Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lord Byron is not as relevant as I thought

Monday, March 18, 2019 - 10:00

I’ll confess that I thought this article was going to be a lot more relevant to lesbian history than it was, given the inclusion of “Tommies” in the title. I’m including this brief summary because I already had the article scheduled, but the content is solidly focused on male issues and topics. In that context, it’s a fascinating look at shifting images of masculinity and the part that institutionalized male homoerotic encounters and relationships played in those images. But the reference to "tommies" is minor and entirely in relation to male desires.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Neff, D. S. 2002. “Bitches, Mollies, and Tommies: Byron, Masculinity, and the History of Sexualities” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 11:3 pp.395-438

Neff looks at shifting concepts and images of masculinity in England through the lens of Lord Byron (1788-1824) who stands in for an era when both masculinity and aristocracy were receiving increased scrutiny as privileged classes. Interpretations of homoerotic elements in Byron’s biography have been contested ground as he fails to fit neatly into the modern categories of sexuality. Neff declines to take a position on categorization and instead looks at the details of Byron’s life that raise the question in the first place.

In Western concepts of gender and sexuality, the 18th century is viewed by some historians as the era of a shift between the view that male and female represented a continuum of a single category, to a view that they represented entirely distinct categories and, in that case, what the definite distinctions were. In parallel was the development of a distinct category of “adult men with homosexual desires” as an identity rather than part of a continuum of behavior. [Note: The timepoint when we see this shift from “acts” to “identities” has been moved around by different historians, with the identification of new types of evidence. Neff gives a nod to some views that “identities” can be identified much earlier than the early modern period.]

Part of the older system included traditions of homosocial environments (such as all-male educational institutions) creating “male” and “female” roles, that could have sexualized as well as gendered aspects. Within these contexts, age or status influenced the acceptability of “female” roles, but participation in the system did not change men’s self-perception in terms of gender identity.

Prior to the emergence of the “molly” identity for men with homosexual desires, the performance of masculinity could encompass the “fop”--the man who delighted in exaggerated or sophisticated esthetics. But it later came to be associated with femininity and cast suspicion on the fop’s sexuality.

Byron’s public reputation took hits from this shift (though it was scarcely the only hazard) as he continued to operate within the older model where such flamboyance was unrelated to assumptions about one’s sexual role.

[Note: There is a fascinating digression about coded language in Byron’s correspondence that referred to sexual desire for, and encounters with, young men. It’s a useful reminder of contexts in which non-normative sexuality can be erased or denied in the records simply by taking textual evidence ruthlessly literally.]

The discussion of “tommies” (typically understood as referring to women with homoerotic desires) occurs in the context of Byron’s relationships with women who engaged in masculine cross-dressing, with the suggestion that they provided a bridge to Byron’s underlying preference for male partners.

And...that’s pretty much the point when I gave up on the article and skimmed to the end without finding anything else that made it more relevant. Sorry. You can’t win them all.

Time period: