- Metropolitan Lovers: The Homosexuality of Cities
As Julie Abraham notes in the preface to Metropolitan Lovers, “To say that homosexuals and cities go together, as it were, is not . . . to say anything new” (xv). But it is precisely because the association between homosexuals and cities is so strong—precisely because it has come to register so powerfully in so many people’s minds as something approximating basic common sense—that it demands some careful explanation. And explanation is precisely what Abraham provides in her imaginatively conceived and thoughtfully argued new book.
Metropolitan Lovers traces the gradual intertwining of the idea of homosexuality and the idea of the city from biblical antiquity to the present. Mercifully, Abraham dispenses with the first several millennia of this history in just a few short pages, which allows her to focus her attention throughout the remainder of the book on Europe and the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some readers will probably consider this focus to be disappointingly narrow given all the deliciously salacious things that could so easily be said about the long history of sodomy in the city, beginning, as Abraham does, with the oft-cited parable of Sodom itself. But in this case Abraham’s chosen emphasis on comparatively recent developments in the West actually makes a good deal of sense. This is partly because her primary interest really is “homosexuality” as such—which is to say the distinctly modern category of sexual personhood that first began to take discernable shape during the nineteenth century. But it also makes sense because what Abraham really seeks to demonstrate is the extent to which homosexuality and urban life came to function as reciprocally explanatory metaphors for one another during a period of social and cultural change in Europe and the United States that was so rapid and so generally disorienting that it left even colonizers and capitalists feeling anxious and slightly out of place in the metropole. [End Page 161]
To make this claim, Abraham guides her reader through encounters with “famous homosexuals (Oscar Wilde, Jane Addams, Radclyffe Hall, James Baldwin); oft-cited city commentators (Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Robert Park, Richard Sennett); well-known texts (from Émile Zola’s late-nineteenth-century novel Nana to Jane Jacobs’ classic of twentieth-century urban planning, The Death and Life of American Cities); frequently invoked metropolitan types (the prostitute, the flaneur, the delinquent, the drag queen); and the standard subjects and language of urban analysis (from ‘capital’ and ‘vice’ to ‘ghettos’ and ‘gentrification’)” (xv). And indeed, as summaries go, this one captures pretty completely the topical sweep of Abraham’s book. What it fails to suggest, however, is the very smart way that Abraham arranges (and in some cases rearranges) these familiar elements of European and American urban history in order to make new claims—claims that really are persuasively argued for the most part, and claims that definitely merit serious consideration.
For example, Abraham makes a relatively compelling argument that it was lesbians, not male homosexuals or their queer ancestors, who functioned as the ur-exemplars of modern urban deviance and deviant urban modernity throughout much of the nineteenth century. This is important because it represents a very significant revision to many existing social historical accounts that tend to present women as relative latecomers to urban sexual subcultures, assuming that they say anything about women at all.
Abraham also proposes a generously formulated but I think very important challenge to scholars who insist upon discussing the trajectory of lesbian and gay history in terms of gradually increasing visibility over the course of the twentieth century. As she points out, such narratives actually presume a lot, including the fact that the opposite of “visible” is “invisible” or “hidden.” But as Abraham notes, same-sex sexual behaviors and desires were never exactly hidden in European and American cities, least of all during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Or, if they were, they were hidden in plain sight. What is more, European and American metropolitans actually seem to...