Intersections of Gender, Sexuality and Race

In “Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body,” Siobhan Somerville cites 19th-century sexual scientist Havelock Ellis who proclaimed:

“And now that the problem of religion has practically been settled, and that the problem of labour has at least been placed on a practical foundation, the question of sex – with the racial questions that rest on it – stands before the coming generations as the chief problem for solution.”

Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (emphasis added)
Somerville’s chapter, “Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body,” can be found in her book, Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture.

Although Ellis’s cavalier dismissal of the problems of religion and labour is bemusing, Somerville is most interested in his claim that sex is the primary problem of Ellis’ time, and that it is caught up with race. How race and sexuality were linked in the minds of 19th-century Western scientists, and how they continue to be connected today, is the topic of the current module.

Siobhan Somerville

As Somerville notes, 19th-century understandings of sexuality were inextricably caught up with ideas about gender, with homosexuality being understood as “inversion” of gender roles – lesbians were supposedly “masculine women” and gay men were supposedly “effeminate” – and as a form of gender insubordination.

Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion

As intersectionality has taught us, however, gender is always already caught up with constructs of race; social constructs of white women and social constructs of Black women are, for instance, very different. To take an example, in the 19th century middle class white women were likely to be constructed as frigid and fragile, while Black women were viewed by the dominant white society as hypersexual and strong. Similarly, while white masculinity was constructed as rational and hence disembodied and paradigmatic of the human, Black men were constructed by the dominant white society as irrational, animalistic, and oversexed. We thus cannot simply talk about constructs of masculinity and femininity, therefore, as these are co-constituted by constructs of race and class. The video below, on the life and death of Sara Baartman, presents an example of the ways that oppressive constructs of race, gender, and sexuality intersect.

The Tragic Life of ‘Hottentot Venus’ Sara Baartman

The Naturalization of Sexuality and Race

“I suggest that the structures and methodologies that drove dominant ideologies of race also fueled the pursuit of knowledge about the homosexual body: both sympathetic and hostile accounts of homosexuality were steeped in assumptions that had driven previous scientific studies of race.”

Siobhan Somerville, “Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body”

We saw in the previous two modules that the view that sexualities are natural phenomena best studied by natural and psychological sciences is a 19th-century idea. Previously there was no concept of “sexualities,” and sex acts were understood within a moral, religious and juridical framework. Up until the modern era in the West, sex acts were either morally permissible and legal if performed by heterosexual married people in reproductive manners, or sinful and potentially criminal if performed by anyone else or in any other way. In contrast, in the 19th century these same acts came to be understood as either “natural” and “normal” or “unnatural,” “abnormal” and “perverse.” The view of “sex” as a “natural act” is thus not inevitable, however it has been the dominant view since the 19th century.

William Dorsey Swann (right) was known as “the Queen” to his friends and was a former slave. He performed in drag balls in Washington DC in the late 19th century. He also resisted police violence during a raid on a ball, and he led a group of formerly enslaved self-identified drag “queens” known as the “House of Swann.”

Somerville observes that at the same time that sex and sexualities were “naturalized,” or came to be seen as objects of scientific study, so were the “races.” Thus, at the same time as the categories “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were coined by scientists, so were the categories of “black” and “white.” As we will see in the first lecture for this module, in earlier times, “race” was understood as a social rather than a biological category, referring to groups of humans distinguished by culture, religion, class and language rather than by bodily differences or anatomy. Race was not understood to be hereditary but was rather geographical and acquired through upbringing and education. The idea that “races” are biological categories or consist of biological differences according to which scientists can group human beings is called “scientific racism” and it emerged at the same time as the scientific invention of “sexualities.” Although scientists would discover to their chagrin that whatever bodily differences they focused on, there was more variation within groups of people than between them, they persisted in understanding race as a type of hereditary biological or anatomical difference, and in seeing these purported differences as demonstrations of the superiority of the white race. Different schools of scientific racism disagreed on whether the different races had a common origin or whether they were in fact different species. In the European context it was more common for scientists to argue that although they were on species, non-white races had “degenerated” from the original white race. In the U.S. context, where white scientists were often invested in defending the institution of slavery, the view that blacks and whites were in fact different species was dominant.

 George Combe’s 1838 book, A System of Phrenology, argued that the size and shape of areas of the brain and by extension, the skull. were indicative of character. According to Combe, amativeness is determined by the size of the cerebellum, and a woman with an enlarged cerebellum and thick throat will be licentious and sexually depraved.

Just as 19th-century scientists came to view the “races” as biologically distinct groups of people, so did they believe that “heterosexuals” and “homosexuals” were morphologically or anatomically distinct. For instance, they assumed that the genitals of lesbians (like those of Black women, whether straight or lesbian) would be different from those of straight white women, and that other morphological features such as the shape of the skull might be indicators of sexuality. In Sexual Inversion, Ellis argued that homosexuality is a congenital physiological abnormality. In the wake of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the white race would be interpreted as the most evolved race, and both non-whiteness and non-heterosexuality would be interpreted as forms of degeneration or “unfitness” for survival.

The subtitle of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species changed seven times in various editions, becoming shorter and removing references to “race” over time. One version of the title is simply The Origin of the Species By Means of Natural Selection. The original 1859 subtitle, however, was Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, and is indicative of the ways in which this work would be taken up for the purposes of scientific racism.

Racial Difference as Sexual Difference and Sexual Difference as Threat to the White Race

“any attempt to establish that the races were inherently different rested to no little extent on the sexual difference of the black.”

Sander Gilman, cited in Somerville

It is not just the case that the claims 19th-century scientists made about race and sexuality were analogous, however. Beyond this, their claims about race and sexuality were interconnected. Part of racial difference was sexual difference: according to scientific racism, blacks were different from whites in large part because they were sexually different. In the case of Sara Baartman, for example, European scientists took her bodily differences to be indicative of her evolutionary inferiority, but their focus was on the sexual and reproductive parts of her body: while 19th-century imagery of Baartman attests to the Europeans’ obsession with her buttocks, Baartman’s genitals were long preserved in a jar on display at Paris’s Museum of Man.

Sara Baartman

In “Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body,” Somerville cites other cases in which 19th-century white European scientists examined and dissected the bodies of African women with particular scrutiny of their genitals, which the scientists consistently described as excessive. These scientists claimed that Black women’s labia minora were larger than those of white women, for instance, even referring to them as “appendages.” Somerville also shows that similar claims were made about the genitals of lesbians well into the twentieth century.

“As late as 1921, medical journals contained articles declaring that ‘a physical examination of [female homosexuals] will in practically every instance disclose an abnormally prominent clitoris.’ Significantly, this author added, ‘This is particularly so in colored women.'”

Siobhan Somerville, “Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body”

So strong was the conviction that sexuality was physiological and could be located in abnormalities in the body that in the early 20th century Viennese endocrinologist Eugen Steinbach performed surgical transplanted testicles from straight men in gay men in the belief that this would result in their conversion to heterosexuality.

Eugen Steinbach

Scientific racism was also caught up with concerns about sexuality because white scientists feared that the white race would be “polluted” through miscegenation (the mixing of the races through sexual reproduction). Sex between blacks and whites would, scientific racists claimed, result in the weakening and degeneration of the white race. Some scientists even suggested that “mulattos” or mixed race people would not ultimately be able to survive. At the same time, it was believed that if sexually deviant white people were allowed to reproduce, they too would weaken the race by passing on their congenital abnormalities.

MIldred Jetter and Richard Loving married in Washington D.C. in 1958. Five years later they returned to Jetter’s home state of Virginia to visit family, although it was one of 16 states with anti-miscegenation laws on their books. The Lovings were arrested and jailed for miscegenation. Their lawsuit – Loving vs. Virginia – would conclude in 1967 with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that state bans on miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.

Somerville argues that 19th-century scientists’ fears of mixed race were akin to their anxieties about inversion, which purportedly entailed mixed aspects of male and female. Indeed, she recounts that they agonized over the scientific coining of the term “homosexual” since it mixed Greek (homo) and Latin (sexualis) roots. Discomfort with racial mixing and gender blending extended to what they deemed “bastard” etymologies. In their longing for racial, gender, and etymological purity, white male scientists such as Havelock Ellis argued for the word “homogenic” (which would be the entirely Greek equivalent of “homosexual”); to their dismay, “homogenic” never gained ground and the “impure” word “homosexual won out.

Same-Sex and Interracial Relationships as “Abnormal Sexual Object Choices”

Havelock Ellis’s understanding of homosexuality as a form of gender inversion would dominate throughout much of the 19th century, however by the turn of the 20th century it gave way to an understanding of homosexuality as an abnormal sexual object choice. This is the understanding of homosexuality that we find in the works of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that all people were in fact born bisexual, but that if their socialization went normally they would choose partners of the opposite sex. If something went “wrong” in terms of a person’s psychosexual development, for instance if they had traumatic heterosexual experiences, they might become inclined to choose partners of the same sex. While not unnatural, then, for Freud homosexuality was an abnormal sexual object choice and an indication that something had gone awry. Again sexuality and race would be described in similar and interconnected ways on this new understanding of homosexuality, with both the mixed race couple and the homosexual couple supposedly making “abnormal” sexual object choices.

“Whereas previously two bodies, the mulatto and the invert, had been linked together in a visual economy, now two tabooed types of desire – interracial and homosexual – became linked in sexological and psychological discourse through the model of ‘abnormal’ sexual object choice.”

Siobhan Somerville, “Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body”

In her 2010 book, Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy, philosopher, queer theorist, and critical race theorist Ladelle McWhorter takes the twin social prohibitions on interracial and homosexual sex as a starting point for discussing the intersecting regulation of sexuality and race. The Introduction to Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy is the first assigned resource for this module. The first lecture for this module provides an overview of the assigned reading and of McWhorter’s book as a whole. As we will see in this lecture, arguments about “degeneration” that came out of the 19th- and early 20th-century “science” of eugenics show sexuality and race to be intricately entangled, and these entanglements continue to this day.

Video Lecture: Eugenics and the Entanglements of Racial and Sexual Oppression (57:40)

The Sexual and Gendered Legacies of Enslavement

“Indeed, we could go so far as to entertain the very real possibility that ‘sexuality,’ as a term of implied relationship and desire, is dubiously appropriate, manageable, or accurate to any of the familial arrangements under a system of enslavement, from the master’s family to the captive enclave. Under these arrangements, the customary lexis of sexuality, including ‘reproduction,’ ‘motherhood,’ ‘pleasure,’ and ‘desire’ are thrown into unrelieved crisis.”

Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”

The intersection of racial and sexual oppression in the institution of slavery, and its ongoing repercussions for contemporary Black men, women, and children, is the topic of Spillers’ canonical essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” which is the second assigned reading for this module and the subject of the second video lecture. As Spillers explains, the institution of slavery entailed a de-gendering of Africans and African Americans, the denial of Black kinship relations, and, very possibly, the rendering of the concept of “sexuality” meaningless.

As Spillers explains, captured Africans transported across the Atlantic were scarcely differentiated between in terms of gender except in so far as men took up slightly more space in ship holds than women and children.

Hold of a slaveship

The kinship relations of slaves, both before capture in Africa and post-capture in America, were denied, with husbands, wives, children, brothers and sisters regularly separated as slaves were bought and sold. Spillers speculates that if children had been recognized as “belonging” to their enslaved parents, this would have undermined the parents’ status, as well as that of the offspring, as property.

Depiction of an 1849 slave auction in the deep South

As Spillers also discusses, enslaved women were systematically sexually assaulted by slaveholders. Slave women’s children were often the biological offspring of the white masters, although they were nearly never acknowledged as such and they inherited the enslaved status of their mothers rather than the free status of their fathers. It is in this context that Spillers questions whether we can even talk about the “sexuality” of enslaved women, when the concepts we usually associate with sexuality – such as attraction and desire, pleasure and reproduction – had no bearing.

Within the dominant white patriarchal structure of the United States, Spillers argues that enslaved men were emasculated, denied any patriarchal authority, unable to protect their female partners or children from being sexually assaulted, beaten, killed and sold.

Depiction of a slave auction in Richmond, Virginia, in 1861

While the femininity of white women of the slaveholding class was constructed as maternal, delicate and frail, in need of masculine protection and support, enslaved women worked as hard as men and, in the fields, toiled at the same tasks, and were denied maternal rights. Black women were also forced to be the wet nurses of white children. The babies of slaves were fed dirty water and cow’s milk because their mothers had no more milk for them after nursing the white children of the masters. Often babies born into slavery died for lack of nourishment, their mother’s milk going to white babies.

An enslaved wet nurse

With this history in mind, Spillers argues that the centuries’ long denial of Black kinship relations and sexuality, and the de-gendering of Black slaves, impacts the family structures and gender identities of African Americans to this day, in manners that the dominant white society has gone on to pathologize. In particular, the supposed strength of Black women, underperformance of Black boys, and absence of Black fathers have been deemed social problem by white sociologists, most notably in the infamous 1965 U.S. government-commissioned Moynihan ReportThe Negro Family: The Case for National Action.

Rather than being a case for “national action,” as Daniel Moynihan proposed, Spillers argues that the situation of Black women today “out[side] of the traditional symbolics of female gender” makes them a “different social subject,” and could be a strategic place for “insurgency.” While Black women’s social situation outside of the gender system of white patriarchy is a legacy of centuries of sexual and racial oppression, Spillers argues that a “claiming” of this positionality could now be a means to “female empowerment” for Black women.

Video Lecture: “Hortense Spillers and ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe'” (9:54)