Court Records and the History of Male Homosexuality
Court records have played a central role in research on the history of sex and intimacy between men. They have revealed patterns of policing and punishment in countries where homosexuality has been illegal, and have also allowed historians to reconstruct aspects of men's daily lives in times past. Court documents are important sources in some of the most well-known histories of male homoeroticism, among them George Chauncey's Gay New York and the more recent Queer London by Matt Houlbrook.1 I have made extensive use of court documents, too, in my recently published book Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand.2 These records were a key source of information, especially for those years beyond the reach of oral history: in effect, prior to the Second World War. In this article, I reflect upon my use of these sources by posing three sets of questions. First, what is there? What documents survive within the archives, and what are their conditions of access? Second, what types of cultural fragments remain inside the folders in the archives, and what do these reveal about the homoerotic past? Third, I consider whose voices are represented in these records: who is speaking, and under what circumstances? Court records have been controversial sources for the historical study of sexuality. They are often assumed to privilege official interpretations rather than folk ones, and to suppress the voices of 'ordinary' people under the weight of state sanctions. While the court files certainly do document the 'dominant voices' of society, I suggest that the situation is more complex than this. It is possible to examine the intricate relationships between the dominant and the marginal, and we can recognise the interplay of numerous, interwoven voices. While court records certainly do have their limitations, I suggest they are valuable sources with which to explore the experiences, meanings, identities and social changes that make up (homo)sexual histories.
Keywords: Crime; Homosexuality; Courts; New Zealand; History
Research Type: Journal Article
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