The Pilgrims Were Queer
Dig into the history and you'll see plenty of early American colonizers were super gay—and their compatriots had views of it that were complicated, to say the least.
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris's The First Thanksgiving, 1621. Image via Wikimedia Commons
As you sit down for turkey, corn, and arguments with relatives at Thanksgiving this year, take a moment to give thanks to Thomas Morton, who founded what could be considered America’s first queer hippie colony in 1625.
Today, Merrymount is a quiet neighborhood of Quincy, Massachusetts; residents explain that the name is an English translation of its original name, Passonagessit. But, bless their hearts, the truth may be more exciting. According to historians and original records, the pilgrims founded an unusually queer society—one that wasn't straight-up accepting of all that queerness, per se, but had a more complicated relationship with it than you might think. In fact, as historians note, the name "Merrymount" can also refer to a Latin phrase meaning “erect phallus”—quite a coincidence, given the men erected an 80-foot pole in the center of town.
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.
And though early laws called for the death penalty for “sodomy” and “buggery,” the Pilgrims had a more complicated attitude about homosexuality than you might think. Despite the prohibition on same-sex encounters, 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.
When they arrived in what they called the Americas, colonizers sought a “city upon a hill”—that is, an example of religious purity. But the inhabitants of that land certainly didn’t meet their Biblical expectations, particularly when it came to gender roles.
"[Indigenous] gender roles—not all the time, but a considerable amount—were completely foreign to the Europeans,” said Bronski. “Every tribe had their own word for it, but there was a considerable amount of gender fluidity.”
Among the Mamitaree tribe, the journals of Lewis and Clark recorded men allowed to wear women’s clothes and marry other men. Among the Crow, men were honored for expressing feminine roles.
“The Europeans [were] totally scandalized,” said Bronski.
Despite their heterosexual aspirations, the Pilgrims found that sodomy just refused to stop happening among their ilk. Though they passed laws to encourage heterosexual marriage and reproduction, Bronski said, “clearly, they were fucking before they were married.”
In a 1978 paper entitled "Things Fearful to Name," historian Robert F. Oaks described colonists who were what we would today call queer. For example, there was the 1629 arrival of the ship Talbot, carrying “5 beastly Sodomitical boys [who] confessed their wickedness not to be named." They were sent back to England for trial.
In 1637, John Allexander and Thomas Roberts were accused of “lude behavior and uncleane carriage one w[ith] another, by often spendinge their seede one vpon another.” Alexander was beaten, branded, and exiled; Roberts was whipped and returned to indentured servitude. In 1649, Mary Hammon and Sara Norman were accused of "lewd behavior each with other upon a bed" and "divers Lasivious speeches." Norman was sentenced “to make a publick acknowlidgment, so fare as conveniently may bee, of her vnchast beahuior."
There exists little record of queer life in the colonies, since criminal complaints were generally the only occasion on which they were detailed. Thomas Morton’s founding of Merrymount remains among the most vivid: Merrymount denziens are described as having rejected the strict rules of the Puritans, declaring all servants and slaves to be free and encouraging intermingling with indigenous Algonquin people. 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.
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.
But Puritan objections to homosexuality were not entirely rooted in what we would call gender normativity. "The earliest sodomy laws are not prohibiting homsexual sex per se,” said Bronski. “They're prohibiting non-reproductive sex. So if you had anal sex with your wife, that would be a crime. The most important thing was to reproduce, because half the children died when they were infants.”
Indeed, the Puritans often avoided applying prescribed punishments for queer sex. Nicholas Sension, for example, was brought before a court in 1672 having propositioned numerous men over the preceding thirty years. “He took me and threw me on the chest and took hold on my privy parts,” testified one man. Sension was merely admonished at least twice during those decades before finally being whipped, fined, and shamed. It was yet another case, historian Linda Bissell wrote, of authorities using the law "to enforce obedience only when other means had failed and violations of norms were flagrant.”
Despite many settlements calling for the death penalty for sodomy, colonizers found that conditions were so harsh and the community so delicate that it was inadvisable to kill except in the most extreme cases. As a result, they often found reasons to forgive same-sex intercourse when it was discovered.
“There were always concerns about starvation of the entire colony,” said historian Carl Anthony. “So in the order of things that were important to them, that harsh Christian judgement about sex outside of marriage fell lower on the list.”
This "may have reflected economic realities in an area where labor was scarce, or it may have stemmed from a reluctance to apply capital punishment to crimes feared to be rather common,” wrote Oaks in 1978.
"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.”
He added, "you kept the community together by keeping your emotions in."
“Puritans became inured to sexual offenses,” wrote historian Edmund Morgan in 1942, “because there were so many.”
It’s an attitude that managed to stay with Americans over the intervening centuries, a tension between distaste for homosexuality and resignation that it will never go away. It’s only in the last few decades that the original spirit of Merrymount has returned, whether in the form of separatist radical faerie communities or queer enclaves within cities.
"I think Thomas Morton would have loved it,” Bronski said. “I'm rather fond of the Puritans. 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.”