Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example, by D. Michael Quinn. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1996) 410 pp., 21 photographs, cloth $29.95.
Outing historical individuals as homosexual or lesbian is a rather risky task, even more so if a strongly organized religion is involved. D. Michael Quinn, a former history professor at Brigham Young University and now an excommunicated member of the Mormon church, has found this out by personal experience. Threats of legal action twice delayed the publication of this study, Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example, but Quinn, who has come out of the closet as a gay, triumphed. It is not a sensational book, but one of careful and guarded scholarship. Quinn is interested in finding the truth as he sees it, not sensationalizing it.
He is not, however, a sexologist, and one of the problems sexologists have to wrestle with the connection between what might be called “same-sex eroticism” and homosexual or lesbian intercourse. Let me illustrate. Americans, including Mormons, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lived in a more sex-segregated society than they do now. Men hugged and kissed one another and had close friendships with other men. The same was true of women, and to some extent still is. In Italy today men often hold hands, kiss, and embrace each other, but is this “homoeroticism” homosexuality? One of the factors changing both English and American customs was the sensational trial of Oscar Wilde, and emotional relationships between men began to be severely stigmatized in the English-speaking world.
While Quinn is careful to describe many actions as only homoerotic, he also manages to leave the impression that something more was involved, something difficult to document and also which ignores strong male-to-male and female-to-female bonding of the period. He provides pitifully few cases of actual homosexuality, and his book is a testimony that homosexuality was not noticed or commented on as long as it was discrete. He relates the histories of a few men who lived with younger men (sometimes a series of them) over the course of their lives, never marrying. Similarly, he describes a few women who lived together for years at a time, a not unusual occurrence in America past where society feared the woman who lived alone more than two living together. Only a handful of individuals were ever excommunicated from the Mormon church over homosexuality and none for lesbianism, and as diligent as Quinn is in searching diaries and other data, he is hard put to identify much more than same-sex eroticism that might or might not have resulted in sexual activity.
The best source of his data is from archival materials dealing with twenty-five lesbians (he says twenty-four) and nine homosexuals that my wife, Bonnie and I, deposited, and from which we wrote about. Here I can speak with real knowledge of Quinn’s devotion to scholarship, and of his bias. Our main disagreement with him was whether the subjects in our study were or were not Mormon. The question of whether one is a Mormon is essentially the same as whether one is gay or lesbian. The women and men in our study were clearly homosexual or lesbian, but since we personally knew many of them and were told stories about them, we held that most were not Mormons, or if they had been Mormons left the church early on. By Quinn’s definition, I myself would be a Mormon, although I left the Mormon church when I was eighteen, joining the Unitarian church at nineteen and becoming a humanist roughly at the same time. Although I was not formally excommunicated by the Mormon church until years later, this was not from want of trying. Many of the people in the study eventually left Salt Lake City because they wanted to avoid as much contact with the Mormon church as possible. According to Quinn’s criteria, they are, however, Mormon.
In short, the book is a detailed and interesting study of homoerotic friendships and attitudes, but only occasionally is there evidence of homosexual or lesbian sexual relationships. Quinn’s attempt to utilize the most valuable sources, that of my wife and myself, emphasizes more his mission to legitimatize homosexual and lesbianism in a Mormon setting than a commitment to gathering actual facts. Either he can be accused of perverting his data or having a totally different definition of who and what constitutes a Mormon. I believe it is the latter.
Quinn, even though he has been excommunicated, still considers himself a true Mormon. I long ago ceased to regard myself as a Mormon and believe religion is a matter of choice, not of biology. I regard Quinn’s interpretation of Mormonism as a major flaw in his work.