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date: 27 November 2020

Historical Views of Homosexuality: European Colonialismlocked

  • Robert AldrichRobert AldrichDepartment of History, University of Sydney

Summary

The history of colonialism encompassed diverse meetings between societies and cultures, providing chances for discovery (by both the colonizing and the colonized) of differing sexual attitudes and behaviors. Varying sexual cultures inspired European ethnographical research, relativised sexual certainties and incited both fantasies and moral concern. Eroticised images of foreign men appeared in art, and affective relationships between Europeans and non-Europeans featured in literary works. The sex lives of “natives” and Europeans overseas provided subjects of speculation. The conquest of overseas territories by European and other expanding powers also led to the imposition of Western law codes regulating sexuality, including same-sex relations, gender norms, and marriage. Prohibitions on “sodomy” entered law codes throughout the British Empire, often with provisions of severe penalties. Only in the late 1900s did decriminalization occur in the British settler Dominions, though less often in former colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. For European countries where same-sex activity had been decriminalized, such as France, it generally remained legal in the colonies, though surrounded with taboos and social opprobrium. Same-sex desire (and relations between Europeans or between them and indigenous people) appeared in many forms in colonial societies and in the lives of men associated with overseas empires. It was castigated by authorities as a menace to colonial mores but experienced by some men in the colonies as an opportunity for pleasure and a source of male bonding; non-Western sexual cultures provided arguments for both campaigns of “moralization” and for homosexual emancipation in Europe. Occasional scandals underscored the ways in which debates about sexual difference intertwined with colonial-era attitudes and policies.

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