Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Notes from the Past: The Historical Roots of Ex-Gay Violence against Gay Men in the Story of Frederick the Great

A story from the past, illustrating the sociological and philosophical foundations of the ex-gay movement in heterosexist brutality towards the feminine, combined with biblical fundamentalism (from Robert B. Asprey, Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma [NY: Ticknor & Fields, 1986]):

Frederick William of Prussia, father of Frederick the Great, was a man given to bouts of violent behavior fueled by drunkenness. By 1725, when he was 37, his propensity for drink was so great that it took three soldiers to help him mount his horse (p. 34).

As Frederick William’s drinking problems grew, his ire began to focus more and more on his son Frederick, whom he saw as effeminate, idle, without “manly virtues” (ibid.). Frederick cultivated, in secret, because of his father's disapproval, a library containing the works of Locke, Descartes, and Voltaire (pp. 34-35).

Frederick William despised “learned men,” and gave Frederick into the charge of four officers to watch all he did. (My gloss: it’s always interesting to note the barely disguised salaciousness of the voyeurism heterosexist males practice in their attempts to “cure” gay men and curb out-of-control women) (p. 35).

In 1728, Frederick developed a friendship with a royal page, Peter Christoph Karl von Keith, from whom he “soon became inseparable” (p. 42). In his attempts to make his son a manly man, and to keep Frederick from such friends, Frederick William forced him to hunt, something he loathed, preferring books, the flute, and his friends. Frederick confided his distaste for the hunt in a 1728 letter to Lieut. Friedrich von Borcke, who was possibly among Frederick’s lovers (p. 42). As his attempts absolutely to own and control his son met resistance, Frederick William heaped ever more scorn on Frederick, and ugly scenes took place between the two daily (pp. 44-5).

During this period, Frederick’s sister Wilhelmina wrote about her father’s treatment of her brother, describing it as shocking and cruel. She noted that her father threw plates of food at Frederick, sought to beat his son with his crutches, and choked Frederick until his servants separated the two (p. 47).

In 1729, Frederick William appointed Friedrich Wilhelm von Rochow and Lieut. Baron Dietrich von Keyserling to reform Frederick. In a letter outlining the assignment he was giving the two, Frederick William speaks of his son’s “effeminate, lascivious, and womanly activities,” as well as of his idleness and frivolity (pp. 47-8).

As Frederick William continued to decline into more and more drunken brutality, he forced Frederick to sit at the foot of the table during meals, where he often received no food (pp. 49-50). In this period, Frederick William once again tried to strangle Frederick, and once (via a spy), having learned his son was waltzing in elegant French clothes in his room, he burst into the room, seized the clothes, and threw them into the fire (p. 51).

During this period, Frederick was increasingly public about his relationship with Keith. In January 1730, Frederick William beat Frederick so cruelly due to his refusal to dissolve the friendship, that Frederick decided to escape. This was reported anonymously to Frederick William, who stopped the attempt.

In July 1730, Frederick escaped. Frederick William intercepted him and, at Wesel, drew his sword to run Frederick through. A general leapt between the father and son, telling Frederick William to kill him rather than his son. Frederick William had Frederick placed under arrest, instructing his guards to kill him rather than let him escape and be captured again.

Hans Hermann von Katte, who had been privy to Frederick’s relationship with Keith, and also probably a lover of Frederick himself, was sentenced by the court to life in prison for his part in Frederick’s failed attempt to escape from his father. Following the verdict, Frederick William announced that Katte would be executed with Frederick watching. Frederick William planned the execution in minute detail (pp. 62-71). As Frederick watched his friend die, he fainted (p. 71).

In all that he sought to do to his son—break his will, cure him of womanliness, force him to undertake vocations distasteful to him, stop him from reading—Frederick William stated that he was motivated only by the desire to “convert” his son and see him put right with God. Frederick William’s violence went hand in hand with his Pietistic beliefs. As he kept his son in prison, Frederick William sent a chaplain to him to assist in breaking his spirit and “converting” him (pp. 75-8).

And so it goes, violence enacted against men deemed feminine, the claim that the Father God not merely approves but desires such violence, the belief that those engaging in violence directed towards men thought of as feminine are holy and praiseworthy, the claim that coercion and cruelty are Christian “conversion,” etc. When one reads stories such as Frederick the Great’s, one has to wonder how much has changed—really changed—in people’s fundamental outlook about such issues, in some parts of the world, even as the 21st century begins.

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