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social sciences

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United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century  
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The pervasive theatrical and literary uses of cross-dressing did not foster tolerance of gender transgressions on the streets, however. Although Elizabeth occasionally wore items of men's clothing as symbols of power, she instituted sumptuary laws, insuring that dress accorded with one's biological gender and social class.

Despite the legal restrictions, there were widespread reports of women and men who cross-dressed on the streets of London between 1580 and 1620. Most commentators were concerned that cross-dressing would disrupt society and condemned the practice as immoral. For instance, the anonymous author of Hic Mulier: Or, the Man-Woman (1620) interpreted the male clothing worn by women as indicators of sexual looseness and availability. However, records of court cases indicate that some women disguised themselves as men in order to secure positions in shipbuilding and other skilled trades.

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The Possibility of Queer Identities in the Renaissance Era

Although most people during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras may have preferred to avoid recognizing the implications of their own homosexual acts, a few writers boldly formulated identities that explicitly rebelled against sexual norms. For example, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) represented homosexual love from a remarkable variety of perspectives. In his poem Hero and Leander, he emphasized the equivalence of same-sex and heterosexual love and desire and mocked those who would repress homosexual love. In Edward II, Marlowe endowed the homosexual protagonist with the psychological complexity usually associated with heterosexual characters, and he linked Edward's brutal execution by a heated poker to social and political corruption.

In his earliest publication, The Affectionate Shepheard (1594), Richard Barnfield (1574-1620?) challenged the heterosexual conventions prevalent in pastoral poetry through his explicit references to male-male intercourse. However, in the preface to his subsequently published Cynthia, Barnfield distanced himself from controversy by insisting that the theme of homosexual love resulted from his zealous imitation of Classical works.

Queer Themes in Writings of Renaissance Women

Because sexual acts between women were not criminalized, there are no documents for women equivalent to the court records that have provided so much of the information that we now have about homosexual men. However, scholars have begun to acknowledge queer themes in works by Katherine Philips (1632-1664), Aphra Behn (1640-1689), and other British women authors of the seventeenth century.

Known as the English Sappho, Philips circulated her poems privately during her lifetime; her works were collected and published shortly after her death. By appropriating and transforming male literary conventions, such as the courtly love address to an unspecified beloved subject, Philips articulated her love for other women.

One of the first British women to attempt to earn a living from writing, Behn gained a significant literary reputation as a result of The Rover (1677) and other plays. Although conforming in many respects to the perspectives of male libertine aesthetics, these plays critiqued misogyny and foregrounded the experiences of women. In her lyric poetry, Behn occasionally revealed her identity as a woman as she explicitly celebrated her love for other women.

Aristocratic Libertines in the Restoration Era

The ascension to the throne of Charles II (reigned 1660-85), after an era of Puritan repression, initiated a period of unprecedented sexual liberty in court circles. The toleration and even celebration of sexual exploits in literature of the Restoration era accords with the king's own enjoyment of sensual pleasures of all kinds. The emphasis on untrammeled sexual expression also can be related to the tendency of court writers to describe Charles's authority in phallic terms.

However, sexual libertinism should not be regarded simply as a manifestation of the personality of the king. Indeed, libertinism was often linked to progressive intellectual and social developments, such as religious skepticism and even republican politics.

Current sexual categories do not adequately serve to characterize the fluid sexual behavior of Restoration libertines, whose attitudes are likely to seem contradictory and confusing today. Although libertines generally maintained the appearance of conformity to heterosexual standards, they also openly indulged in sexual escapades with both women and younger men. As Randolph Trumbach has explained, libertines were admired for the bold masculine self-assertion that they demonstrated in their sexual exploits. Because it obviously flaunted predominant social conventions, anal intercourse--whether performed with a male or female partner--was regarded by the libertines as the most daring and exciting sexual act.

Manifesting their indulgence in sensual pleasures, libertines wore lavish clothing and cultivated equally ornate and elegant manners. During the Restoration, effeminacy was not specifically associated with homosexuality; instead, foppish behavior was regarded as an admirable way of displaying both sexual openness and aristocratic standing.

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