Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Becoming Gay

Wikimedia Commons

Most people know that “gay” originally meant “happy/carefree” and came to refer to (usually, male) homosexuals, but not how or when the change occurred. When we study the etymology of the word, which is twelfth century in origin, it’s clear it had developed sexually suspect connotations as early as the 1500s. By the seventeenth century, its meaning of “carefree” had become specific to a kind of sexual looseness or immorality: a “gay woman” was a prostitute, a “gay man” was a womaniser, and a “gay house” was a brothel. Cities known for their liberal nightlife were described as gay — “gay Paris” — and unmarried men and women were often referred to as gay, in reference to them being sexually available (whether or not they exercised that availability). “Gay” could also refer to the act of sex itself.

In America, the expression “gay cat,” recorded as early as 1893, referred to young men who drifted from place to place and were noted for their lack of sexual discernment. There’s also evidence they were taken advantage of because of their age, and in some cases kept almost as slaves. Sociologists noted that “Homosexual practices are more common than rare in this group,” and in a 1933 dictionary of Underword & Prison Slang, “gay cat” was defined as a “homosexual boy.” Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in History: Boulton and Park

Lord Arthur Clinton (in chair), Park (standing), and Boulton (on floor). Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park were two middle-class Victorian men who were involved in a national scandal after being arrested and tried for cross-dressing in public.

Boulton was the son of a stockbroker; Park of a Master of a superior court. The two met at a young age and became friends, forming a theatrical double-act as Stella Clinton and Fanny Winifred Park, which played to favourable reviews. Boulton, particularly, was very attractive, with a sweet soprano singing voice.

Fanny and Stella were more than just parts they played, however. From an early age Boulton’s mother had encouraged his fondness for dressing as a girl and calling himself Stella, and starting around 1868, when they were approximately twenty, they both began to cross-dress in public. Fanny and Stella became a frequent sight around the West End, where they were removed more than once from the Burlington Arcade and Alhambra Theatre, and were even sentenced by a magistrate for their behaviour, being bound over to keep the peace. They also attended the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Drag

Drag is the practice of cross-dressing and pastiching the mannerisms and behaviours of the opposite sex for comic effect. Drag queens run the gamut from over-the-top professional comedians such as Lily Savage, all the way through to serious (and seriously impressive) female impersonators such as RuPaul. Generally speaking, drag is a costume donned for a performance and doesn’t stimulate sexual excitement in the wearer (transvestism), nor does drag implicitly suggest that the performer identifies as trans* although, as with everything, there are always exceptions.

As an expression, “drag” may have been around for a century or two, but the history of men impersonating women for entertainment purposes is of course much longer. Many of Shakespeare’s works played on the fact the actors on stage were men dressed as women (and often the female characters pretend to be male, creating truths within truths which audiences find amusing). Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in History: Kenneth Williams

Wikimedia Commons

Born in London in 1926, Kenneth Williams was the son of Louisa (“Louie”) Morgan and Charles Williams, a barber and strict Methodist. He had an older half-sister, an illegitimate child of his mother’s born before she met his father. Although interested in acting from an early age, his father absolutely forbade it and refused to encourage him. After school, Williams apprenticed as a draughtsman for a mapmaker instead of pursuing his dream.

In 1944, aged eighteen, Williams was drafted in the army, where he became a Sapper in the Engineers Survey, putting his artistic mapmaking skills to good use. At the end of the war he was stationed in Singapore, and opted to enlist in the Combined Service Entertainment Unit to see out his service putting on revue shows to entertain the troops. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Polari

Wikimedia Commons

Polari is a form of cant slang adopted by the queer subculture in England throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries. Its origins are murky, although there’s evidence at least some of it dates back as early as the 1500s, where it was used by a number of socially marginalised groups, including actors, circus showmen, merchant seamen, prostitutes, and petty criminals, as well as queer men. Punch and Judy street performers also have a strong association with it.

The purpose of any slang vernacular is to include and exclude, and usually serves to mark the speakers out from the dominant culture. People use slang all the time — it exist in different occupations (I could write a whole essay on the shorthands, abbreviations, and slang of the construction industry, for a start), different age groups (teenagers are most notable for it), and across different socio-economic strata. Geographically, we use different words depending on where we’re from (dialect), and individually, too (idiolect). Close-knit groups of friends will often develop their own words (or ascribe new meaning to old ones) based on common experience, and using language in this way encourages social cohesion, both by linking all the users with a common tongue, and by excluding those who are “other.” Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in History: John Inman

John Inman as Mr. Humphries. Wikimedia Commons

Born in Preston, NW England, in 1935, from an early age John Inman exhibited a tendency towards camp which would become a hallmark of his later success. His mother ran a boarding house and his father was a hairdresser, but Inman was always determined to become an actor, no doubt influenced by his parents’ move to Blackpool when he was twelve. His parents supported his ambition, paying for him to take elocution lessons at their local church hall. As a child, Inman was also noted for his love of dressmaking.

Within a year of moving to Blackpool, Inman secured small roles at the Pavilion on Blackpool’s South Pier. At fifteen he took a menial job at the pier, occasionally playing parts in some of the plays.

After leaving school, Inman gave up the theatre to work as a window dresser in a gentleman’s outfitters, and moved to London to work in Regent Street two years later. He remained in retail for another four years before leaving to work as a scenic artist with a touring company in order to earn his Equity Card, a licence which was required for all professional actors. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Camp

John Inman in Are You Being Served?. Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia describes camp as “a social, cultural, and aesthetic style and sensibility based on deliberate and self-acknowledged theatricality.” It is all those things, and more besides, but it’s difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, we all know camp when we see it.

Camp is effete, it’s garish, it’s hyperbole and exaggeration, it’s shameless, crude, funny, and sexless. Camp appeals to the masses, yet is intrinsically associated with queer men.

Camp derives from the French se camper (“to pose in an exaggerated fashion”), and was first defined in 1909 in the Oxford English Dictionary as: “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to, characteristic of, homosexuals. So as a noun, ‘camp’ behaviour, mannerisms, et cetera.” Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in History: Robin Hood

Yes, I know. I’m including Robin Hood as biography when we have no idea if he actually existed or not. In my defence, I offer Jesus 😛

Actually, the legends surrounding Robin Hood almost certainly have their origins in the life of a real figure. A number of men have been suggested to have been the source of the legend. Robert, the Earl of Huntingdon is a favourite, for this inscription on his grave at Kirklees Priory: Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Class

Wikimedia Commons

Class is a peculiarly English phenomenon. Which isn’t to say other countries don’t have class systems, because of course they do, but whenever one thinks of “class” one can’t help conjuring up images of English lords and ladies juxtaposed against ruddy-faced farmers, sooty coal miners, and Dickensian street urchins.

Class plays an important part in the queer narrative. Many of the men we’ve looked at over this blog series have been upper class, or at least upper middle class: titled or white-collar men with Oxbridge backgrounds and a fair degree of social influence. They’ve moulded the popular image of queer masculinity both through their lives and, often, through their writing, because a significant proportion of them were literary or academic figures — the Renaissance gave us Shakespeare and Marlowe; the Romantics, Byron and Shelley; Oscar Wilde and Bosie during the Victorian era; the WWI poets; and the Edwardian set of Forster and Carpenter. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in Fiction: While England Sleeps

while england sleepsDavid Leavitt’s 1993 novel, While England Sleeps, is an ambitious inter-generational, cross-class, multi-national story about love and loss.

Set in England in the 1930s, it is narrated by Brian Botsford, a young man from a privileged background who wants to be a writer. Brian meets a young working-class man, Edward, who is employed on the Underground, itself the subject of a play Brian is writing. The two strike up a passionate relationship, living together in Brian’s small, one-bed flat.

Edward is a likable character, self-educated and deeply committed to the Communist Party ideas (it was at a CP meeting Brian and Edward first met). He carries the Manifesto with him everywhere, reading it often, determined to understand every word. He possesses an innocence which is wholly appealing in his belief that the world can become a better place, and he accepts his sexuality and his desire for Brian with an easy enthusiasm which Brian cannot reciprocate. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Fiction, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Blackmail and Espionage

Guy Burgess. Wikimedia Commons

Ever since the law criminalised homosexual acts and identities, it has been open to abuse from blackmailers. When I examined the Burney Collection, almost a quarter of complaints concerning sodomy related to blackmail, the threat of “swearing sodomy” against an innocent party. If discovered, the blackmailer was subject to the same punishment as somebody convicted of the crime they claimed (generally standing in the pillory up to three times, and paying a fine of 50l, or £10,000/$15,000 in today’s money).

While obviously a serious problem for those who found themselves blackmailed, or convicted of blackmailing others, these were private dramas; tragedies for individual families, but not nations. Following the Second World War, all that was to change. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Post-Legalisation

Homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in July 1967 with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act. At least, that’s the common perception. Actually what this Act did was define an exemption from prosecution for private, consensual sexual contact between two males over the age of 21, excluding army and merchant navy personnel. Anything else covered by the Sexual Offences Act 1956 which criminalised buggery and “gross indecency between men” remained illegal. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in History: David Maxwell Fyfe

Wikimedia Commons

Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, first Earl of Kilmuir, might seem an odd subject for today’s blog.Not only wasn’t he queer, but he worked tirelessly against any attempt to decriminalise homosexuality, and may well have been behind the “pogrom” of the 1950s that deliberately targeted gay men for persecution. It’s easy to look back with a sense of superiority, but his opposition to homosexuals was but a footnote in a life which was generally lived well.

Born in Edinburgh in 1900 to a grammar school headmaster and his second wife, Maxwell Fyfe studied at a Scottish independent school before going on to read the Greats (Literae Humaniores, a Classics course based on the history of human learning) at Oxford. He wasn’t a remarkable scholar, more interested in contemporary politics than the ancients, and achieved only a third-class degree. His education was briefly interrupted in 1918 when he took time out to spend a year with the Scots Guards at the end of the First World War. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Wolfenden to Legalisation


Wikimedia Commons

Ten years passed between the publication of the Wolfenden report and the legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. The history books usually gloss over that decade, seeming to assume that’s just how long it takes to implement major social reform. Governments aren’t known for acting quickly.

Yet glossing over that key decade is to do a disservice to the men and women who campaigned tirelessly through it, the people prepared to come out of the closet and demand equality for the first time. That the government was so slow implementing change based on the conclusions of a report they’d commissioned suggests that the Wolfenden committee was charged with looking into homosexuality, not with a view towards changing the existing laws, but upholding them. When the verdict came down in favour of decriminalising homosexuality, a lot of people in power were both surprised and dismayed. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in History: Peter Wildeblood

peter wildeblood

Peter Wildeblood. Photo curtesy The Lotte Meitner-Graf Archive

Peter Wildeblood was born in Italy in 1923, the only child of Henry Wildeblood, a retired engineer from the Indian Public Works Department, and his second wife Winifred, daughter of an Argentinian sheep rancher. (He had older brothers from his father’s first marriage, but as they were already grown with families of their own when Peter was born, he was raised as an only child.) His father was sixty at the time of Peter’s birth, a circumstance which in later life he wondered was responsible for his sexuality.

Wildeblood was raised and educated in England from the age of three. He attended boarding school from seven, and at thirteen won a scholarship to Radley College, a public school near Oxford. From Radley he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, although he was forced to drop out after ten days because of ill health. It being then 1941, shortly thereafter he enlisted with the RAF and trained as a pilot in Southern Rhodesia (a British colony at the time; now Zimbabwe), but after a succession of crashes he was grounded and retrained as a meteorologist. He remained in Rhodesia for the duration of the war, where he had a number of sexual experiences with women, which only served to confirm his suspicion that he was homosexual. When he returned to Oxford after the war, he spent many of his weekends in London, where he moved in almost exclusively queer circles. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging