20 Society and Sodomy

A Victorian Sonnet’s Reflection of London’s Homosexual Subculture

Elsa Maurizi

Put on that languor which the world frowns on,[1]

That blamed misleading strangeness of attire,[2]


In the 1700s, ‘the sodomite’ was a scandalous and disruptive figure, known to disregard London’s orderly social classifications.[3] These social deviants acted in sync with an expanding sodomite community, as individuals would meet up at various locations throughout the city, resulting in certain places becoming associated with homosexual activity. Examples of meeting places during the mid-late 1700s were St. James park at night, as well as nearby theatres, pubs, and brandy shops.[4] Considering which people attended these places, and how they would dress and behave, it became more likely to assume they were engaging in homosexual activity, which, at the time, was a crime.


And let them see that see us we have done[5]

With their false worldliness and look up higher.[6]


By the size and scope of of London during the 1700s, homosexual men existed in anonymity. This allowed them to explore different areas and clubs while evading arrest, but the growing population of London correlated with the growing population of men in the city’s homosexual subculture,[7] which changed in nature by the 1800s.[8] A community that initially went unnoticed or ignored became increasingly criticized by outsiders who claimed the city was “overrun with sodomites.” Similarly, the binary construct of gender expression transformed and progressed in influence as “masculinity was consequently bound up with desiring women, and femininity with desiring men.” Between the 18th and 19th centuries there was a shift in how individuality and personal expression were perceived by society: sexuality and the associated concepts of masculinity and femininity became more connected to the people with whom someone had sexual relations. In London, “…for a man to have sex with another man therefore implicated effeminacy; he became ‘like a woman.’” In the past, a man with ‘a whore on one arm and a boy on the other’ would’ve maintained his masculine status, but this shift implied that any show of effeminacy made an effeminate man. Moreover, this reconceptualization was problematic, because it meant that a masculine man was perceived as the only kind of person who could satisfy an effeminate man.[9]

Because the world has treated us so ill

And brought suspicion near our happiness,


The criminal aspect of London’s homosexual subculture certainly did not put an end to its existence, considering the community continued to form through the 1800s. The illegal nature of sodomy only intensified the social separations that began occurring to homosexual men and especially those who did not conform to newly heightened masculine standards. This affiliation between crime and non-conformity presented another issue because it began to ostracize those who displayed effeminacy. By the late 1800s, London’s homoerotic mapping became clearer, largely because of the growing controversy surrounding homosexuality. Parks, public transportation, brothels, and the West End theatre district continued to be areas of homosexual activity.[10] Through the 1880s and 1890s, St. James Park was still associated with homosocial club-life; it was a place where “desire and democracy intertwine[d]”, as the scene was a mixture of homosexual expression and urban criminality. Similarly, the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park was a site where men and boys could be seen undressing and swimming for their enjoyment.[11][12] The meeting places of this subculture were documented and frequently busy, demonstrating expansion that inherently brought decreasing levels of anonymity for those associated; nevertheless, homosexuality was an intrinsic aspect of city life.

In the mid-1800s there was a series of homosexual criminal scandals in which men were arrested for their indecent behaviors. In prosecution, displays of effeminacy were used as clear evidence of their sexuality that ‘justified’ their charges for sodomy and “unnatural offence[s]”.

The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act was nothing new to London; the law had originally been established in 1513 to forbid sodomy with ‘mankind or beast’ and was modified in 1861 to include a wider range of offenses while also placing sodomy under these ‘unnatural offences’ alongside pedophilia and rape, thus further criminalizing homosexuality by nature of this law.[13]


Let men that like to slander as they will; [14]

It shall not be my fault if we love less.


In the 18th century, violence was commonly tolerated as a response to insults upon a man’s reputation. With an increasing Evangelical influence (especially on the middle class) came a shift in masculine values that included more appreciation for physical self-restraint by the 1850s.[15] Violence as an act of masculine gender expression only persisted in lower working classes. Throughout London’s period of urbanization and industrialization in the 1800s, gender roles were redefined in more distinctive ways, further imposing the social binary of masculine and feminine expression. Manliness, particularly for middle and upper class men, revolved around self-sufficiency, “…In moral discourse there was hardly any overlap between the active, rational, resolute male and the emotional, nurturing, malleable female.” This separation came as a result of advances in women’s rights, independence, and education during the 1870s and 1880s. Thus, manliness became an increasingly exclusive term, reserved for the toughest and most specific male attributes. Consequently, tolerance for homosexuality decreased, and ‘effeminacy’ was frequently coupled with the slur of ‘degeneracy,’ and “turned the homosexual into the most threatening ‘other’ of all”.[16] These changing expectations for women and men caused division not only between sexes, but also between people of the same gender with varying sexual orientations – dividing heterosexual men from homosexual men, and effeminate homosexual men from non-effeminate men.


Because we two who never did them harm,

And never dreamt of harm ourselves, find men


By the early 1900s, gay men in London could either affiliate with the city’s traditional values and assert their definitive masculinity, or be alienated as effeminate, as this social division persisted. The division was not helped by long-lasting phobia towards effeminate homosexuals, including that of Marc-André Raffalovich, the author of “Sonnet CXX”. Raffalovich theorized about ‘inverted’ men, who would be considered homosexual, but not effeminate or effeminatophilic.[17] Thus, his writings indicated, “…there is no line of demarcation between heterosexual and homosexual,” and he promoted the idea that homosexuality must be encouraged because it participates in a social dynamic in which heterosexuality is not repressed.[18] However, while Raffalovich was one of the earliest “gay” men to study homosexuality from a scientific perspective, he “openly condemned effeminate gay men as ‘sick liars and criminals.’”[19] These conflicting ideas about acceptance for one type of homosexual and rejection of another perpetuated the growing anti-effeminacy in London at the time.


So eager to perplex us and alarm

And scare from us our dove-like thoughts, well then[20]


And yet, London’s homosexual subculture remained an unmoving aspect of urban life. The individual city goer could find themself joining in or keeping a distance, but, regardless, “…the individual met a subculture and a subculture met society most intensely,” which demonstrates the magnitude of an urban homosexual community during a time of scrutiny, criminality, division, and ever-changing social standards in the period of industrialization.


Since ‘twixt the world and truth must be our choice,[21]

Let us seem vile, not be so, and rejoice.[22]


“Sonnet CXX” by Marc-Andrѐ Raffalovich

Author’s note: This source is transcribed from the Victorian Queer Archive.[23]

Put on that languor which the world frowns on,

That blamed misleading strangeness of attire,

And let them see that see us we have done

With their false worldliness and look up higher.

Because the world has treated us so ill

And brought suspicion near our happiness,

Let men that like to slander as they will;

It shall not be my fault if we love less.

Because we two who never did them harm,

And never dreamt of harm ourselves, find men

So eager to perplex us and alarm

And scare from us our dove-like thoughts, well then

Since ‘twixt the world and truth must be our choice,

Let us seem vile, not be so, and rejoice.


Elsa is a freshman at Wake Forest University!

  1. “Languor” refers to emotional weariness, or a lack of energy and lively spirit
  2. This stanza might be interpreted as the speaker (the narrator of the poem) calling their audience to allow themselves to be vulnerable, yet to express themselves authentically through dress and emotions.
  3. “Sodomite” was a widely used term throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in England to refer to men who would today be labeled ‘gay’ or ‘queer,’ despite its slightly derogatory connotation. Words like “gay” were not popularized as slang for homosexual until the 20th century, but for the purposes of this piece, ‘gay, ‘sodomite,’ and ‘homosexual’ will all be used as descriptors for participants in this subculture of London.
  4. St. James Park is the oldest Royal Park in London, and features a large lake. It continues to be a popular site for London’s tourists and residents.
  5. This line explains that the speaker and their romantic partner, referenced by “us,” have reflected upon themselves and considered the viewpoint of those who shame or criticize them. Another interpretation is that “us” refers to the speaker’s community, which may likely be London’s queer community, and the group of men who would have participated in the urban homosexual subculture.
  6. This line refers to a “false worldliness,” or a distorted sense of self-confidence or social understanding, exhibited by the speaker’s oppressors, which describes their point of view, and leads the audience to infer how they would have behaved toward the speaker.
  7. “Subculture,” as defined by Cambridge Dictionary, is “the way of life, customs, and ideas of a particular group of people within a society that are different from the rest of that society.” This essay refers to London’s growing homosexual communicty, characterized by effeminate and queer individuals who interacted with one another, but behaved in deviance (relative to social standards), forming a subculture.
  8. “Cambridge Dictionary: Find Definitions, Meanings & Translations,” Online Dictionary, accessed November 19, 2020, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/.
  9. Matthew David Cook, “The Inverted City London and the Constitution of Homosexuality, 1885-1914” (Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, 2000), https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/30695597.pdf.
  10. The West End is London’s theatrical hub that is home to many theatres, shops, and restaurants. It was a common site for homosexual men to interact during the 19th century, and today it remains a popular district for all of London’s residents and visitors.
  11. Matt Cook, “‘A New City of Friends’: London and Homosexuality in the 1890s,” History Workshop Journal, no. 56 (2003): 33–58.
  12. The Serpentine lake, named for its curving shape, is a recreational lake located in Hyde Park, one of London’s most well-known and popular parks.
  13. Robert William Burnie, “The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885,” The British Library (The British Library), accessed November 11, 2020, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-criminal-law-amendment-act-1885.
  14. The men to whom the speaker is referring in this line can also be interpreted as those who criticize and insult the speaker’s behaviors or homosexual relationship.
  15. At this time, a man’s reputation was closely connected to his masculinity, and a specific, stern display of masculinity was considered reputable.
  16. John Tosh, “Masculinities in an Industrializing Society: Britain, 1800-1914,” Journal of British Studies 44, no. No. 2 (April 2005): 330–42.
  17. The term “effeminatophilic” refers to an affinity or attraction to effeminacy or effeminate individuals.
  18. Patrick Cardon, “A Homosexual Militant at the Beginning of the Century: Marc Andre Raffalovich,” The Haworth Press, Inc. 25, no. 1–2 (1993): 183–91.
  19. Tosh, “Masculinities in an Industrializing Society: Britain, 1800-1914.”
  20. The dove is a common poetic symbol for peace and love, which, in this line, serves as a way to describe the harmless demeanor and intentions of the speaker, his partner, and his community members.
  21. In old English, ‘‘twixt’ was short for ‘betwixt,’ which means ‘between.’
  22. This line builds upon how the poem explains the oppression homosexual people might face at this time, as many people in society (outside of the subculture) perceived queer people as ‘vile,’ even though one’s sexuality would have little to do with their overall character.
  23. Marc-André Raffalovich, “Sonnet CXX” (Walter Scott, London, 1889), http://vqa.dickinson.edu/poem/sonnet-cxx.


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Gender and Sexuality Throughout World History Copyright © 2020 by Elsa Maurizi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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