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social sciences

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Founded by strait-laced Puritans in the seventeenth century, Boston has seen a variety of responses to its glbtq citizens, ranging from acceptance of "Boston marriages" to vice squad raids of gay bars to joyous weddings of same-sex couples.

Moreover, as a center of learning and culture, Boston has exerted an influence on American thought disproportionate to its population. As Douglass Shand-Tucci has shown in his brilliant study entitled The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture, responses to homosexuality at Harvard have varied from acceptance to anathema, and often with significant consequences for the society as a whole. Not only have many of the leading glbtq writers and artists been Harvard graduates, but so have many of the leaders of the movement for glbtq equality, from Frank Kameny to Martin Duberman to Charles Shively to Andrew Tobias.

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Colonial Period

The first Europeans to settle in the area that would become Boston were the Pilgrims, who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. The success of their settlement, due in no small part to the help of the indigenous Native Americans, emboldened another English group, the Puritans, to come to the New World and found the city of Boston in 1630. Two years later Boston became the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

For approximately the first decade of the colony's existence there was considerable wrangling over what legal system ought to prevail. The settlers wanted to write their own laws, which caused the British government to make two attempts to revoke their charter. The colonists persisted and adopted their first criminal code, the Body of Liberties, in 1641. Its statute against was based on the language of the biblical book of Leviticus rather than traditional legal texts. The penalty was death.

Given the societal as well as legal climate, discretion was of paramount importance to people involved in same-sex loves, and so little is known about their lives.

No prosecutions for sodomy took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and there were few dealing with other same-sex sexual practices. The first known case brought was against a servant woman, Elizabeth Johnson, who was found guilty of "unseemly practices betwixt her and another maid attempting to do that which man and woman do" in 1642. Her penalty was a whipping and a fine.

The British government eventually succeeded in revoking the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1684, restoring English law there.

Revolutionary Era

The small town of Boston grew and became more diverse. By the middle of the eighteenth century it had developed into an important commercial port for the British Empire.

Bostonians enraged by the high taxes imposed by the Tea Act of 1773 protested with the Boston Tea Party, in which a group of men boarded a merchant ship and tossed its cargo of tea into the harbor. Fervor for independence quickly grew.

The American Revolutionary War began in April 1775 with battles in the nearby towns of Lexington and Concord. Among the Bostonians who joined the Continental Army were at least two women.

Deborah Sampson, known to her fellow soldiers as Robert Shurtleff, was discovered to be female when she contracted a fever and was hospitalized. In a 1797 biography of Sampson, Herman Mann suggested that she had had romantic encounters with women while she was a solider, but his conclusion was that "it must be supposed, she acted more from necessity, than a voluntary impulse of passion."

Sampson was honorably discharged and awarded a pension, but Ann Bailey was not so lucky. She, who served under the name Samuel Gay, was convicted of passing as a man and sentenced to two months in jail.

Nineteenth Century

Changes to the Massachusetts legal system in the nineteenth century included the elimination of the death penalty for sodomy in 1805. The new code called for one year of solitary confinement and up to ten years at hard labor. A further revision in 1835 increased the sentence to up to twenty years but without solitary confinement or hard labor.

The nineteenth century saw the rise of same-sex romantic friendships. Men, particularly the well-educated, often cited classical Greek figures such as Damon and Pythias or Orestes and Pylades as models for their special friendships. Given the legal situation, it was still important for men in particular to be circumspect in displaying affection.

Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal of his affection for a fellow Harvard student, Martin Gay, and of "those sensations of vivid pleasure which his presence was wont to waken spontaneously."

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