History is not a monolith, and queerfolk have been around since before men started scratching hunting scenes on cave walls. Yet much of what we know of queer history comes from the voices of our oppressors. We have records of churches and governments condemning those who are other, of hangings and burnings and pillories. Living so often on the fringes, we have left precious little that is positive behind. For queerfolk throughout much of history, being invisible was the only way to be safe.
One of the most depressing side-effects of this phenomenon is the overwhelming impression that to be queer in times past meant to be miserable: misunderstood, reviled, and even hunted by the rest of society. Visibility meant certain death, and nobody held an ounce of sympathy for the strangers in their midst.
I love history, and queer history most of all. I love exploring our stories, considering our lives, and looking for those little glimmers of hope that all was not as it seemed. AJ, sadly, doesn’t share my passion. History is too depressing, too angry, too full of hate, bitterness, and tragic endings. Part of the reason we both write romance is to give people like us the happy endings they are so often denied, both in fiction and in historical records.
Occasionally, however, we get a glimpse of life behind the curtain: a true insight into the views of those who lived in times past. Those who, too often, we assume were intolerant, unfeeling, and often downright cruel.
One of my other passions is genealogy. I could happily spend
hours days weeks a lifetime poring over dusty records and census papers, seeking out all the twisting branches of my family tree. Precious little usually remains of our ancestors. Like queerfolk in history, the lives of ordinary working people are rarely documented. A baptism, a marriage, a burial. Census records once a decade that list their age and occupation. Addresses if you’re lucky and, in 1911, the number of liveborn children who were still living. What an awful question.
I will never know much of the lives of the people I research. I can tell you where they lived, how many children they had, and how young they died. Coming from a long line of working poor, my lot died more often than not. With over 1800 ancestors on my tree, the average life expectancy of my ignoble lineage is barely half a century.
I can’t tell you about their hopes or fears, their dreams or ambitions. I don’t know if the distant cousin who was banished to Tasmania was scared or excited to be leaving her old world of theft and prostitution behind. I can’t begin to imagine the grief and enduring hope of the family who named four daughters after their mother, only to see them all die in infancy. I don’t know what made the newlyweds cast their fortune on the gold rush in Tierra del Fuego (only to arrive a year too late), or if the great-uncle who ran away to San Francisco and never married was closer “family” than a few paltry records suggest.
The lives of poor folk, like queerfolk, tended not to be recorded unless they broke the law.
Recently, a new document emerged that sheds more light on a dark period in queer history. The journal of a Yorkshire farmer named Matthew Tomlinson is providing new insight into the thoughts of everyday people on the nature of homosexuality and the role of the law in policing private acts.
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.—Matthew Tomlinson, January 14 1810
What makes Tomlinson’s journal the more remarkable is the fact he wasn’t some liberal city-slicker, but a rural working man. His faith in God, more usually seen historically as a club wielded against queerfolk, is what informs his views. And he makes clear in his journal his opinions were formed in part from discussions with friends and neighbours.
His was not a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but a sign that ordinary people at the turn of the nineteenth century were not as closed-minded as the official records of history would have us believe.