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American Literary History 14.4 (2002) 747-775

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The Queer History of Leprosy and Same-Sex Love

Gregory Tomso


Charles Warren Stoddard's The Lepers of Molokai (1885) offers a provocative look into the related intellectual histories of disease, sexuality, and racial thinking in late-nineteenth-century America. Through a particularly fertile combination of the discourses of aesthetics, epidemiology, and Orientalizing ethnography, this account of Stoddard's 1884 visit to the Hawaiian leper colonies of Kalawao and Kalaupapa presents leprosy as a spectacle of the fl that is at once horrifying and erotic, at once forbidding in its evocation of fears of national and racial pollution and alluring in its suggestion of intimate contact with supposedly hypervirile Hawaiian natives. Stretching to the limits a long-standing Catholic tradition that saw the mark of divine beauty in leprosy's disfigurement of the body, Stoddard's descriptions of wasting and decaying fl draw acute attention to the bodies of infected Hawaiians—a kind of attention, I argue, that helped to express his sexual interests in young Hawaiian men.

In The Lepers of Molokai, Stoddard describes the Hawaiians' dual susceptibility to leprosy and to same-sex desire, coding the disease as an outward sign of what he considered an invisible but related form of bodily stigma, male homosexuality. His use of leprosy as a metaphor for homosexuality was made possible by leprosy's reemergence as an object of popular and medical attention in the late nineteenth century, when large-scale outbreaks of the disease in both Hawaii and the Philippines became symbols of the imagined threat to American racial and national purity posed by commercial and military expansion into the South Pacific. 1 The common link between these two symbolic appropriations of leprosy is Stoddard's emphasis on its contagiousness and its seemingly endless circulation around the globe. Stoddard depicts gay desire itself as a form of contagion, a continually circulating form of bodily "corruption" whose origin, like the origin of leprosy, can never be definitively located in time or space. 2

Stoddard's emphasis on the circularity of gay desire suggests a revision of the classical and exclusively Western history of same-sex [End Page 747] love that was popularized by his contemporary, John Addington Symonds. Symonds's classicism led to the disavowal of all instances of same-sex love that were not directly associated with the Greeks. In A Problem in Greek Ethics (1901), he dismisses out of hand the significance of such love among the "Etruscan, the Chinese, the ancient Keltic tribes, the Tartar hordes of Timour Khan, the Persians under Moslem rule—races sunk in the sloth of populous cities as well as the nomadic children of Asian steppes" (61). To the extent that Stoddard's historical and epidemiological accounts of leprosy-as-homosexuality constitute their own version of the history of same-sex love, their failure to uphold a stringent separation between East and West or between "civilized" and "barbaric" nations helps to make clear the racism implicit in claims that homosexuality is a noble form of "Greek love" whose origin can be traced without question to the classical period of Greek culture. Symonds's classicism and Stoddard's Orientalism thus function as foils to one another, though their histories are ultimately more similar than opposed. Each draws its power of explanation by positing an essential difference between white Westerners and their racial Others. In addition, each demonstrates how the history of homosexuality was ostensibly written as the history of something else: Greece for Symonds and leprosy for Stoddard. My exploration of Stoddard's appropriation of leprosy as an intellectual and aesthetic metaphor therefore provides a sense of how the epistemology of a particular illness both constrained and enabled thinking about sexuality in the second half of the nineteenth century.

This exploration also shows how writing about illness afforded Stoddard himself an opportunity to articulate thoughts and desires that he otherwise might have concealed or disavowed. At least until very late in his life, Stoddard believed that his sexual attraction to other men could only be expressed...


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