By Graham Robb

(W.W. Norton, 352 pages)

For the past three decades, standard wisdom has held that gays did not identify themselves as "homosexual" until 1870, when doctors diagnosed them as such. But in this provocative book, Robb argues that gay culture existed long before the medical establishment said so and, to hear Robb tell it, those doctors did more harm than good. Luckily, their treatments were mild, such as one doctor's prescription of "cold baths with outdoor exercise and the study of mathematics." Others prescribed prostitutes. Still, no matter how persistent the oppression, gay life was lived – on the docks in Barcelona, the Champs-Elysées in Paris, Central Park in New York City and almost anywhere in Naples. Encoding behavior was not just a necessity but a sport, and the selectivity of this life bred a closeness that made the world seem small. One could hardly pick a better literary sleuth for this hidden world than Robb. His previous biographies were notable for their combination of research and page-turning readability, and this history is equally engaging.

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