Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Homosexuality in England - Hatred, Hidden, Hope?

It was announced yesterday that the gay marriage bill, a highly controversial document which has divided British society significantly, had passed through the House of Commons, with 400 MPs voting in favour of the document and 175 dissenting. 136 Tory MPs opposed the bill, but this has not prevented the outcome, with Prime Minister David Cameron announcing that "Last night's vote will be seen not just as making sure that there is a proper element of equality, but also helping us to build a stronger and fairer society." Ed Miliband agreed, stating that: "this is a proud day and an important step forward in the fight for equality in Britain". However, other conservative MPs have privately expressed worries, noting that: "we are expecting problems in the Lords". Traditional religious groups are also highly likely to oppose the changes.

But what has the history of homosexuality (encompassing both male-male and female-female relations) been in Britain, more specifically England? Has there always been universal hatred and intolerance of homosexuals and lesbians, or have they been perceived with fascination, outrage, pity, sympathy, contempt etc? Sexuality is fundamental to how we identify ourselves. It shapes our identities, our choices, and our beliefs. Such an integral part of humanity was always likely to cause extraordinary opposition, particularly when it directly affected such a traditional institution as marriage, which has existed since ancient times. This article will explore how homosexuality (and lesbianism) has been perceived in England since the medieval period, considering how views and ideas have changed over time, influenced by changing social, political, economic, cultural, medical, and indeed sexual circumstances. No mention will be made of other countries or the influence of religions such as Islam. Readers should note that I have for a while now been considering writing a book entitled Homocide, documenting the persecution of homosexuals, lesbians and other minority sexualities for a while now, but it would be a very lengthy and complex undertaking.

According to some writers, homosexuality was fairly widespread in the Middle Ages. Concerns with sexuality in general stemmed largely from the Church, which held considerable power in society and was the ultimate institution of regulation and control in medieval society. The Church forbade all sexual relations which were not intended for procreation. Strict rules were created, suggesting that married couples should only have sexual intercourse on certain days of the year, at certain times, and only in the missionary position. Anything other than this was classified as deviant and evil, to be punished accordingly. St. Augustine wrote that sex which encompassed pleasure ran the risk of leading to a loss of rationality. Masturbation, anal and oral sex were all identified as unnatural, as indeed was vaginal intercourse in any position other than missionary.

By at least the twelfth century, homosexuality was increasingly stigmatised and becoming a great concern for the Church, while it was classified as sodomy, which sternly and oppressively condemned all sexual practices which were not concerned with procreation. The Medieval Inquisition from c.1184 punished the sects of Cathars and Waldensians for sodomy and fornication, demonstrating an intensifying hostility towards 'deviant' sexual behaviour. Thomas Aquinas, an influential theologian, denounced homosexuality and other sexual deviance as "unnatural vices". Capital punishment was gradually used to punish homosexuals from the thirteenth century, along with other sexual deviants.

Yet it has been argued that homosexuality was, in fact, a common occurrence in medieval society. It should be noted here that there was no concept of a homosexual identity, which only emerged in the nineteenth century. Rather, sexual relations between men, between women, or involving an animal, were all classified as sodomy, or bestiality. Medieval writers referred to what we would today classify as homosexuality or lesbianism as sexual actions which were "sinning against nature", ie. because they did not involve procreation. Sodomy was widely feared, and was punished harshly. The term buggery also became increasingly widespread in the mid thirteenth century. It was, however, not referred to in English law until 1533.

Because the Church played such an integral, even oppressive, role in society, it is not surprising that homosexuals and lesbians were persecuted intensely in the medieval period, since the Bible was used as authority to condemn unnatural sexual practices which opposed religious teachings. Male transvestites are also recognised to have played an important role in medieval society. It appears that sex between monks, and other religious orders, was fairly frequent, a fear which was punished in hostile fashion during Henry VIII's reign with the dissolution of the monasteries.

Although English medieval sources refer constantly to actual sexual behaviours between men - there was no recognition of female homosexuality - encompassing acts such as anal sex, monastic writing from the twelfth century exists to provide evidence of intimate male friendship. Writers such as Anselm wrote to other monks frequently, desiring long and exclusive relationships, although they were often attracted to youths. However, it must be stressed, homosexual subcultures do not appear to have been as significant in medieval England as they were in France and, in particular, Italy, where there is strong evidence of homosexual relations between both older and younger men. Somewhat surprisingly, given the medieval Church's fierce hostility towards women, identifying them as lustful and seducers of innocent and unsuspecting men, there is no mention made of the possibility of sexual relations between women.

It is interesting that several medieval English kings were suspected of homosexuality. Most famously, King Edward II (1284-1327) was believed to have been at least bisexual; although he fathered five children by two women (including four with his notorious queen, Isabella of France), his rumoured love affairs with Piers Gaveston (who was later murdered) and Hugh Despenser caused severe political unrest and eventually led to the king's murder at Berkeley Castle. Chroniclers implied that the king enjoyed "wicked and forbidden sex" with Gaveston, while another asserted that "Edward took too much delight in sodomy". Although these chroniclers were, ultimately, unable to prove that the two were lovers, there is strong evidence that they were. The later king Richard II was also believed to have enjoyed a homosexual relationship with Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford.

In early modern England, lesbianism arguably emerged as a greater concern compared to the medieval period. Traub noted that "certain female-female acts were met with harsh denunciation, punishment, and considerable publicity". Female-female eroticism, like male homosexuality, was viewed as unnatural and offensive to God. Female sodomy became increasingly enshrined in law after 1550. In the reign of Henry VIII, a statute passed in 1533 condemned buggery, although it did not mention men (probably since buggery tended to mean anal penetration). If women were believed to commit buggery, it was believed that they did so with an animal (Edward Coke).

Male homosexuality continued to be viewed with considerable horror in England. We have seen that the 1533 act punished buggery harshly, specifically focusing on male-male penetration, punishing the offence with death. In 1540, Walter Lord Hungerford was the first person to be executed under this statute, while he was also believed to have enjoyed sexual relations with his own daughter. Historians who have speculated that Anne Boleyn's younger brother George was either homo- or bisexual, along with several of his fellow male courtiers, probably are inferring too imaginatively into surviving evidence, for these men appear to have been noted womanisers who were not attracted to one another.

Homosexuality, particularly in the Elizabethan period, was viewed as a crime comparable to murder or blasphemy, because it offended religious teachings and threatened accepted patriarchal, gender, and sexual mores held in society. Thomas Shepard, a seventeenth century writer, referred to sodomy in the same breath as witchcraft, murder, and adultery. John Rainolds described it as being "a monstrous sin against nature". The nature of male friendships in the early modern period meant that suspicions of sodomy were frequently held. People often shared beds with one another, not in a sexual sense as we may view it, and were often of the same sex. Men also frequently kissed and embraced one another warmly amongst the elite culture. Emotional bonds were strong, often expressed between men in their letters to one another. Yet it cannot be suggested that these men enjoyed sexual relationships with one another, in view of the hostile responses to homosexuality considered thus far.

However, in the late seventeenth century homosexual cruising grounds and brothels began appearing in London (as well as in other European cities). Allegedly, by the end of the century homosexuality in the capital had become commonplace, with Samuel Pepys stating in his diary in 1663 that "Sir J Jemmes and Mr Batten both say that buggery is now almost grown as common among our gallants as in Italy", a highly significant comment to make in context of the nature of sexual relations in Italian society. Yet it is unlikely, as Nicton has suggested, that male prostitution was a thriving business in seventeenth century England.

During the eighteenth century, in some circles homosexuality was used as a weapon to attack rivals. The court, for instance, was increasingly associated with sodomy by some disaffected courtiers, while the Society for the Reformation of Manners was also accused of homosexual conduct. Captain Edward Rigby became a famous victim of homosexuality in the 1690s, being charged with the 'offence' following sexual encounters with a nineteen year old youth who later exposed him to the authorities. In 1707 eight men, possibly more, were convicted of homosexuality due to the actions of moral movements. Apparently, the Royal Exchange was the main cruising ground. Like the medieval period, male homosexuality was viewed as much more of a threat than lesbianism. The Society of Manners eventually ensured that 100 men were convicted of homosexual conduct in that year alone.

In the Victorian period, changing views of homosexuality developed. Rather than relying on religion to identify homosexuals as enemies of God who publicly threatened accepted religion, homosexual men were increasingly perceived as being effeminate men, while lesbians were usually characterised as "mannish" women. Psychoanalysts and psychologists believed that homosexuality was a medical disorder which could be cured if treated, believed to be a disease caused by the deterioration of the nerves. Johann Valentin Muller's work, published in 1796, remained popular, identifying homosexuals as both sick and as dangers to the state and public order.

However, literary notions increasingly challenged accepted views of homosexuality and lesbianism. Radclyffe Hall's famous novel The Well of Loneliness depicted lesbianism in a sympathetic light, while the trials of Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour caused a sensation across England, although in the end ruining Wilde's career. Homosexuals became more confident about speaking out by the late 1800s, attempting to define themselves rather than being defined by the society in which they lived. It must be said that, in comparison with other countries, England was relatively light in terms of its punishment of homosexuality, although it was not legalised until the 1960s.

In 1906, Bloch suggested that homosexuals and lesbians should be accepted as welcome members of society. During this time, homosexuals seem to have still been perceived as a greater threat than lesbians, perhaps because it was believed that lesbians could be 'reformed'. Some were positive about homosexuality, suggesting that it encouraged strong comradeship and embodied heroism and community. The Wolfenden report of the 1950s raised serious and disturbing questions as to whether homosexuality could really be classified as an offence, arguing that what people did in their private lives was of no concern to the state, as long as it was not threatening or a disruption to public order. Eventually, homosexuality was legalised in the 1960s in context of sexual liberation in England, with the age of consent set to 21 years old before being lowered to 18, and then to 16. This, perhaps, is evidence of increasing toleration towards homosexuals and lesbians.

England has witnessed vastly differing and changing views to homosexuality, lesbianism, and other 'unnatural' sexualities over the course of its history. From deep-rooted hostility and contempt in the medieval period largely influenced by religious teachings, to increasing concern in the early modern period, and eventually to liberation in modern Britain, it can be argued that 'deviant' sexualities are still a source of fear, worry, and uncertainty in England today. Religion remains prominent, and, disturbingly, homosexual, bisexual and lesbian youths continue to commit self-harm and, in some cases suicide, because of their inability to accept their sexual identities. Gay marriage will now finally be legal in Britain, provided there is no further opposition to the Bill.

Without wishing to become involved in this highly contentious political and social issue, I would pose a question for readers: if homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals and transvestites are not harming anyone in their private lives, should we not respect their sexual identities? The Wolfenden Report questioned as much.


  1. I have found this really useful, but I was wonderring where you found the information regarding the normatively of men kissing one another in 17th century culture from? - as Ive not had much luck finding evidence of this myself.

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