The History of Homosexuality: Fops, Coxcombs, Libertines, and Dandies

Although we’ve already discussed that “homosexuality” as a concept didn’t exist prior to the 1860s, queer men have been noted across all countries and societies since the dawn of recorded time. Often, those men migrated towards each other, forming their own subcultures. While the idea that a person’s sexual orientation predisposes them to conform to a certain overall type is relatively recent (and ludicrous: there is no single “gay experience,” although the notion has a pleasing homogeneity which has been effectively used in recent years to win emancipation in the West), there were still various stereotypes through the ages of how queerfolk were supposed to act. (more…)


People in History: The Burney Collection

As part of my Master’s dissertation, I examined instances of the word “sodomy” in the Burney Collection, a database of seventeenth and eighteenth-century newspaper archives named for its curator, the Rev. Charles Burney. My studies focused on the years 1730-1770, and left me with a wealth of short, fascinating articles which I’ve kept hold of ever since, looking for the right time and place to share them.

Mother Clap’s molly house — a tavern for sodomites — was raided in February 1726, resulting in the arrest of forty men. Over subsequent months of the same year, more molly houses were raided. Despite the taverns having rooms with beds available to their patrons, none of the men arrested had been caught in compromising positions (although more than a handful were discovered with their breeches undone), and most were released without charge. (more…)

notre dame paris

The History of Homosexuality: The Napoleonic Code

The Napoleonic Code is the name for a new code of law introduced in France under Napoleon I in 1804, the purpose of which was to replace the patchwork of feudal laws which had previously existed and unify the French legal system under a more democratic form of rule. Most notably, the code prohibited birthright privileges, specified that government jobs should go to the most qualified candidates, and established freedom of religion.

lion statue

People in History: Alexander and Hephaestion

Born in Pella, Macedon, in 356BC, Alexander was the first son of Philip II and his principle wife, Olympias. Almost from the moment he was conceived, Alexander became something of a legend.

His mother, a princess of Epirus in her own right, was a follower of an orgiastic, snake-worshiping cult of Dionysus, and was widely believed to be a sorceress. She mythologised her son, claiming visions of thunderbolts from the heavens and a great fire accompanied his conception, and Philip himself was recorded as saying he dreamed he sealed Olympias’ womb with the device of a lion. As Philip’s fourth of seven or eight wives, likely elevated to principle only because of Alexander’s birth, it served Olympias’ interests to secure her son as Philip’s heir, and herself as mother of the future king.


The History of Homosexuality: Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece stands as something of a shorthand whenever we think today of a “history” or even “origin” of homosexual behaviour. On the surface, the correlation is a fair one. There’s enough in the written record — to say nothing of statues, art, and pottery — to convince us that male same-sex sexuality was known and frequently celebrated. To call such conduct “homosexual” as we recognise that meaning today is, however, not only anachronistic, but simply wrong.

oscar wilde

People in History: Oscar Wilde

It’s impossible to discuss the criminalisation of homosexuality without discussing Wilde, the most famous victim of the infamous Labouchere Amendment. What most people don’t know is that Wilde wasn’t a victim, so much as a martyr. “Where your life leads you, you must go,” he famously said, and refused to move from his hotel room until the police arrived to arrest him for “gross indecency.” (more…)

fence wire prison

The History of Homosexuality: Criminality

As science moved from acts to identities, so too did the public consciousness and, very quickly, the law. In England, consensual male-male sex was first prohibited by the Buggery Act of 1533. Plenty of sources will cite it as the first British anti-homosexual law, although of course it wasn’t anything of the sort. It was, however, one of the earliest anti-sodomy laws passed by any Germanic country (previously the only laws concerning sex had prohibited adultery), and it outlawed specifically “the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind or beast.” The penalty was death. (more…)

quill ink

People in History: Christopher Marlowe

Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (February 1564-30 May 1593) was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and considered the most popular and talented tragedian of his time. Were it not for his murder at the age of 29, cutting him off at the height of his success, it is highly probable it would be Marlowe’s name which became the bane of schoolchildren the world over, not Shakespeare’s. (more…)

gay identity

The History of Homosexuality: Identity

We often think of sexuality as though it exists on a linear continuum: we talk about homosexuality in Ancient Greek society, for example, when in fact there was no such thing as a “homosexual” before 1868, when the word was coined by German sexologists. It wasn’t used in English until the 1890s.

There were, obviously, other words in use before that time: pederasts, inverts, urnings, sodomites, lesbians, tribads, and so on. Most of those terms referred very specifically to particular socio-sexual behaviour (the active or passive partner in anal intercourse, etc.), and not to identities as we know them. Before the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Germans became obsessed with the idea of how the sex we have affects the people we are, the very idea of a sexual identity would have seemed absurd. (more…)