Pride Issue: ‘Cracking the Code’

Published in: May-June 2021 issue.


CLEARLY one of this magazine’s missions is to excavate our collective history for relics or antecedents of same-sex desire in the past. What we find, of course, is that for most of Western history such sentiments have had to be expressed in coded or deeply sublimated form, intended for a cognoscenti that “got it” while excluding a wider, disapproving public. Often this meant hiding the message in plain sight by inserting it into a sanctioned or even pious presentation.

            The latter would apply to the earliest era that’s visited in this issue, Byzantine Europe in the Middle Ages, by Vernon Rosario. Any expression of same-sex desire in this age had to refer back to some biblical passage, and there were several favorites. For example, the story of Doubting Thomas poking Jesus’ rib to see if the wound was real allowed artists to depict the Apostle penetrating Jesus’ body in potentially suggestive ways.

             Centuries later, after a sometimes bawdy stretch, we find ourselves in Victorian England, which clamped down on almost all public discourse about sex, any mention of which had to be coded in literary or mythological allusions. To venture into “gay” territory usually involved the Greeks, whose cultural bona fides was unassailable but whose men and boys were known to behave in most un-Victorian ways. Such was the strategy of poet and critic John Addington Symonds—discussed here by Andrew Holleran—who made a go of being straight in real life but published a book titled Male Love: A Problem of Greek Ethicsthat found a way to broach the taboo topic.

            In more recent times, codes have been deployed to communicate explicit sexual messages (colored hankerchiefs, anyone?), as in a case described by Laurence Senelick, who finds a whole subculture built around the use of the word “whoops” in early 20th-century America. The phrase “whoops, m’dear” started out as a “pansy password” with which gay men could identity one another, but eventually found its way into stage follies, songs, plays, and early movies of this era.

            One tactic for coding same-sex desire has been to disguise the gender of one of the parties, or to render it ambiguously. Poet Charlotte Mew published in 1916 an important book of poems titled The Farmer’s Bride. As Rebecca Batley shows here, Mew’s strategy was to speak in the voice of the young farmer with his lusty thoughts about his beautiful bride.

            What changed after Stonewall was that the need to wrap sexual messages in layers of innuendo slowly vanished, and sexuality in art was changed forever. Take Keith Haring, an out gay artist whose sexual meanings were anything but hidden (though he did develop a private language of sorts). That’s what makes it so noteworthy, argues Steven F. Dansky, that a recent PBS documentary on Haring ignored the entire sexual element in his work, showing only indirect references, ironically recoding an artist much of whose work is explicitly sexual.