A Queer Sort of History

The-riot2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the (partial) legalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. (It would be 1980 before Scotland followed suit and 1981 for Northern Ireland). Bisexuality, transgenderism or lesbianism have never been illegal in Britain (despite a concerted effort in 1921 to make lesbianism a crime).

So, to mark this I thought I’d share my favourite British LGBT history books (well, almost all are British and almost all are LGBT). Of course, they  cover every aspect of LGBT history and you may consider others to be better, but these  will give you a primer (should you need it) on British LGBT history up until the end of the twentieth century.

For good, solid overviews on gay and lesbian British history, two great books are ‘A Gay History of Britain’ by Matt Cook (and others) and ‘A Lesbian History of Britain’ by Rebecca Jennings. Both are wide ranging and easily accessible. 20170729_124237_resized

Now that you have a good grounding you can start building up a fuller picture with books covering specific periods or people or incidents: Here are a trio of classi20170729_122812_resizedcs, covering the 17th and 18th centuries: ‘Homosexuality in Renaissance England’ by Alan Bray was one of the first published British LGBT histories and is still recognised as a great piece of research. At the time of its publication (1982), there few works which studied the history of British h20170729_123145_resizedomosexuality (the work of Jeffrey Weeks being a notable exception), so this came like lightening from another world. A decade later Rictor Norton published ‘Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700 – 1830’ which proved in bold bl20170729_125900_resizedack and white with irrefutable evidence that we have been around forever and have always created our own defiant culture. Emma Donoghue’s ‘Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668 – 1801’ (1993) is no less groundbreaking. None of these titles shed light on trans people’s lives, but look carefully and I’m sure that with all the cross-dressing which is shown to happen, there must have been trans people amongst them, even if they hadn’t yet learned speak their name(s).

I always think th20170729_124116_resizedat diaries are an excellent window on a world, and for 17th/ 18th century lesbianism in Britain, your first port of call must be ‘I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister 1791 – 1840′ (Edited by Helena Whitbread). Anne Lister was a business woman from Yorkshire who made a considerable fortune and also loved women. Her diaries were written in code and translated by Helena Whitbread.20170730_172448_resized

Finally, for the thoroughly entertaining romp through the eighteenth century, you can’t do better than Julia Peakman’s ‘Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century’. While not exclusively LGBT, this is a terrifically rude read and gives some excellent context to the previous books.

As we move into the nineteenth century, for an excellent overview on the changes in gay male culture see Graham Robb’s ‘Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth C20170730_172431_resized (2)entury’, which is chock-a-block with detail, incident and scandal and captures the atmosphere of queer life wonderfully.

By the end of the nineteenth century we had the trial which  affected all gay men for the whole of the twentieth: that of Oscar 20170729_122602_resized (2)Wilde. Richard Ellmann’s majestic ‘Oscar Wilde’ is the place to start on his life, loves and all the queer goings on. Of course there are hundreds of other books about Wilde’s life, but for something a little different and less well known, try the biography ‘Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece’ by Joan Sche20170729_122457_resizednkar. For me this was an eye opening book, not having heard about Dolly Wilde before. Dolly was a truly ‘Wilde’ lesbian whose life highlights the lesbian culture which existed in Britain as well as Paris in the first part of the twentieth century, a Parisian scene which pivoted around artists such as Romaine Brooks. A thrilling, bohemian read.

The study of LGBT history is a relatively new phenomenon: one of the first British works was ‘Coming Out’ by Jeffrey Weeks, a pioneer in gay history. As a history of ‘Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the  Present’ it provides an outline of key incidents and people, but remember that it is now an 20170730_111046_resizedhistorical document in itself: published in 1977, you can still get a whiff of petuli oil but it does accurately reflect the radical, pioneering spirit of the times – some of which might raise more than a frown these days.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close we find the first glimmers of a political movement for homosexual emancipation. Across Europe academics and protestors began to agitate: people such as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Magnus Hirschfield and Richard Krafft-Ebing had begun writing positively about homosexuality and others, like Germany’s Adolf Brand and20170729_122912_resized Benedict Freidlander had begun to attempt to bring queers together and drum up support with their magazine ‘Der Eigene’ (‘The Special’). Linking up with these radicals from across the sea were British people such as  Edward Carpenter, whose essay ‘The Intermediate Sex’ (reprinted in his book ‘Love’s Coming of Age’) gives a brief glimpse of what constituted ‘freedom’ in those days, and Havelock Ellis, a sexologist whose ‘Sexual Inversion’ was probably the first British medical textbook on homosexuality. Both men are fascinating characters and their work was ground-breaking. Each are well served20170802_201936_resized[713] with biographies: ‘Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love’ by Sheila Rowbotham and ‘Havelock Ellis’ by Phyllis Grosskurth, both of which provide an insight into this exciting time. (Unfortunately, this European wave of hope came to a grinding halt when the Nazi Party came to power and in the post war years the rise of communism spawned a worldwide wave of suspicion and fear which kept LGBT people in the shadows.)

Of course, just because Ellis and Carpenter were out campaigning doesn’t mean things were fantastic for LGBT people…as ‘Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand’ by Philip Hoare shows. Excellently written and researched, Hoare’s book describes one of the most outlandish incidents in British LGBT history: An actress of some renown, Maud Allen was to perform Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’ in London. Coming not long after Wilde’s prosecution and imprisonment, this was a controversial decision in itself…and what Allen didn’t count on was the demented intervention of the MP 20170729_131002_resizedNoel Pemberton Billing. The First World War was in full swing and hatred of Germany and homophobia collided in Pemberton Billing’s mind, conjuring up ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’, a group of 47,000 British people who were, he believed, a danger to the state as their (homo)sexuality made them prone to German blackmail, thus forcing them to spy for the enemy. He accused Allen of being a member of this ‘group’ and she took him to court for libel. It is a great story and a great book.20170729_123042_resized

But what was real life like for LGBT people in the twentieth century? ‘Between the Acts: Lives of Homosexual men 1885 – 1967′ Provides interviews with men from all walks of life, shedding light on coming out and simply living when your very being is illegal.

Radclyffe Hall wrote one of the seminal lesbian novels, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ (1928) and lived a gloriously ‘out’ life while fighting those who would have her work supressed. Her life is an utter fascination and one of the best biographies is ‘The Trials of Radclyffe Hall’ by Diana Souhami. (Souhami is a great writer, and I can also recommend her book on the lesbian artists Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, ‘Wild Girls’ and that on Gertrude Stein, ‘Gertrude and Alice’)

While Quentin Crisp is now Britain’s ‘Stately Homo’, it wasn’t always the case, and his biography,20170729_122518_resized ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ still gives an astonishing account of a life lived unapologetically. Crisp may have some ideas and opinions which clash with modern thought, but his bravery and the importance of this book (and especially the TV version of it) cannot be underestimated.

But what of the lesbian twentieth century? One of my very favourite books has to be ‘From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club, 1945 – 1985’ by Jill Gardiner. Gateways was London’s premier lesbian club and came into public consciousness when ‘The Killing of Sister George’ (The stars of the film are depicted on the book’s cover) used the club and some of its regulars for the lesbian club scenes. The book is a carefully edited colle20170729_122951_resizedction of interviews with regulars and gives a fascinating insight into lesbian lives, politics and community in the second half of the twentieth century.

Nancy Spain was a huge television and radio star of the mid-twentieth century. She was writer of renown, with novels, biographies and newspaper columns to her credit. She was also a lesbian whose sexuality was never made public but, like many stars of the time, was hidden in plain sight: by which I mean people who were obviously queer but the huge fondness for them made society turn a blind eye to their sexual pecadillos: Kenneth Williams is another such person.  ‘A Trouser Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain’  by Rose Collis is a great biography and sheds light on Spain, her life and what it was like to live life in this conun20170729_125917_resizeddrum. Actually, I would recommend any of Rose Collis’ books as they are consistently fascinating – her biography of the actress Coral Brown is a scream!

Unfortunately, as far as I am aware there isn’t a definitive Trans History of Britain (but I’ve made up for this with some general trans histories later on.) Of course, many of these books cover ‘cross-dressing’ people throughout history and we will probably never know how many of them would, today, identify as ‘trans’, but it is always fun speculating. If we are looking at confirmed trans people, however, there are some excellent autobiographies out there: First up is ‘Conundrum’ by Jan Morris. Morris is an em20170729_123009_resized_1inent historian, journalist (being the ‘Times’ reporter on the 1st  expedition to reach the top of Mount Everest in 1953) and travel writer. She began transitioning in 1964, finally travelling to Morocco in 1972 for gender rea20170729_123204_resizedssignment surgery. ‘Conundrum’ was published shortly afterwards.

Julia Grant featured in two ground breaking BBC TV documentaries in the early 1980s, following her journey from ‘George’ to Julia. Brave, startling and shocking (especially in the treatment Julia received from one doctor in particular) these programmes were an  important moment in British trans history. Unfortunately, they are not available on20170729_124153_resized DVD or download, so the next best thing is Julia’s autobiography, ‘Just Julia: The Story of an Extraordinary Woman’.

Female-to-Male trans people are often less visible, but one such voice can be found in ‘Dear Sir or Madam: The Autobiography of a Female-to-Male Transsexual’ by Mark Rees.

‘Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918 – 1957’ by Matt Houlbrook. Does just what it says on the cover: a smorgasbord of q20170729_123223_resizedueer goings-on, revealing a fascinating underworld which the straight world – most of the time – turned a blind eye to.

1967 saw the partial legalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales, but the journey to that point had been a long one. 20170729_123116_resizedThat journey has recently begun to be recounted in a remarkable book: ‘Amiable Warriors: A History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality 1954 – 1973’ by Peter Scott-Presland. Scott-Presland chronicles the events and people which led to the formation of this important group and the work that it did to change legislation. This is done in perfect detail and cleverly weaves in the social, political and cultural context of the group’s work. This book is an essential read for anyone interested in British LGBT history: I await volume 2 with baited breath.

1967 also saw the murder – at the hands of partner Kenneth Halliwell – of the playwright Jo20170729_122700_resizede Orton. By 1967 Orton had set the stage alight with his satires such as ”What the Butler Saw’ and ‘Loot’, plays which earned him the title ‘The Oscar Wilde of Welfare State Gentility.‘ As well as plays and novels, Orton also left behind wonderfully filthy ‘Orton Diaries’ which spend as much time on his 20170808_182247_resizedsex life – from public toilets to building sites to Morocco – as they do on his professional life. Star of the Carry On films Kenneth Williams was a great friend of Joe Orton and also features in his diaries. However, whereas Orton sought the pleasures of homosexuality, Williams was far more repressed, often seeing physicality and sexuality in a distasteful light. In many ways the pair sum up the bi-polar feelings present in lesbians and gay men of the time, and as such ‘The Kenneth Williams Diaries’ provide a potent view of sexual repression as experienced by one of our best loved actors who made his name playing some of the campest creations in British cinema history. And if that conundrum doesn’t get you reading this book, nothing will.

In 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York sparked a riot which reverberated across the world and ignited the passions which would fu20170730_092928_resized (2)el LGBT campaigning to the present day. For more on this, a great start is ‘Stonewall’ by Martin Duberman, which tells of the history which led to the event through the lives of  six gay men, lesbians and trans people who played vital roles in the riots. An intoxicating book.

By the early 1970s, the aftershock of Stonewall saw branches of the Gay Liberation Front setting up in the UK and began to campaign for gay rights, lau20170729_122759_resizednch ‘Pride’ marches and many other institutions which we all now take for granted. This was a curious group, built on hippy ideals, gay liberation, women’s rights and black power and by 1973 it had split irrevocably, but not before establishing the bedrock upon which all future campaigning would rest. ‘Come Together – the years of gay liberation 1970 – 1973’ (Edited by Aubrey Walter) is a collection of articles from the GLF magazine while Lisa Power’s ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles’ provides an oral history of the group. Both come drenched in the smell of petuli oil (and other, bodily fluids) and provide an exciting, funny, grubby, thought provoking and sometimes surprising story of possibly20170729_123130_resized the most influential group on modern LGBT politics.

‘The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS’ by Simon Garfield is an essential read for anyone interested in how AID20170729_122638_resized (2)S affected Britain, and especially the LGBT community. It is almost impossible to read without feelings of anger and sorrow, feelings which fuelled the next wave of LGBT activists. In the US, as a reaction to government inaction on AIDS and the terrible hostility and prejudice metered out the those with HIV, activists began to get angry and staged headline grabbing stunts and demonstrations against bodies whose action or inaction was making the pandemic worse. In Britain one of the foremost ‘direct action’ groups was ‘Outr20170729_124136_resizedage!’ and their story, ethos and attitude is best summed up in Ian Lucas’ ‘Outrage! An Oral History’20170729_125842_resized. The film maker and artist Derek Jarman, himself HIV+ was at the forefront of this group and attended many demonstrations. His diaries, ‘Modern Nature’ and ‘Smiling in Slow Motion’  are works of considerable beauty and help to explain some of the controversies of the time, many of which are now swept under the carpet: for example why Ian McKellen’s knig20170729_122740_resizedhthood was definitely not seen as a ‘good thing’ and by some as a betrayal of LGBT campaigns. You can also find meditations on his art and friends and life in general. Wonderful.

One of the key British gay films of the 1970s is ‘Nighthawks’, a low budget look at the life of a gay teacher and his nightly cruising of the gay sce20170808_182221_resizedne. Filmed in real gay pubs and clubs , ‘Nighthawks’ is a 90 minute snapshot of a time and a place and a culture. Derek Jarman features in the background of one club scene. Another extra was, apparently, one Dennis Nilsen. In 1983 blocked drains in a street in Muswell Hill were shown to contain human remains. Under questioning, Nilsen confessed to killing 15 gay men over 4 years, none of whom had never been missed. ‘Killing For Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen’ by Brian Masters is a chilling autopsy of the case and a revealing insight into the mind of a gay serial killer, shedding light on how the pressures on gay men (closeted lives, a need for sex, love and companionship while being forced by society to deny those feelings) could fester and mutate into such terrible acts. A disturbing read but one which reveals so much about the deep effects of repression on the psyche of gay men – and an area which is often overlooked in LGBT history.

By the early 1990s, the LGBT community had gone all ‘queer’. We were no longer simply Good As You: we were angry and defiant and didn’t give a damn what the hell straight society though of us. In Manch20170806_173902_resizedester we had ‘Homocult’, whose ‘Queer with Class: The First Book of Homocult’ is still funny and angry. Get hold of a copy if you can!

A volume more easily available is ‘That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation’, edited by Matthilda, aka Matt Bernstei20170730_111030_resizedn Sycamore. Full of endlessly provoking essays such as ‘Is Gay Marriage Racist?‘; ‘Queer Parents: An Oxymoron or Just Moronic?’; ‘Fed Up Queers’ and ‘The Price of Community: Bisexual/ Biracial Perspectives’. It isn’t a British production but it does give a flavour of what the 1990s were about (for some of us, at least).

20170730_172505_resizedTo give you something to get angry about, ‘Sex, Death and Punishment: Attitudes to Sex and Sexuality in Britain since the Renaissance’ by Richard Davenport-Hines, gives you a one stop shop for some of the vile punishments queers have had to put up with for centuries.  Again, not exclusively queer, but none-the-worse for it.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not aware of any histories of Trans Br20170730_110933_resizeditain, but there are at least a couple of useful world histories: ‘Gender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman’ by Leslie Feinberg is a great queer-trans history from a radical writer. 20170730_110949_resized‘How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States’ by Joanne Meyerowitz is less radical but no less fascinating. Great books both, but surely a History of Trans Britain is long overdue?

I have grown up with television and most of my formative memories of sensing my sexuality can be related back to television. I suspec20170729_124058_resizedt I’m not unique in that, so Keith Howes ‘Broadcasting It’ is a HUGE encyclopaedia of British LGBT broadcasting over the years. A truly exhilarating read, with surprises on almost every page.

From television to art, and a beautiful world history: ‘Art and Homosexuality’ by Christopher Reed. Music is, obviously ano20170730_092913_resizedther queer stronghold, and Martin Aston’s ‘Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out’ will take some beating.


Finally on our little queer trip, four books which will sum up queer history across the planet. Firstly, ‘Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History’ and ‘Who’s Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History’ (both edited by Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon) These are concise books, overflowing with the great queers of history, from across the planet, some you’ll k20170729_164308_resizednow but many you won’t: a great and sobering experience.  Robert Aldrich’s ‘Gay Life and Culture: A world history’ does just what it says on the cover: authoritative, lavishly illustrated and essential. Gregory Woods ‘Homintern: How Gay Culture Libe20170729_164253_resizedrated the Modern World’ is a summary of all the great talented queers and how their worlds overlapped and collided and formed what the straight world viewed suspiciously as cliques and shady networks. While they may have been born out of survival, these networks also changed the world. At the end of this journey, something to really make you feel proud.


  • Aldrich, Robert (Ed.): ‘Gay Life and Culture: A World History’
  • Aldrich, R/ Wotherspoon, G (Eds.): ‘Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History’
  • Aldrich, R/ Wotherspoon, G (Eds.): ‘Who’s Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History’
  • Aston, Martin: ‘Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: how music came out’
  • Bray, Alan: ‘Homosexuality in Renaissance England’
  • Collis, Rose: ‘A Trouser Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain’
  • Cook, Matt:  ‘A Gay History of Britain’
  • Crisp, Quentin: ‘The Naked Civil Servant’
  • Donoghue, Emma: ‘Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture’
  • Duberman, Martin: ‘Stonewall’
  • Ellmann, Richard: ‘Oscar Wilde’
  • Feinberg, Leslie: ‘Transgender Warriors’
  • Gardner, Jill: ‘From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club: 1945 – 1985’
  • Garfield, Simon: ‘The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS’
  • Grant, Julia: ‘Just Julia’
  • Hoare, Philip: ‘Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand’
  • Houlbrook, Matt: ‘Queer London’
  • Howes, Keith: ‘Broadcasting It’
  • Jarman, Derek: ‘Modern Nature’
  • Jarman, Derek: ‘Smiling in Slow Motion’
  • Jennings, Rebecca:  ‘A Lesbian History of Britain’
  • Lucas, Ian: ‘Outrage! An Oral History’
  • Masters, Brian: ‘Killing For Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen’
  • Matthilda, AKA Matt Bernstein Sycamore: ‘That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation’
  • Meyerowitz, Joanne: ‘How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the UNited States’
  • Norton, Rictor: ‘Mother Clapp’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700 – 1830’
  • Orton, Joe, ‘The Orton Diaries’ (John Lahr (Ed.)
  • Power, Lisa: ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front, 1970 – 1973’
  • Reed, Christopher: ‘Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas’
  • Rees, Mark: ‘Dear Sir of Madam: The Story of a female-to-male transsexual’
  • Robb, Graham: ‘Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century’
  • Schenkar, Joan: ‘Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece’
  • Scott-Presland, Peter: ‘Amiable Warriors: A History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and it’s times: Volume 1, 1954 – 1973′
  • Souhami, Diana: The Trials of Radclyffe Hall’
  • Walter, Aubrey (Ed.): ‘Come Together: The years of Gay Liberation 1970 – 1973’
  • Williams, Kenneth, ‘The Kenneth Williams Diaries’
  • Woods, Gregory: ‘Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World’


This entry was posted in Alan Bray, Brian Masters, Edward Carpenter, Emma Donoghue, Graham Robb, Havelock Ellis, Jan Morris, Jeffrey Weeks, Jill Gardiner, Joan Schenkar, Joe Orton, Julia Grant, Julie Peakman, Kenneth Williams, Matt Cook, Nancy Spain, Oscar Wilde, Philip Hoare, Quentin Crisp, Rebecca Jennings, Richard Ellmann, Rictor Norton, Rose Collis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Queer Sort of History

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Book Haul | wordsandpictures

  2. JosieHolford says:

    An invaluable resource. Thanks for all the reading and researching and reviewing.


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