The Gay 90s

19thc_menWell, I had such grand plans to get a spiffy newletter out to my fans at the beginning of April, but some new Yahoo rules prevented that from happening.  I really, really wanted to share this bit of historical insight that I included in the ill-fated newsletter, though.  Here’s a piece of the research that has gone into Somebody to Love.  Enjoy!

On April 29th I’ll be releasing the final book of (the first half of) my Montana Romance series, Somebody to Love! I’ve been excited about this book for years. It was actually one of the original stories I imagined for this series. And yes, it’s an m/m romance. I know it might shock some people and I know I risk turning off a certain portion of my audience by writing a love story between two men in the middle of a conventional romance series, but the story had to be told. Phin had to find love too.

But let me tell you, it took a lot more research to write this story than it did to craft any of the other romance stories I’ve written. I don’t have any personal experience about being a man in love with another man, let alone one in the 19th century. I had a vague notion that homosexuality was viewed differently a hundred plus years ago than it’s viewed now, but I didn’t know what exactly that view looked like. So I set out to find out.

One of the most useful historical events for uncovering the opinion of the average person about homosexuality in the year 1900, the year that Somebody to Love takes place, was, of course, the Oscar Wilde trial. Oscar Wilde was arrested and put on trial in April of 1895 for “sodomy” and “gross indecency” under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. The trial stemmed from charges leveled at Wilde by the father of his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. To make a long and complicated story short, Wilde was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to hard labor. While in prison, he suffered a in injury from which he never healed and which ultimately killed him.

Of course, when you look beyond the surface of what happened to find out why, history begins to paint an entirely different picture. The charges brought against Wilde were scandalous, as much as for the fact that they were even brought as what those charges were. According to my other major source of research, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, by Graham Robb, the charge of sodomy was largely a joke by the 1895, and while the threat was made against some men to charge them with it, most people knew what went on behind closed doors and preferred that it stay there without mention.

Robb further mentions in his discussion of Wilde’s trial that one of the reasons he was able to be convicted was because he didn’t take the charge seriously and made jokes about it all in the courtroom. He didn’t believe anyone would really be so foolish as to go through with a charge that so many were indifferent to. He underestimated the hype that ultimately surrounded his case and the venom of his accusers.

StrangersThis was a revelation of sorts to me, as was Robb’s entire book. No, gay and lesbian people were not treated equally under the law or accepted and embraced in the 19th century. The attitude toward them was negative. The difference was that most people either didn’t even realize homosexuality was a thing or didn’t care to bring it out in the open where it could be examined or thought about. Remember, this was a time when even relations between men and women behind closed doors were viewed with a certain hushed mystique and when “those sorts of things” were absolutely not talked about.

The reality is that underneath the silence, a huge community existed. This community had its own rules, its own signs and signals, and its own code of conduct. Again, to say they were accepted by the mainstream wouldn’t be accurate, but neither would it be accurate to say they were horribly persecuted the way they were in the mid-twentieth century, or even the way Oscar Wilde did. In large part, men and women who were “different” kept things deeply under wraps, working with the rules of society to get along as best they could without being discovered. Ideal? No. But they were not being dragged to the gallows or castigated in front of the entire town every couple of minutes.

So as I wrote Somebody to Love, I tried very hard to stay true to the hushed but vibrant world that my gay characters would have encountered. Phin is widely known to be “different” by the people of Cold Springs, but few are willing to speak up about why or hold it against him as he plays an important role in society. Elliott has had a harder time of things, but he, like many gay men of his era, found a home in the army for a time before moving on, always trying to cover his tracks.

All in all, it was an interesting challenge to write this story. I hope you enjoy it and that you find the unique dilemma of these lovers interesting and enlightening.

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4 thoughts on “The Gay 90s

  1. Just wondering Merry did you read over Jonathan Katz’s Gay American History. It has some fascinating stories of “gay life” some starting as early as 1566. There is quite a bit about the underground in the 90ties, I loved what Emma Goldman said when she was asked how did she dare to come out in support of Oscar Wilde in puritan America? She said, “Nonsense!” “no daring is required to protest against a great injustice.” Sounds like a interesting book you have written and I will have to check it out.


    • Ooo! Thanks Richard! I have heard mention of Katz’s book, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. The whole topic is fascinating to me and has more and more layers the more I look at it. The attitudes of 100+ years ago were so different from what one would assume they are today. It’s enough to make me consider writing more than just this one m/m romance!

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