Would most Americans during the Civil War know of the existence of homosexuality?

Code Blue

Ad Honorem
Feb 2015
Code Blue, in post #12 of this thread, Matthew AMT said that he also was not aware of the existence of homosexuality until he was 15. I don't think my uncle was exaggerating. There were no gay pride parades back then.
In general, I would resist extrapolating one person's anecdote into a society-wide generalization. No disrespect intended toward your uncle.

To the specific point, I read that post. I was older than that before I could attest to first hand knowledge of actual physical evidence, but I was aware, in theory, from single-digit ages.

You might consider that in places like New York City, there was a general knowledge of places like Cherry Grove in the decades you mentioned.


Ad Honorem
Feb 2013
portland maine
Code Blue, in post #12 of this thread, Matthew AMT said that he also was not aware of the existence of homosexuality until he was 15. I don't think my uncle was exaggerating. There were no gay pride parades back then.
Walt Whitman was a homosexual, even kept a diary of his lovers. Homosexuality has been around (not sure about Sodom & Gomorrah, where ever it was but if there were men there probably was homosexual love. Having a word for it makes it be spoken about more easily


Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
I am not a typical person, but I also did not know about homosexuality, or much about any kind of sexuality, until well into my teens.

Educated persons might learn about it though their studies if other kids didn't tell them first. For example, Edgar Allen Poe mentioned "Zero" (Nero) and Heliogabalus in one story, and Fonthill in another (thus possibly knowing of William Beckford's scandal).

Studying Greek mythology was a good way to learn of homosexuality. Some versions of the myth of Ganymede say the gods captured him for pure aesthetic enjoyment of his beauty, but others say that he became Zeus's lover.

Victorians who studied law would note that Britain reduced the penalty for acts of sodomy from death to life imprisonment during the period, and they might note whatever state laws dealt with it.

And I ma sure that most kids heard gossip about various persons and had their scandals explained to them.

But many Victorians wrote certain things seemingly without any idea that someone might infer homosexual desire or behavior from their words, though modern people tend to do so.

For example there is a quotation about drummer boys serving as "honorary" girls at military dance in 1864 which can be read as stating at least one of the men had sex with his partner.

“Some of the real women went, but the boy girls were so much better looking that they left. ...We had some little Drummer Boys dressed up and I’ll bet you could not tell them from girls if you did not know them. ...Some of [the Drummer Boys] looked good enough to lay with and I guess some of them did get laid with. ...I know I slept with mine.”
America's Gay Confederate and Union Soldiers


Ad Honorem
Jan 2013
Asherman-the ultimate irony about homosexuality, criminality and jurisprudence in the 20th century USA, is surely the homosexual relationship between J.Edgar Hoover and Clive) Clyde?) Tolson?.America's most powerful cop -Hoover -practising what was -in most 20th century American states -criminal sexual behaviour with his beau Tolson? when he -Hoover- headed up the FBI?
Great post Salah!.
Stop with this nonsense. We don't know what the relationship between Hoover and Tolson was. Sure, they were close. However, saying they were definitely homosexual is slander. I suspect it little more than political slander at that.
May 2009
I recently was having a conversation with an octogenarian uncle of mine, and he said that he did not even know that there was such a thing as homosexuality until he was 15. He said that homosexuality was so stigmatized that it was taboo to even acknowledge that it existed in the 1940s and 1950s. Consequently, he did not know that there was ever a homosexual on the face of the Earth until he was 15.

I'm most curious about the Victorian Era. I think homosexuality might have been even more stigma and less known (among people who did know about it) back then. Since it was taboo to even talk or write about homosexuality back then, it's difficult to know the awareness of it among the population back then. I know that the word gay did not mean homosexual back then, so let's please not get into that. During the time of the American Civil War, would most American adults know about the existence of homosexuality in humans? I mean, from 1861-1865, would most American adults know that a small minority of humans are homosexual?

Depends on what kind of circles you moved in. If you were an urban Bohemian or in show business in some way then yeah, you probably knew about homosexuality (and a few homosexuals). I'm not sure if they existed at the time of the war, but by the later years of the 19th century there were already gay brothels in many big cities. And anti-gay insults like "fairy" and "Nancy boy" already existed, which indicates people were aware enough to insult each other with it (insults for cross-dressers and transvestites also existed, which means people were aware of that too on some level).

Of course none of this was ever talked about openly, so it would've been very easy to be ignorant of it. People weren't even comfortable talking about straight sex, let alone "deviant" sex. But it was recognized as a thing. There were even some early names for it. One early gay rights activist coined the term "Uranian love" for homosexuality. But I don't think that ever became a household word.


Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
I wonder how one becomes privy to conversations that occurred centuries ago.
We can know the social attitudes from what actually was said with respect to this crime against nature. Blackstone mentioned that this crime was so bad that it's name would not even be uttered in law, this particular crime was referred to as peccatum illud horribile, inter christianos non nomtnandum, that is to say 'that horrible crime, not to be named amongst Christians.' Everyone knew what this meant, there was no need to be so vulgar as to mention the act itself.

Of course, the lower orders have always had more colourful language, but when a crime is so vile and depraved that it can't even be named in a court of law when prosecuting an offender, one can guess at its treatment in polite society.
Sep 2014
I just researched this briefly on the internet. The word homosexual was not invented until the 1890s. We all know the word gay didn't mean homosexual back then. How hidden was homosexuality in the 1860s America? It appears it was so hidden that there was not even a word for it! That's pretty darn hidden.