Phil Reese

The other founding fathers

Filed By Phil Reese | December 29, 2009 6:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: David Mixner, Founding Fathers, gay history, New York

Back in the days when I wrote for the now defunct Queer Magazine, my first cover story was called "Founding Fathers," where I researched the gay founding fathers: Alexander Hamilton, Pierre L'Enfant, and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben among others. oldnewyork.jpgSadly, that piece was lost in a senseless flash-drive related incident. Now I use online documents

This week, David Mixner has called our attention to yet another fey founding father. It seems that there were Christopher Street queers in New York long before there was a Christopher Street!

We get a rare glimpse that gays were very much part of the making of this nation and heroes to boot. Mr. Charles Gehring has spent most of his life translating documents from the early years in New York from Dutch to English. The result has been a fascinating insight to the influence of the Dutch on our early years. One that has often been overlooked.

More after the jump.

David goes on to quote the Danny Hakim New York Times piece at its mention of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, who made incredible inroads with the Mohawk people in the early 17th Century around what was then New Amsterdam. Things didn't end well for Bogaert when he returned to the city, however.

"Mr. Gehring's translation of the journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, a barber-surgeon and a likely ancestor of Humphrey Bogart, was turned into the graphic novel "Journey Into Mohawk Country," by the artist George O'Connor. The journal chronicles van denBogaert's journey through the Mohawk Valley to Oneida, a pathbreaking trip in the winter of 1634.

Years later, van den Bogaert was made commander of Fort Orange, site of present-day Albany, but fled back into Indian country after his fellow colonists discovered he was gay. Van denBogaert was pursued by the Dutch, captured and brought back, but he escaped when a sheet of floating ice damaged the fort. He drowned in the Hudson before he got very far."


Bogaert wouldn't recognize the world we live in today. For starters, the New York and Albany of his day no longer exist. However, Bogaert would much less have to fear persecution based on his orientation. Bogaert would have cheered in 2003 when the Supreme Court decided that private adult consensual behavior could not be prosecuted in Lawrence v Texas. And his attackers could expect heavier sentences when charged with his death thanks to the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act; also known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Comparing where we are now as a community with the gays of the 1600s is a little bit cheeky, of course - clearly things are far better now. We don't need to make a spreadsheet to figure that out. However, I think its very important to stay in touch with where we've come from as we continue on to where we are going. Its important to remember that we, too, are a people with a history.

And if anyone in the Central Michigan University computer lab found that flash drive five or six years ago, please drop me a line. I'd like to keep in touch with where I came from too.

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It's slightly illogical to speak of the "gays of the 1600s", when the idea of a homosexual was just emerging in the 17th century. Or to string the narrative of Bogaert into some telos of gay liberation.
Furthermore, some could argue that Lawrence v. Texas (with it's relegation of homonormative sexuality to the bedroom, the "private sphere") and Hate Crimes Legislation (supporting a racist, homophobic, transphobic criminal justice system) are conservative victories at best. But maybe things really are better for white aristocratic gays in New York nowadays!

"In an event later documented in letters between Rensselaerswyck and New Amsterdam, toward the end of 1647 van den Bogaert was caught in flagrante sodomizing his black slave, Tobias, and was jailed at Fort Orange. Despite the fact that the coupling was apparently consensual, with rape never mentioned in the records, the commissary was in very serious trouble. So far as the Calvinistic court was concerned, any participant in sodomy, willing or not, deserved capital punishment."

I have a hard time believing "the coupling was apparently consensual", due to the history of sexual exploitation of slaves (although mostly female slaves, but of course not always). If this was in fact rape, and with the idea that rape is not about sex, but about power, then trying to portray Bogaert as some nice gay Dutch frontier man is highly problematic. If, against the history of sexual exploitation of slaves, this 'coupling' was consensual, it still does not negate the fact that Bogaert was a slaveowner. A history that should not be elided.

Well, you're a ray of sunshine, aren't you?

So let me see if I have this right. Townspeople catch the white guy having sex with the black guy and strip him of all leadership duties and imprison him. He escapes, but dies trying to flee the wrath of the settlers.

You say, "Well, he was probably raping the slave..." but then point out that all the documents from the time don't mention rape, but say that the sex was consensual. Still, it must be rape, right? After all, what black guy is going to actually want to have sex with a white guy? Never happens! Bah.

Was he a slave owner? Yes. Is that despicable? Of course. But at the time it was common practice and when you've quibbled that comparing homosexuality now to then as "illogical," is it okay for you to push your modern day revulsion to slavery on these shadows of history? As you point out, the thinking is completely different and simply not comparable. Castigating the "gay" guy as a slaveowner who probably raped his slaves and got caught doing it seems about as rooted in conjecture, personal feelings, and bias as the settlers who wanted to lynch the guy for buggering another man.


To be fair to Alex: saying that he has a hard time
"believing "the coupling was apparently consensual", due to the history of sexual exploitation of slaves (although mostly female slaves, but of course not always)" is not the same thing as saying, "Well, he was probably raping the slave..." I think Alex is getting at the fact that the notion of consent itself is a muddied one when we consider the historical context and the fact that power relations around slavery would overdetermine the notion of slavery. On a parallel: I can't but help think of sexual relations between, say, female domestic servants and their male "employers" in, say, 17th century England. There were plenty of times when the sex between the two classes (and class was a huge determinant in those times) could be classified as consensual just because the woman may not have been able to say no or didn't think she ever could say no. For that matter, what we understand today as rape was numbingly common, given that the notion of consent simply did not apply to them. That doesn't mean that female domestic servants always consented to the sex - no matter what erotica would like us to believe (and no, anticipating a flurry of responses here: this doesn't mean that liking chambermaid/lad fantasy porn makes any of us bad people :-)).

I don't know that we can look at this instance simply as a case of a "black guy" having sex with a "white guy," given that the first was dehumanised to the extent that his "guy-ness"/his humanity was suspect anyway - slaves were barely considered human. It's not as if blacks and whites mingled in taverns before heading off to their houses for some hot, steamy sex. It's not illogical to believe that the sex may have been consensual, but it's also perfect reasonable to question the veracity of that idea of consent given what we know about the sheer dehumanising brutality of slavery, a system explicitly designed to wipe out any evidence of humanity in its subjects. What we know about that system is surely based on enough historical evidence by now.

And I meant, "power relations around slavery would overdetermine the notion of consent," - not slavery. Aaargh.

Yasmin is absolutely right.
I of course can't say with any certainty what the circumstances were concerning the "coupling" of Bogaert and his slave Tobias. What I'm saying is that we should be critical of the claim of consensual relations. For one, we have to acknowledge the history of masters raping their slaves (a history we of course don't often get in school ... I wonder why). We also have to question the ability of a slave to consent. A bonded person is able to make few decisions about their life, especially in relation to their master. To say that someone consents, when their refusal could be meet with serious bodily harm or harm to their family, is dubious at best. And furthermore, one has to consider the way slaves were viewed. The rape of female slaves, was not seen as rape. Slaves were seen as property to which their masters had any desired access to. Black women were stripped of any right to claim sexual assault. [Which of course helped in the construction of white womanhood, which could be "defiled" by sexual relations with a Black man (consensual or not)]. For all those reasons I have a hard time believing that Bogaert's "coupling" with his slave Tobias was consensual. I'm not ruling it out, I'm just saying, that as thinking people, we should not read these claims at face value.

Yes, we all want to know what "some" would say, don't we? I can't imagine anything further from a conservative "victory" than hate crimes legislation. Every conservative I know of despises it. And if the legislation supports a "racist, homophobic, transphobic criminal justice system," why then are no racists or homophobes supporting its passage?

Homonormative sexuality? What kind of intellectual masturbation is this? Perhaps "some" would prefer jail time for sodomy to less government intrusion into one's bedroom.

I would suggest that "some" actually study conservative thought before determining what does and does not constitute a conservative victory.

That would be nice, but there is a conservative argument for Lawrence ("Keep the government small!") and a conservative argument against it ("Homosexuals are sinful and going to destroy society!"), just as there is a conservative argument in favor of hate crimes legislation ("Lock 'em up and throw away the key!"), which more than a few Republicans voted for, and a conservative argument against it ("No special rights for minorities!").

It's like any other issue, conservatives span the political spectra from die-hard libertarians to rightwing authoritarians to Christian moralizers. And each argues that they're the real conservatives, draining that term of any meaning.

Hm. I don't know much about this guy, but I'm not sure that it would have been worse to be gay in his time than nowadays.

One of the key factual findings of Lawrence, that Scalia disputed in his dissent without actually, you know, stating any facts to advance his argument, was that sodomy laws in colonial and early America were never enforced as sodomy laws, that they were more ways to ensure that laws against incest and rape would get enforced. I won't look it up.... actually I will. Here we go:

At the outset it should be noted that there is no longstanding history in this country of laws directed at homosexual conduct as a distinct matter. Beginning in colonial times there were prohibitions of sodomy derived from the English criminal laws passed in the first instance by the Reformation Parliament of 1533. The English prohibition was understood to include relations between men and women as well as relations between men and men. See, e. g., King v. Wiseman, 92 Eng. Rep. 774, 775 (K. B. 1718) (interpreting "mankind" in Act of 1533 as including women and girls). Nineteenth-century commentators similarly read American sodomy, buggery, and crime-against-nature statutes as criminalizing certain relations between men and women and between men and men. See, e. g., 2 J. Bishop, Criminal Law § 1028 (1858); 2 J. Chitty, Criminal Law 47-50 (5th Am. ed. 1847); R. Desty, A Compendium of American Criminal Law 143 (1882); J. May, The Law of Crimes § 203 (2d ed. 1893). The absence of legal prohibitions focusing on homosexual conduct may be explained in part by noting that according to some scholars the concept of the homosexual as a distinct category of person did not emerge until the late 19th century. See, e. g., J. Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality 10 (1995); J. D'Emilio & E. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America 121 (2d ed. 1997) ("The modern terms homosexuality and heterosexuality do not apply to an era that had not yet articulated these distinctions"). Thus early American sodomy laws were not directed at homosexuals as such but instead sought to prohibit nonprocreative sexual activity more generally. This does not suggest approval of homosexual conduct. It does tend to show that this particular form of conduct was not thought of as a separate category from like conduct between heterosexual persons.

Laws prohibiting sodomy do not seem to have been enforced against consenting adults acting in private. A substantial number of sodomy prosecutions and convictions for which there are surviving records were for predatory acts against those who could not or did not consent, as in the case of a minor or the victim of an assault. As to these, one purpose for the prohibitions was to ensure there would be no lack of coverage if a predator committed a sexual assault that did not constitute rape as defined by the criminal law. Thus the model sodomy indictments presented in a 19th-century treatise, see 2 Chitty, supra, at 49, addressed the predatory acts of an adult man against a minor girl or minor boy. Instead of targeting relations between consenting adults in private, 19th-century sodomy prosecutions typically involved relations between men and minor girls or minor boys, relations between adults involving force, relations between adults implicating disparity in status, or relations between men and animals.

The fact that these laws weren't being used to systematically persecute people who had gay sex was a key argument in debunking the "tradition" argument for sodomy laws, i.e. that they've always existed in the west for thousands of years and therefore suggest something innate in the construction of civilization.

When talking about homosexuality in pre-Industrial society, it's important to remember that half the point of being pre-Industrial is that there was less of a motivation to surveil people at all times and make sure their behavior was restricted to whatever is "normal." I don't know if that's better or worse that our disciplined bodies that created a disciplined homosexual identity that has to argue for liberation from the perspective of a persecuted minority, but I love the fact that I can get pineapples this far north at the grocery store and that Beyonce exists, so I'm going to agree with Phil that now is the better time to live.

Oh, and I'm quoting Lawrence not as historical fact, but as "Look at the history they based the decision on."

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I do have to question the value of identifying this person as gay. Gay and homosexuality are not the same thing homosexual activities have been around forever. Some earlier cultures have had specific homosexual identities in the social matrix. But gay as used today is a social identity which did not exist at that time.
I constantly see historical people being identified as gay because they had or may have had homosexual relationships but much of the time they also had heterosexual relationships too. So the argument that they were gay is silly since then the same argument could be used to say that they were straight. The fact that these arguments are projecting a more modern social identity into a person who predates that identity is ridiculous.
Documenting homosexuality is not the same as documenting a gay identity.

You said this a lot better than I could.