North America into the 20th Century

Across white North America, mores established elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon culture were strictly applied. These generally prohibited any expression of homosexuality or male femininity and, indeed, often punished it. That did not, however, mean it was eradicated; it just went underground.

In Male Sex Work from Ancient Times to the Near Present, Mack Freedman discusses the situation in the USA in the late 19th century:

‘at the Golden Rule Pleasure Club on West Third Street, (New York)… one was “buzzed” into a room with a table, two chairs, and a young man dressed as, and identifying as, a woman.’

This rise of trans sex work in the USA was noted in an 1894 medical report also cited by Freedman:

In many large cities the subjects of contrary sexual impulse form a class by themselves and are recognized by the police . . . They adopt the names of women, and affect a feminine speech and manner, “falling in love” with each other, and writing amatory and obscene letters. In New York City alone there are no less than one hundred of these, who make a profession of male prostitution, soliciting upon the streets and in parks when they get the opportunity.

Clearly, there were vibrant and active transsexual communities within North American cities prior to the ascendancy of modern ‘LGB’ thinking with its focus on conformity to  ‘gender norms’ and rejection of male femininity.

During the Weimar Republic in Germany, transsexuals and homosexuals were centre-stage; they were the glamorous pinnacle of a culture that delighted in sex and sexuality. After Adolf Hitler rose to power, these individuals were persecuted and the clubs and bars they frequented were closed.

Many Germans at this time fled to the the United States and amongst them were unknown numbers of transsexuals, homosexual cross-dressers and drag queens. Although US commitment to the Allied cause in WW2 caused a hiatus in which all attention was fixed overseas, it is a reasonable assumption that many of these carried on much as they had before, in their adopted home.

Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy

The celebrated French artist Marcel Duchamp, after arriving in the USA, maintained a second character called Rrose Selavy.  Duchamp was certainly not alone, although he was the most high-profile. There is no doubt that Duchamp lived his life as a work of performance art and his female character was a part of that.

It is not clear what Duchamp’s sexuality actually was. In this as in all of his private life, he was intensely secretive. A number of theories have been put forward 1 but we shall never know for sure.

The story of HSTS in North America is characterised as much by what was hidden as by what was revealed.

Lesbians and transmen

Writer Gertrude Stein

While the situation regarding transwomen was at least somewhat documented, lesbians and transmen were rather ignored. However,  prominent gender-non-conforming  (GNC) lesbian women like the celebrated writer Gertrude Stein (above) clearly shows that the GNC tradition of lesbian culture was strongly developed in the earlier 20th century.

Native and Hispanic influences

Two Spirit people and related  homosexual and transsexual expressions had long been part of Native American culture but these were largely destroyed by the colonists. Within Anglo-Saxon culture the predominant form of homosexuality was clandestine pederasty.

This did not lack the class element typical of Anglo-Saxon culture and, while this was not exclusively the case, tended to devolve to upper and middle-class men seeking sex with adolescent boys. This was effectively ignored in the culture, with a few high-profile exceptions such as the case of Oscar Wilde. The playwright had insisted on seducing the teenage son of a Lord of the Realm; this was a gross breach of English sensibilities, aggravated because he was Irish. In general, gentlemen were able to seduce boys without censure.

The United States, while founded on Anglo-Saxon ideals, was never a purely Anglo-Saxon nation. Especially after the end of the Civil War in 1865, huge levels of immigration, especially from other areas of Europe, brought very different mores. In many southern European cultures, transsexualism was well established as a natural expression of male homosexuality and immigrants from these areas brought their laissez-faire attitudes with them.

At the same time, the US had significant so-called Hispanic populations, which had taken on the mores both of Native American cultures (which they largely were) and those of their own colonisers, who were mainly Spanish.  This meant that within the geographical borders of the United States there were significant populations wherein homosexuality and transsexualism were commonplace; that they were disregarded by the mainstream culture has more to do with that mainstream culture than the others.

Today, increased levels of immigration from Spanish-speaking Latin America has introduced an infusion of new transsexual blood to the cultural milieu. While these cultures can be extremely macho they are also traditional ‘two-group’ cultures in which women have great power as mothers and grandmothers. No man from one of them will disrespect his mother nor flaunt her wishes.

As we discuss elsewhere, within these traditional ‘two group’ societies, there is a social space for feminine homosexual boys, especially if they are beautiful. This individuals themselves are constantly at risk from insecure men, but they are nevertheless there and supported within the culture.

When we look at the United States, we are looking at an incredibly complex cultural multiverse within which ideas and mores seep from one culture into the other.


Similarly, in Canada, there are influences from the Native American traditions, which were generally sympathetic to homosexuality and transsexualism, but these are added to by the powerful French tradition — which is largely ignored by Anglophone commenters, because they do not speak French.

France, especially southern France, has always been far more tolerant of homosexuality and transsexualism than Anglo-Saxon culture, being much closer in nature to Spain and Italy, its Mediterranean neighbours. This has given Francophone Canadian culture a very different flavour, in sexual terms, from its other ones.

Considering the different cultural forces at work across North America today, it is clear that the dominant white Anglo-Saxon culture has been eroded and that other cultures have begun to assert their authority — and their appeal.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the development of the modern ‘LGBTQ’ movement. This is a white, Anglo-Saxon understanding. In terms of male homosexuality, it rejects male femininity and all forms of transsexualism. For the half-century between 1960 and 2010, roughly, this was absolutely the dominant male homosexual expression, simply because it was Anglo-Saxon.

Sylvia Rae Rivera

Over the last decade, this has radically changed. The contribution of transsexuals like Sylvia Rae Rivera, who comes from a Hispanic tradition, is once more being recognised.  Rivera is only one of many and the ability of accommodationist white homosexual men to set the sexual agenda for the USA is rapidly reducing. On the one hand, they are confronted by a resurgent, conservative Anglo-Saxon culture and on the other by cultures in which feminine boys are expected to be girls — and are happier being so.


20th to 21st

The triumph — albeit partial and apparently not permanent — of accommodationist homosexual thinking was always an intellectual overlay, much more realised in the writings of academics than in the day-to-day lives of homosexuals and transsexuals. As the 20th century transitioned into the 21st, a huge resurgence of HSTS and GNC homosexual identities, both in males and females, began to make itself known.

Pic: Mark Seliger




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