Were Some Pilgrims Queer? Same-Sex Relationships Were an Issue with Puritans

Monday November 29, 2021

The website VICE reminded its readers that "plenty of early American colonizers were super gay" when they retweeted a 2017 article entitled "The Pilgrims Were Queer."

Matt Baume wrote at the time that though "our modern understanding of sexuality would have been completely foreign to them, early European immigrants experienced same-sex attraction just as we do today, and they had queer sex, entered queer relationships, and formed queer households in ways that are surprisingly familiar."

While the early colonists considered "buggery" and "sodomy" a capital offense, "there were circumstances where they were tolerated — or at least ignored — and penalties gradually weakened over the course of the 1600s, in part out of necessity because such encounters were so common, according to Michael Bronski, a Professor of Practice in Media and Activism in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard. In other words, yes, many of the pilgrims in whose honor we celebrate Thanksgiving were queer," the article reads.

Upon arrival, Bronski noted, the Europeans were shocked by the gender fluidity of the Indigenous inhabitants. "The Europeans [were] totally scandalized," said Bronski.

And despite their attempt to create a morally pure "city on the hill," they discovered it was impossible to control queer behavior, nor did they administer the severest penalty. "Indeed, the Puritans often avoided applying prescribed punishments for queer sex," writes Baume.

"My reading of this is that the Puritans were like, 'people do this stuff, but it really shouldn't be public,'" said Bronski. "'We don't want to go too far punishing them, because that would hurt the community.' The most important thing is to keep the community stable."

An exception appears to be the community of Merrymount (located in Quincy, MA), which rejected the rigid Puritan rules "declaring all servants and slaves to be free and encouraging intermingling with indigenous Algonquin people," Vice said. Its leader, Thomas Morton, "declared himself 'Lord of Misrule' and his people were described by Nathaniel Hawthorne as a 'crew of Comus,"' a reference to a mythological figure during whose ceremonies men and women exchanged clothing."

Baume continued: "Hawthorne's description of Merrymounters, written two centuries later, could refer to a Pride parade today: 'One was a youth in glistening apparel, with a scarf of the rainbow pattern crosswise on his breast. ... There was the likeness of a bear erect, brute in all but his hind legs, which were adorned with pink silk stockings.'"

"On one particularly exciting occasion, the residents of Merrymount erected a maypole and danced in a manner described as evoking Ganymede and Zeus — figures that often symbolized same-sex couplings. This proto-Pride proved a bit too much for the neighbors, who arrested Morton, chopped down the pole, and scattered the residents."

"I'm rather fond of the Puritans," VICE quoted Bronski as saying. "I wouldn't want to live with them, but they totally understand that human beings are fallible. And what really matters is keeping the community together — which I can relate to as part of a gay community."

Check out the full article here.