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NY Public Library Exhibit – Love and Resistance: Stonewall 50


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I recently visited New York City for a week and happened upon this exhibit by accident. I was walking to my hotel and decided to go past the New York Public Library on the way. When I saw the banners for a 50th anniversary exhibit about the Stonewall Riots, I had to check it out.

On the third floor of the Steven Schwarzman building, you’ll find the Rayner Special Collections Wing and Stokes Gallery. It’s basically a long hallway, but it has the most fantastic collection of artifacts.

You are greeted by the Love+Resistance logo in neon at the doorway adorned with a collage of photos. The exhibit takes you on a timeline from the early days of underground LGBT newsletters and magazine, tensions after the anti-gay Time magazine article, and the events that led up to the riots and the beyond.

There are historic publications on view like Mattachine Review, The Ladder, and Transvestia. The exhibit does a great job of explaining the importance of these periodicals in a time when the public exchange of information was not easy or welcome. In a time before social media, these publication were a way to unite the community.

Few photos exist from the riots in 1969 but there are many from the Christopher Street Liberation Parade, which would later become the Pride parade. There is a wonderful collection of photos by photojournalists Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies. Many of these photos are now iconic. There are also pieces of ephemera like letters and posters from the early gay liberation parades.

There is a section on activism that follows the early protests starting before Stonewall and continues on through the days following Stonewall and the years that followed. At that end of the hall is a screening booth showing footage and interviews.

The exhibit might seems small, but it is powerful. I loved seeing the original letters and posters. I also loved seeing the photos, some of which I have seen online, some I haven’t see at all. It’s incredible to me that it’s been 50 years. While we have come a long way from those days, we still have so much more growing to do.

This exhibit will be up until July 21st, 2019. Check out the NY Public Library site for more info.

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Mental Health and Masturbation: A Centuries Old Misdiagnosis


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I’ve always found it interesting that May is an awareness month for both mental health and masturbation. I’m not sure if the people who scheduled this knew the connection between the two other than they both start with “M.”

Today, we know that masturbation has mental health benefits but that was not always so. Masturbation’s reputation has had its ups and downs over the course of human existence. Depending on the time period and the culture, it can be either a positive or negative thing. Unfortunately, Western society had many periods with an unfavorable opinion of masturbation mostly spurred by religious fervor. I first touched on the problems thought to have stemmed from self-pleasure with articles about Onanism, Sylvester Graham, John Harvey Kellogg, and anti-masturbation devices.

Onanism is the belief rooted in a bible story about Onan. Onan wasted his seed upon the ground instead of impregnating his late brother’s wife, as he was ordered to do. This myth was distorted over time to include not only the use of the withdrawal method as birth control but any emission including masturbation. Books like Onania: or the Heinous Sin of Self Pollution (1710) by Anonymous, Onania: Examined and Detected (1723) by Philo-Castitatus, and L’Onanisme, a Treatise Upon the Disorder Produced By Masturbation (1758) by Samuel-August Tissot, touch on this imagined health crisis.

The authors used their limited knowledge of how the body and mind react to masturbation, and limited understanding of the body and mind in general, to link a wide array of illnesses to masturbation. They thought that the excessive stimulation from masturbation affected mental health causing insanity. This idea grew in popularity during the 19th century. In 1816, Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol mentioned in his Maladies Mentales “Masturbation is recognized in all countries as a common cause of insanity.” In 1845, RJ Brodie and Co. released their ridiculously long titled book commonly truncated down to The Secret Companion, A Medical Work on Onanism or Self-Pollution which states due to “the loss of too much semen from masturbation… the ideas are confused and frequently insanity is the result.”

In 1842, Dr. Alfred Hitchcock, not the rotund director but the 19th Century doctor, wrote about his conclusions in the Boston Surgical Journal titled Insanity and Death From Masturbation. Hitchcock states, “Within ten years a number of fatal cases have fallen under my observation, where death was clearly traceable to that cause alone.” He describes meeting a man who had taken ill and recently had an epileptic episode. He then started exhibiting symptoms of insanity. Upon their meeting, Dr. Hitchcock describes a long list of maladies. Since Dr. Hitchcock found his pulse wasn’t sharp, his chest gave health sounds, and no “viscous” was seriously affected that he could easily conclude that masturbation was the cause.

By the mid-1800s, most doctors and psychiatrists were on the masturbation leads to insanity bandwagon. Professor Henry Maudsley coined the phrase “Masturbatory Insanity” in 1868 and wrote, “Self-abuse is the cause of a particular disagreeable form of insanity.” He wrote in his book Physiology and Pathology of the Mind (1880) “Self Abuse is a cause of insanity which appears more frequent or more effective in men than in women.” The book lists many people with maladies, a few of which include self-abuse.

Joseph W Howe published Excessive Venery, Masturbation, and Continence in 1887. He wrote, “Insanity, however, is liable to occur, as a direct result of onanism or sexual excess, without the development of either of the above mentioned affections.” (Epilepsy and pathophobia were those affections he mentioned) Howe also relates a story about a man who masturbated himself into insanity and an early grave.

Dr. David Skae lists “Insanity of Masturbation” in his A Rational and Practical Classification of Insanity (1863). Skae defines Masturbatory Insanity as “A separate nosological disease caused exclusively by masturbation with characteristic features.” Even John Harvey Kellogg of Corn Flakes fame wrote in his Plain Facts For Old and Young (1881) that “The solitary vice is one of the most common cause of insanity is a fact too well established to need demonstration here.”

Many books and articles dedicated to the subject in the last half of the 1800s. Ellen White, along with other authors, had their opinions published in 1870 as A Solemn Appeal. Relative to a Solitary Vice, and Abuses and Excesses of the Marriage Relation (so many long winded titles!) edited by Ellen’s husband, James Springer White. Dr. Allen Hagenbach wrote, Masturbation as a Cause of Insanity published in 1879. In 1887, Edward Spitzka published Cases of Masturbation (Masturbation Insanity) He wrote, “Excessive venery and masturbation have from time immemorial been supposed to exert a deleterious influence on the nervous system and may provoke insanity partly through their weakening effect on the moral nutrition.”

There are medical reports from mental hospitals in Europe and US that list masturbation as a symptom or note having seen patients masturbate openly. The 1890 annual report for the Dunning Asylum in Chicago listed masturbation as a common cause of insanity in male patients. Early medical professionals were quick to believe that people who were masturbating and having similar symptoms that masturbation was the cause.

The list of symptoms their patients exhibited could have been diagnosed today as a wide variety of illnesses from schizophrenia to diabetes to cancer. The masturbatory habits of the mentally ill housed in these horrific asylums were not the end result of the path to venereal sin. It was more likely that some of these patients lacked impulse control or were merely the frustratingly institutionalized enjoying one of the few outlets of pleasure they had.

Unfortunately, the mental health link to masturbation meant that lots of time and energy were taken to dissuade people from practicing self-pleasure. Many of the books and guest lectures recommended ways to keep people’s hands off themselves. It helped fuel health-related industries like Sylvester Graham’s cracker, John Harvey Kellogg’s Sanatorium, and those scary anti-masturbation products. When people didn’t respond to the threat of enfeeblement, disease, or death, they could be subjected to cruel anti-masturbation techniques such as suturing the foreskin, penile cauterization, and clitorectomies.

The masturbation/insanity connection waned after the turn of the century. You could still find doctors writing about it, like Dr. William Malamud who published the article The Role of Masturbation in the Causation of Mental Disturbances in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in 1932. By the mid 20th century, the medical community learned much more about the mind and body. There was also a greater understanding of human sexuality thanks to the works of people like Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson.

We also became more honest and open about sex. When you find a majority of people masturbates, and that it’s perfectly normal, the idea that it can cause illness loses its grip. If everyone who masturbates went insane, there wouldn’t be enough asylums to house them. While there are factions that still think masturbation is bad for you, modern science has helped to eradicate the idea from mainstream thought.

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History of Valentine’s Day – Saints and Sinners


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There is quite a bit of mystery about the origins of Valentine’s Day. Everything from its namesake to its pagan beginnings can’t be definitively proven and seems loosely drawn together. Lots of speculation and conjecture, a few possible leads but nothing that hands down proves how it started. I find the stories behind this holiday fascinating since it draws together stories of multiple martyrs, fertility rites, and medieval poets.

Let’s start with the mysterious martyr, St. Valentine. First, the name was not Valentine but Valentinus, or Valentino in Italian, but we’ll keep the anglicized name that’s most familiar. There are stories attributed to three different men; St. Valentine of Rome, St. Valentine of Terni, and St. Valentine who died in North Africa. They all apparently died on February 14th. There is hardly any information about North Africa Valentine other than he was killed with a bunch of other people in North Africa, so we’ll just stick to the first two stories.

St Valentine of Rome and St. Valentine of Terni could be two different people or the same person. Valentine of Rome might have been a former bishop of Terni. There are several different years attributed to his date of death which may be why there’s confusion as to how many Valentines there actually were. Some say he died during the reign of Emperor Gallienus and others Emperor Claudius Gothicus (Claudius II). Most research states he died either in 269 or 270 AD, which leaves out Gallienus was assassinated in 268.

Valentine’s execution could have been for performing Christian marriages or performing marriages for soldiers. Claudius II forbid soldiers to get married. He thought single men made better soldiers than married men who didn’t want to leave their wives and families to go to war. Many Catholic and religious sites believe he was simply persecuted for being Christian and trying to convert others.

Some stories have him converting a judge by curing his daughter of blindness. Others have him befriending a jailer’s blind daughter then leaving a note behind that read “From your Valentine.” One story has him leave the note for a woman he either became enamored with or befriended while incarcerated.

Other accounts say he charmed Claudius II, but when instead of renouncing his faith he tried to convince Claudius to convert, Claudius became irate and condemned him to death. In all of these stories, he’s beaten and beheaded then buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14th. Today, several locations claim to have pieces of St Valentine’s remains as relics on display. Most notably, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome displays his flower adorned skull.

In most of the stories I read about Valentine’s Day, Pope Gelasius I declared February 14th the feast of St. Valentine in 496 and listed him amongst the saints “whose names are rightly reverenced among us, but whose actions are known only to God.”  He may still be the patron saint of love and happy marriages, but he was taken out of the General Roman Calendar in 1969 because so little was known about him. He is also the patron saint of beekeepers, epilepsy, fainting, plague, travelers, and young people

Pope Gelasius I worked hard to make Rome the seat of Catholicism. He also did his best to pin that pesky pagan festival, Lupercalia, to the mat after centuries of popularity. Some claim that Pope Gelasius used Valentine’s Day to supplant Lupercalia, and many believe he succeeded. Others argue that Lupercalia’s end came not with St. Valentine’s Day but with a letter to Senator Andromachus. There is very little evidence to support these claims other than a rather stern letter to the senator.

Lupercalia was a Roman fertility festival that is so ancient little is known of its origin. The festival was in honor of Rome’s founders, the twins Romulus and Remus, who were saved by a she-wolf when left for dead. After they had returned home to take back their stolen throne, they turned the wolf den of their youth into a sacred site. From then on, two men representing Romulus and Remus would sacrifice a dog and a goat (the defender of the herd and the herding animal) and clothe themselves in goat skins (which makes me think of the goat leggings in the 1980’s version of Dragnet).

After the post-sacrificial ritual, a feast would ensue, then the two men would run around the town slapping or touching people with goat strips/thongs for purification. Women thought it would ensure fertility and ease childbirth, which explains why they would want to get slapped with a possibly bloody strap of goatskin. And we’re talking strips of goat skin, not thick leather, so think of it as light, festive slaps and not getting beaten.

Lupercalia’s history includes stories that single women/young girls put their names in a pot then single men/young boys drew the names out of women who would then be their companions for the night, or a day, or a year depending on who’s telling the story. Companion is translated in many ways but often to sexual partners, but I can’t find any proof that happened. Some make it sound like it was speed dating, and if you hit it off, you got a life partner.

The earliest writing about this activity dates as early as 1756 and is most likely made up. Lupercalia probably had just fallen out of favor as some ancient festivals do. I’m sure the church thinks it hoodwinked the pagans with its new Catholic approved saint festival but that may not have been the case. It just may have run its course.

But Lupercalia was the reason for the season in its time and not the reason why we give notes of affection on the 14th today. That evolved over time from as early as the medieval era when Feb 14th was thought of as the day birds start mating. This made it was the perfect time for thoughts and words of love. The first documented writing about Valentine’s day is a medieval poem by Geoffrey Chaucer. The Parlement of Foules (also known as the Parliament of Birds) was penned in the 14th century and contains a stanza that about Valentine’s Day, “For this was on Saint Valentine’s day when every fowl comes there his mate to take.” There is even mention of Valentine’s Day in Hamlet.

By the 18th century, the passing of elaborate cards on Feb 14th was all the rage. By the 1840’s, Esther Howland created mass-produced cards to sell to the public since many people didn’t have time to make elaborate ribbon and lace laden notes anymore. In 1913, Hallmark started selling mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards ushering in the holiday we know today.

Now we can pass along e-cards to our lovebirds. And while we grumble about commercialization or that it’s just a manufactured holiday (which it is), at least no one in goat leggings is slapping you with strips of bloody goat skin. And if you are, who am I to yuck your yum. Enjoy the holiday in any consensual way you like.

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Hi! I'm Miko Alicea. I'm going to take you on a journey through time. An exploration of the history of sex.

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