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A Public Affair: The Politics and Perspectives of Homosexual Identity throughout Early Modern and Modern Dutch Society

By Chelsea Schields

From the Author: While the topic of homosexuality remains controversial in popular American culture, the Dutch are world renowned for their tolerance regarding sexual identity. During Professor Robert Beachy’s History of European Sexuality course in the fall semester of 2007 we learned to interrogate the historical circumstances that classified, popularized, and demonized certain customs, identities, and traditions.  Beginning with an overarching curiosity in the historical and political contingency of identity formation, and a desire to put my Dutch language skills to use through primary source research, I decided to focus on the construction of a Dutch homosexual identity.  Much to my surprise, many scholars, attempting to explain a universal history of homosexuality, pointed to a series of trials held during the eighteenth century against sodomites in the Dutch Republic. Though these trials were significant in that they revealed an extensive statewide network of sodomites, it was not, as some scholars argued, the beginning of a modern homosexual identity.

The term homosexual was not known in the Dutch language until 1892, when medical magazines throughout Western Europe produced the term as a diagnosis and pathology. The medical construction of a homosexual, with all of its modern consequences, did not occur until the medicalization of the late nineteenth century. Through my research, I hoped to problematize the connection of sodomitic trials to the construction of homosexuality in the era of medicalization. However, relevant points of intersection and continuity were found between the treatment of sodomites and homosexuals (both as communities and individuals) of the early modern and the modern periods, and thus it became more urgent to interrogate the historical and political processes which deemed sodomites and homosexuals as social deviants and examine, somewhat anthropologically, the motivations and demarcations of social classification.

Employing the work of a small body of Dutch scholars and the philosophical insights of Michel Foucault, I examined the regimes of power which provided the terms sodomite and homosexual their cultural relevance. Though history lends itself well to interrogation, this paper succeeded in reminding me of the present contingencies of our own identities. Though I’m happy to present the product here, it is for me a continuous process, a jumping-off point, whose development I hope to follow in further academic work.

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