Monday, August 27, 2012

Sexual identification in Georgian England

Pop quiz: If the word "homosexual" did not appear in common use until 1892 and the term "gay" wasn't used in reference to same-sex couples until 1953, what do you suppose folks who preferred the company of their own gender called themselves in 1805?

The fashion for self-identification -- or self-labeling -- is fairly new. We're gay, straight, bi, soccer-mom, bobo, sub, GenX, millennial, geek, jock, liberal, conservative, religious, dog-person, cat-person hipster Team-Edward nerds. We collect labels, arrange them all around ourselves, and then tell the rest of the world, "Hey, this is what I am. Deal with it." Kind of liberating, yeah? Our ancestors were not so lucky.

Don't get me wrong, people in the 18th and early 19th centuries got labels slapped on them all the time -- sans culottes, provincial, wife, aristocrat, artisan, journeyman, beggar, whore. They rarely sought out labels, though, because their labels came with a burden of responsibility, an expectation of behavior that was rarely liberating. Sometimes the weight of that burden convinced people with homosexual preferences to marry and beget children despite their nature. Sometimes it caused them to hide who they were and what they wanted.

Case in point: In 1631, the second Earl of Castlehaven was tried and beheaded for sodomy. Not because he was frolicking with another man -- though that was the superficial reason, loads of gentlemen did as much without being prosecuted for it -- but because he failed, spectacularly and publicly, in his responsibilities as head of family. He not only failed to keep his own liaisons discrete but also to control the behavior of his wife and children and other dependents. He would have described himself, not as a gay man, but as a head of house, an earl, and that label was neither liberating nor empowering. It shackled and ultimately defeated him.

In the soon-to-be-released story "Sophie's Rogues" -- co-written by Christa Paige and Vivien Jackson -- all three of the characters in the ménage are struggling with the challenges of satisfying their personal needs within the limitations of their labels. Sophie is a widow, Edward has just inherited a barony, and Sebastian is a powerful marquess. These are the labels that, in their society, are supposed to inform all of their desires and ambitions. Unfortunately for them, their desire for each other is just too damn strong.

Oh, and the story-specific answer to the pop quiz question -- How would the characters in SOPHIE'S ROGUES self-identify in 21st-century parlance? Well, Edward would probably call himself conflicted. Sebastian would call himself Master. And with both of those gentlemen lounging mostly naked in her boudoir, Sophie would call herself one lucky bitch.

~ Coming 1 September 2012 ~

Image from iStockphoto. Cover image belongs to Harlequin Spice Briefs. Both used with permission.


Christa Paige said...

Love the way you tied all this into Sophie's Rogues. She is a lucky lady for sure. I wonder if those self-imposed titles would change after the story ends and life carries on.

Vivien Jackson said...

Ooooh... you stop tickling the muse now, y'hear? *grin*