important to note that Walt Whitman started  some of these poems in 1841, same decade The Hermaphrodite was believed to be written by Julia Ward Howe.

In the last half of the 19th century, surgeons began to offer “help” to people considered hermaphrodites by offering surgical reconstructions of large clitorises, small vaginas, and tiny penises. This was thought to be a way to make things easier for an intersex individual to grow up as either male or female. With the strict laws against homosexuality and biased ideas about hermaphrodites that existed, it makes sense that parents and doctors believed they were looking out for the well-being of the children. However, the importance of accepting an individual regardless of differences is vital for anyone’s self-esteem, so it is now frowned upon to define a gender in an intersex baby.