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Queer Money

From: ELH
Volume 66, Number 1, Spring 1999
pp. 1-23 | 10.1353/elh.1999.0003

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ELH 66.1 (1999) 1-23


The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang lists two definitions for the word "queer": homosexual and counterfeit money. Although the slang term "queer" is now generally understood to refer to homosexuals, it has been used in phrases referring to counterfeiting and counterfeit money since at least the seventeenth century. The New Dictionary of the terms . . . of the canting crew (1699) defines the term "Queere-cole" as "clipt, Counterfeit, or Brass Money." It also lists the related words "Queere-cole-maker" and "queer-cole-fencer" which meant "counterfeiters" and "receivers of false coins" respectively. Other phrases such as "queer bit," "queer soft"--and eventually the noun "queer" itself -- were used to refer to counterfeit money. This usage apparently continued until well into the nineteenth century. In the Rogue's Lexicon (1859), Mastel lists many of the earlier usages as well as the locution "to shove [the] queer" with the definition "passing counterfeit money." For the most part this meaning of the word queer is now archaic. It is still current, however, in phrases such as "queer as a three dollar bill" or "queer money."

Queer as homosexual appears to grow out of this antecedent coining terminology. The modern usage might be traced to early sexological formulations in which homosexuality was seen as an illegitimate, or counterfeit, imitation of heterosexuality. But in the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, queer as homosexual and queer as counterfeit seem to be unrelated -- the linguistic conjunction a mere coincidence. In contrast to this perception, I want to argue for the historical overlapping of these seemingly distinct queer discourses. In fact, counterfeiting appears to have been linked with homosexuality (or, less anachronistically, sodomy) before the word queer came to mean homosexual. So while we might say that the present meaning of queer derives from coining terminology, sodomy and counterfeiting were also united conceptually long before the linguistic connection was established.

Part of my project is thus to explore how terms like counterfeiting and usury fit into the nexus of transgressions that have been associated with sodomy. Since the appearance of the first volume of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, it has been customary to speak of sodomy as an "utterly confused category" because sodomy was a symbol of social disorder, immanently linked to other "sins" such as incest, bestiality, atheism, and witchcraft. While sodomy was undoubtedly associated with these other transgressions because they were all types of subversion (political, religious, cosmic, economic), there were also specific reasons for linking sodomy with each one of these different crimes. In this essay, I will map out the particular cultural logic that structures the connection between sodomy and counterfeiting/usury.

By focusing on the economic aspects of sodomy, I continue the work begun by Jody Green, who analyzes how sodomy and usury are imagined to undermine the system of Renaissance patronage, despite the fact that they are, in a certain sense, the truth of that system. Greene's essay thus begins to map out one area that Jonathan Goldberg's "extremely wide-ranging discussion of sodomy [in Sodometries] leaves virtually untouched: the economic." Following Green, I examine links between sodomy and various types of illicit economic activity. In the process, I hope to revise the thinking that would see these couplings as categorical confusions. Instead, we need to interrogate the very logic that views these activities as discrete and unrelated forms of exchange which can then be confused.

* * *

Many early modern texts link counterfeit coins with counterfeit coitus. In Henry Peacham's emblem of Ganymede (figure 1), the connection between sodomy and counterfeiting is made explicit. The emblem evokes the crime of sodomy by referring to Ganymede as "the foule Sodomitan" and by depicting him astride a "cock." But if Ganymede is a sodomite, he is equally a counterfeiter. He holds "Meddals, of base mettals wroght, / With sundry moneyes, counterfeit and nought." The text then explains that these objects are meant to refer to Ganymede's crime of "false coine." Peacham's emblem thus echoes James I's Basilikon Doron, where the king includes both sodomy and false coin among the six sins that his son is "bound by conscience never to forgive...

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