In twenty first century western civilization, homosexuality, the terminology used to discuss it and the controversy in which it is mired are inseparable aspects of our culture. For people of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, however, this was not the case. Although homosexuality was most certainly of equal prevalence in relation to today, it was not something that was talked about openly. Men and women alike who desired physical intimacy with members of the same sex most often lived in quiet despair. Those who acted upon such desires did so in secrecy for the discovery of one’s homosexuality meant disenfranchisement and public disgrace. In an exact parallel with the controversy of homosexuality in today’s society, social puritans of the nineteenth century believed homosexuality to be a threat to the godly institution of marriage and therefore fought vehemently against it. Though it had not always been the case, homosexuality was deemed a sin by Christianity on the grounds of its non procreative nature. To be a homosexual was, in essence, to rebel against God.
With the unprecedented theories of men such as Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin at the forefront of the western psyche during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there arose a great yearning to gain a greater, more scientifically based understanding of human behavior, specifically the seeming phenomenon of homosexuality. Not surprisingly, this exploration sprang forth not out of mere curiosity but from a desire to somehow eradicate the “homosexual problem”. No longer simply branded as a sin, homosexuality quickly began to be regarded as a psychological disease. Homosexuals were no longer depraved and sinful creatures but rather misfortunate souls who nature held dealt a poor hand and for whom it was necessary to find a cure.
In the following excerpt taken from one of the first openly gay American novels entitled Imre by Edward Prime-Stevenson, the narrator and protagonist Oswald ponders to himself the sexuality of his newfound friend, Imre, while at the same time recognizing the narrowness, the coldness, the oppressiveness of the terminology he is using to define the man in question.
Uranian? Similisexual? Homosexual? Dionian? Profound and often all too oppressive, even terrible, can be the significance of those cold psychic-sexual terms to the man who – ‘knows’! To the man who ‘knows’! Even more terrible to those who understand them not, may be the human natures of which they are but new and clumsy technical symbols, the mere labels of psychiatric study, within a few decades of medical explorers (Stevenson 64).
The lack of concrete terminology and understanding exhibited by the novel’s homosexual protagonist concerning homosexuality is immediately apparent and shows that even to a homosexual man, homosexuality is not so simply defined or recognized especially when the person whose sexuality is in question hides their true identity behind what Oswald defines as “The Mask – the eternal social Mask for the homosexual! – worn before our nearest and dearest, or we are ruined and cast out!” (Stevenson 101) Though he deems himself “a man who knows”, he cannot even be certain of Imre’s sexuality and he attempts to define this sexuality in terms that are rooted in ignorant myths concerning the origin or cause of homosexuality. This excerpt represents the limited contemporary understanding of homosexuality even by those who are a part of it, the necessity for a language with which to develop an openly accessible discourse upon the subject and thereby work to demystify and depathologize homosexuality. This is also the goal of the text as a whole. Much more than simply a tale of homosexual male love, Imre follows two homosexual men on a journey to self-acceptance and eventual happiness with each other. Although they do not remove their social masks they reveal their true selves to one another.
Before they arrive at self-acceptance, Imre and Oswald pathologize their homosexuality. Oswald as a young man struggling with the reality that he is physically attracted to men feels he is diseased and must be cured. He seeks the aid of an American physician who tells him to marry at once. Marriage serves as a part of the “social Mask” that Oswald claims homosexuals put on for the world. Quite expectedly, this marriage cure does not “cure” Oswald of his homosexual desire and he comes to the realization that there is nothing to be cured, that it is simply who he is.
I had no disease! No. I was simply what I was born! – a complete human being, of firm, perfect physical and mental health; outwardly in full key with all the man’s world: but, in spite of that, a being who from birth was of a vague, special sex, a member of the sex within the most obvious sexes; or apart from them. I was created as a man perfectly male, save in the one thing which keeps such a “man” back from possibility of ever becoming integrally male: his terrible, instinctive demand for a psychic and a physical union with a man – not with a woman. (Stevenson 96)
Imre equates his homosexuality to possessing a “psychic trace of the woman” within him of which he is ashamed. Oswald tells him not to speak of women as lesser beings and to think of all the great women in history. Think of your mother as I think of mine, he says. However, he chastises gay men whose gender presentation exudes flamboyance and femininity. “To think of them shamed me; those types of man-loving-men who, by thousands, live incapable of any noble ideas or lives. Ah, those patently depraved, noxious, flaccid, gross, womanish beings, perverted and imperfect in moral nature and in even their bodily tissues!” (Stevenson 86).
At several moments throughout the text, Oswald speaks of homosexual men who, despite their sexual desire for other men, represent the apogee of conventional masculinity. He himself claims to be such a man. He does so in an attempt to justify homosexuality to society at large, to prove that one can be homosexual yet retain his masculinity. Further than merely retaining their masculinity, he claims that men such as himself may be too much man, that no women could ever satisfy them. He raises such men to the level of an elite class above heterosexual men. In this sense, Oswald is attempting to create a language, to develop a discourse on, to give a shape to true homosexuality. True homosexuals love men both body and soul. The desire for the body is second to the love for the spirit. In other words, sex with another man is a consummation of the love they have for what lies inside their lover. Oswald truly values the intellect above the flesh and this can be seen when Imre embraces him sensually upon his return from camp. Oswald describes his attraction as a “sex demon” rising up within him and he flees from Imre’s arms.
Much more than simply a tale of homosexual male love, Imre serves to create a language with which to develop an openly accessible discourse upon the subject of homosexuality and thereby work to dismantle its pathologization within the western mind. Unlike novels about gay male love that preceded Imre, the novel bestows upon its two protagonists the happy ending that homosexual romance had long been denied in literature. They are not punished for acting upon a desire that society has deemed repulsive and what religion has claimed to be rebellion against the Almighty. Rather the novel ends with both men having accepted themselves for who they are and together looking forward optimistically to a future with one another.
Prime-Stevenson, Edward. Imre A Memorandum (Broadview Literary Texts). New York: Broadview P, 2003.
Imre: A Tale of Love and Self-Acceptance by Joshua Alan Blodgett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at verboseprose86.blogspot.com.