200-year-old diary shows gay history isn’t what you thought it was


A startling new find shows that being gay was considered a “natural” tendency in Edwardian England — at least by some.

A recently-analyzed diary from a farmer in 1810 reveals remarkably open-minded beliefs, suggesting that back in that day, regular people in Britain weren’t as opposed to homosexuality as we might think today.

Coming out is never easy. Few countries (if any) are truly tolerant when it comes to homosexuality, and while some places have taken strides in this regard, there’s still a long way to go. But it hasn’t always been like this.

Societal attitudes towards same-sex relationships have varied over time and place, varying tremendously. In Ancient Greece, for instance, men would routinely have intercourse with other men, and there is widespread evidence that the practice was common throughout the Middle Ages — historical figures such as Richard the Lionheart and Edward II routinely engaged in same-sex relationships. Elsewhere in the world, things aren’t that different (though not all regions keep records). In China, homosexuality is recorded as early as 600 BCE, and in ancient Assyrian society, for a man to have sex with another man of equal status was thought to bring good fortune.

But something changed along the way and surprisingly, many modern societies are less open-minded than even ancient cultures.

As Christianity became prevalent in Europe and beyond, homosexuality became frowned upon more and more. Victorian morality, which has influenced western society to a remarkable degree, also shunned same-sex relationships (and any promiscuity in general).

But even in 1810 (right before the Victorian age), people had unexpected views about sexuality.

An unexpected diary

Matthew Tomlinson’s was a farmer living in Yorkshire — an area in northern England that is largely rural to this day. Tomlinson kept regular diaries, and thousands of pages of his writing have been carefully stored.

But when an Oxford historian analyzed some of his diaries “on a whim”, he found something completely unexpected — something with important ramifications for LGBT history.

His diary challenges preconceptions about what “ordinary people” thought about homosexuality. Tomlinson regarded it as a “natural tendency”, and not something that should be punished.

“In this exciting new discovery, we see a Yorkshire farmer arguing that homosexuality is innate and something that shouldn’t be punished by death,” Oxford researcher Eamonn O’Keeffe told the BBC.

O’Keeffe made the discovery almost by mistake, he writes.

“I identified the passage by chance in the course of my PhD research on British military musicians during the Napoleonic Wars. Returning by train from a conference in Leeds, I decided to stop in Wakefield on a whim to view Tomlinson’s diaries, having noticed colourful quotations from them in a book by Ellen Gibson Wilson on the Yorkshire election of 1807.”

“As it turned out, the diaries had little to say about military music – Tomlinson was disdainful of patriotic pageantry – but his reflections on homosexuality, which I spotted by chance while paging through the journals, stood out to me as striking and unusual for the time.”

O’Keeffe (center) speaking to Claire Pickering (Wakefield Library) and Sean Coughlan (BBC correspondent). Image credits: University of Oxford.

Tomlinson’s choice of topic isn’t coincidental. It was almost certainly prompted by the big scandal of the day: a well-respected naval surgeon was found to have engaged in homosexual acts. A court-martial had the surgeon hanged, but many people (including Tomlinson) were unconvinced. He questions whether the so-called “unnatural act” was actually all that unnatural.

Even from a religious perspective, Tomlison reasons, it doesn’t make sense: since we are created by God in a certain way, it must mean that there is nothing wrong with that.

“It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty should make a being with such a nature, or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whom he had formed, should at any time follow the dictates of that Nature, with which he was formed, he should be punished with death,” he wrote on January 14 1810.

This is, even by today’s standards, a remarkably valid reasoning. Given that there is a clear indication for someone to be homosexual from an early age, “it must then be considered natural” — and if it is natural, punishing it is cruel and unnecessary.

Judging by the way Tomlinson recorded his thoughts, it is obvious that this was something widely discussed with his circle of friends — and this is particularly significant.

The voice of the people

Usually, only the “loud” voices are heard throughout history. It is usually only the rich, powerful, or highly educated that had the capacity to record their thoughts in a durable form. We don’t often know what the rest of the people really thought about such issues.

In this case, because the surgeon was hanged and the British bourgeoisie strongly supported this, we might think that they were echoing the rest of the population.

But that’s not telling the whole story, Tomlinson’s diary shows.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that most people shared Tomlinson’s views — that’s unlikely, O’Keeffe told me in an email. However, it does show that there might be more to the story than what we know so far.

“Tomlinson’s comments are indeed exceptional for the era, and not representative of mainstream opinion – but they suggest that more sympathetic conceptions of sexuality were circulating in Georgian Britain more widely, and at an earlier date, than commonly believed,” O’Keeffe says.

At the very least though, Tomlinson wasn’t the only one in this belief. In the same period, a landowner by the name of Anne Lister justified her lesbian feelings as “natural” and “instinctive” in her diary in 1823, and philosopher Jeremy Bentham, known as the founder of utilitarianism, even expressed support for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Bentham wrote that sodomy statutes stemmed from “no other foundation than prejudice” — but he did not dare publish such radical views.

We don’t really know how many other people agreed with Tomlinson, but there’s a way to find out more about that.

“There are plenty of British diaries surviving from the eighteenth and nineteenth-century, some which have been edited and published, others which are only available in manuscript in various libraries and archives. Most have not been systematically studied and the Tomlinson diary find shows how much remains to be discovered,” O’Keeffe concludes.



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