The “Social” Question of Homosexual Love

 In Edward Carpenter’s “Homogenic Love,” Carpenter makes an impassioned argument for the decriminalization of homosexual love. The main body of his argument is an argument for homosexual love as a force for “social good.” On the one hand, this serves the purposes of asking readers to move beyond a purely “aesthetic” and personal judgment of homosexuality–whether or not one regards such acts as disgusting is less important under Carpenter’s framework than the social impacts of such love. However, turning homosexual love into a “social” question also serves to diminish and contradict the moral force of his piece by allowing for the treatment of  heterosexual and homosexual love differently under the law depending on their respective social utilities.

 

Carpenter opens  by writing that “if on the side of science much is obscure, there is no obscurity in the principles of healthy morality involved” (336) and closes by arguing that “in the case of persons of opposite sex: the law limits itself on the whole to the maintenance of public order, the protection of the weak from violence and insult, and of the young from their experience: so it should be here…if the dedication of love were a matter of mere choice or whim, it still would not be the business of the State to compel that choice” (340-341). These are arguments that quite clearly stand the test of the time and make it unambiguous that the law has no moral justification in interfering with consensual love between two persons of the same sex.

 

In the body of his essay, however, Carpenter breaks from this clear-cut question, and argues instead for the social “benefits” of homosexual love. He argues that “the other love should have its special function in social and heroic work, and in the generation–not of bodily children–but of those children of the mind, the philosophical conceptions and ideals which transform our lives and those of society” (337), that “it is difficult to believe that anything except that kind of comrade-union which satisfies and invigorates the two lovers and yet leaves them free from the responsibilities and impedimenta of family life can supply the force and liberate the energies required for social and mental activities of the most necessary kind” (338), and that “it is hardly needful in these days when social questions loom so large upon us to emphasize the importance of a bond which by the most passionate and lasting compulsion may draw members of the different classes together (339). The fact that these reasons are clearly less persuasive today–as the nature of homosexual couples have changed so that in many ways, such as in their ability to have families, they have come to resemble heterosexual couples–demonstrates the dangers of adopting this sort of social argument. These are the same dangers Carpenter hinted at of relying on “science” to answer the “question”: on these types of utilitarian or objective grounds where “evidence” rather than morals are weighed, there is room for ambiguity and obscurity whereas on moral grounds there ought to be clarity.

 

That said, it is no doubt possible that there may have been rhetorical advantages for Carpenter to argue the social question. In Studies of the Psychology of Sex, Ellis writes that “rightly or wrongly, the gratification of the homosexual impulse is regarded as a public matter” (332). Indeed, a major component of both Ellis’s and Carpenter’s arguments is showing their readers that homosexual love is prevalent throughout their society and cannot be eliminated by law. Because Carpenter was writing with the goal of creating a tangible and immediate change in the law rather than a more abstract change of opinion, it might be argued that even though some of his arguments are less persuasive today, that engaging with the social rather than moral question of  homosexuality may have been the easiest type of argument for readers at the time to digest and relate to.

KS

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Filed under Week 3: Sexology, Inversion, Uranianism

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