An Entry In This Old Diary Has Corrected What We Were Taught About LGBTQ+ History

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As a man in the midst of his PhD, Eamonn O’Keeffe is no stranger to time spent trawling through old historical documents. On one particular day, though, he ends up spotting something of special note. In a diary dating back two centuries, a passage written by a British farmer sheds light on his time’s attitudes towards homosexuality. And it seems that they weren’t what you might have expected.

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The diary in question had been written in 1810 by one Matthew Tomlinson, a farming man from the English county of Yorkshire. Before O’Keeffe had taken to scanning the document, it had already been of interest to other historians. Yet somehow, all of the other experts had missed this vital passage.

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In fact, O’Keeffe himself hadn’t been looking through the diary to specifically gain insight into attitudes towards homosexuality. He explained as much himself in a 2020 post on Oxford University’s Arts Blog. He said, “While looking for something completely different, I discovered a remarkable discussion of homosexuality in the diary of an early 19th-century Yorkshire farmer.”

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Tomlinson’s perspective on such matters is interesting, as it could perhaps be said to represent the views of “ordinary” individuals of the early 1800s. As a farmer, the man wouldn’t have been a part of the ruling class. His opinions, therefore, may have been similar to a large section of the era’s society. Bearing that in mind, his diary calls into question existing presumptions about how the British populace viewed sexuality.

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There’s no doubt that the LGBTQ+ community in Britain has been subjected to horrific levels of prejudice throughout history. If we look back more than 500 years, for instance, we can see that the Buggery Act of 1533 was brought into law. This made the act of sodomy a crime which could lead to execution throughout Britain and its empire.

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Much later – in 1861 – an amendment to the law ensured that undertaking in sodomy could no longer end in capital punishment. However, that’s not to suggest that it was considered to be an acceptable practice. If caught, in fact, a person could be sent to jail for no less than a decade.

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In 1885 the law regressed once again, with the Criminal Law Amendment Act coming into play.This made homosexual activity involving men illegal, even when pursued privately. As little as a written correspondence indicating homosexual inclinations could lead to an arrest under this act. A famous instance of the legislation in action can be seen in the jailing of famous writer Oscar Wilde.

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Homosexuality between women wasn’t ever specifically mentioned by the law in Britain. It was, however, a topic for discussion in Parliament in 1921, with some pushing for it to be made a criminal offense. This attempt failed, though, as lawmakers feared such legislation would spur women to consider homosexuality.

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After World War II, the notion of transgenderism started to emerge in the public consciousness. For example, in 1946 a book entitled Self: A Study in Endocrinology was released. Penned by Michael Dillon, the text can be thought of as a memoir of its author’s transition from a woman named Laura into a man.

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Dillon was the first ever trans man to experience phalloplasty surgery, a series of procedures conducted by Sir Harold Gillies. And five years after the publication of Dillon’s account of his transition, the first ever trans woman in the United Kingdom went through vaginoplasty surgery. This was Roberta Cowell, who had once been a pilot during World War II.

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However, despite these developments, members of the LGBTQ+ community in post-war Britain were still subjected to legal discrimination. In fact, there was actually an increase in the numbers of arrests of gay men after the war. A famous victim of such oppression was mathematical genius Alan Turing, computer pioneer and the man at the heart of cracking the Nazis’ Enigma Code.

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In 1954 a committee was formed to consider the notion that homosexuality couldn’t rightly be thought of as a “disease.” Three years later, the Wolfenden Report was released, with a view to altering the law. At its heart, the report sought to encourage the state to cease probing its citizens’ private activities.

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Yet it would be another decade before the report’s proposals were ever enshrined in law. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 eventually came into being, however, meaning that homosexual activity among males was permitted. This was on the condition, though, that it took place in private and that both parties were 21 or older.

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The year after the Stonewall Riots swept over New York in the summer of 1969, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was set up in the U.K. This was a group which sought to make gains for LGBT rights, encouraging people to think about the oppression that the community experienced. In 1972 the GLF put together the first ever Pride march in Britain, a now-annual tradition which continues to this day.

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Unfortunately, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community was still a fact of British life in the 1980s. In fact, towards the end of the decade the government of Margaret Thatcher outlawed local state financing of education related to gay matters, prohibiting councils from “promoting homosexuality.” This legislation was only rolled back in 2003, with an official apology arriving six years later.

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In 2004 the LGBTQ+ community of Britain received a win, when the Civil Partnership Act passed to allow gay couples to have a union comparable to marriage. Nine years later, same-sex couples were finally permitted to marry for real in England and Wales. Such couples in Scotland had another year to wait before being granted such a right, while those in Northern Ireland had to wait until a 2019 act was passed.

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As for transgender rights specifically, an act was brought into law in 2005 which recognized their identities. This meant that they were permitted to get an updated certificate of birth reflecting their new gender. The options, however, remain restricted to “male” and “female.” Moreover, the LGBTQ+ movement more broadly has numerous challenges still to overcome today.

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As we’ve seen, then, legislation has long discriminated against the LGBTQ+ community in Britain. But did the law actually reflect the attitudes of regular people? Well, to a certain extent, that seems to have been the case. During the Victorian era, for instance, attitudes towards sexuality appear to have been rather harsh, with factual inaccuracies on the subject flourishing.

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Of course, that’s not to say that there wasn’t resistance to such a strict way of thinking about sexuality during the period. There were, after all, homosexual people who saw their inclinations as being entirely natural. Sadly, the legal system of the time didn’t see the matter in the same way.

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In 1823 a female landowner in England named Anne Lister wrote of her homosexuality in her journal. She believed that homosexual feelings were innate, as did philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Over the course of several decades across the 18th and 19th centuries, Bentham insisted that opposition to homosexuality amounted to nothing but “prejudice.”

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Understandably, Bentham never circulated these writings, as it would likely have ruined his reputation. Indeed, this was an era in which LGBTQ+ people were harshly punished for their perceived crimes. As a general rule, people who didn’t agree with the laws of the land targeting homosexuals were best advised to keep their thoughts to themselves.

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This takes us back to Matthew Tomlinson’s diary entry from 1810. This was a working man recording his thoughts privately in a diary, without having to regulate his words with an audience in mind. As such, his ideas could perhaps be considered broadly representative of other “regular” people of the time.

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Tomlinson is known to have inhabited a place known as Doghouse Farm in an area of Yorkshire called Lupset. This place was once situated at the outer limits of a landlord’s territory. Today, however, the area has been built over, with residences and a golf course now covering it all up.

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By the mid-20th century, Tomlinson’s diaries had found their way to a library, though it isn’t clear how this happened. In any case, a number of his journals became a useful resource for historians studying the 19th century. After all, the farmer’s writings covered several decades, starting in 1806 and ending in 1839.

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From his journal entries, we can get a sense of the type of person Tomlinson was. It appears that he was disgusted by crookedness and social degeneration. He also seems to have been critical of the British monarchy, expressing skepticism about the costs involved in the crowning ceremony of Queen Victoria.

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Tomlinson’s entries have never been printed, instead having to be accessed directly from the original pages. Numerous researchers have done just this, as the farmer had witnessed some interesting historical events in his time. Indeed, historian Eamonn O’Keeffe had hoped that the man might have written about contemporary musicians from the British military.

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While O’Keeffe was left disappointed in this respect, Tomlinson’s notes did contain something else of interest. As the historian scanned the pages in search of references to military music, he instead noticed Tomlinson’s thoughts on homosexuality. And they were not quite what one might have expected them to be.

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Tomlinson had been writing in response to a news story of the day in which a naval surgeon had been killed by the state for undertaking in homosexual activities. This man – a person called James Nehemiah Taylor – was hanged for his supposed crime on December 26, 1809. The story made headlines all over the United Kingdom and Ireland.

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In an entry dated January 14, 1810, Tomlinson reflected, “It appears a paradox to me, how men, who are men, shou’d possess such a passion [as homosexuality]. And more particularly so, if it is their nature from childhood (as I am informed it is). If they feel such an inclination, and propensity, at that certain time of life when youth [develops] into manhood, it must then be considered as natural otherwise, as a defect in nature.”

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Tomlinson went on to say that “it seems cruel to punish that defect with death.” A man of religion, he then considered how homosexuality fitted into his faith. He wrote, “It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty shou’d make a being, with such a nature [as homosexuality] – or such a defect in nature – and at the same time make a decree that if that being whom he had formed, shou’d at any time follow the dictates of that nature with which he was formed he shou’d be punished with death.”

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Believing that he’d stumbled upon something special, O’Keefe reached out to a pair of experts on sexual attitudes of the 18th and 19th centuries. After looking at the source material, Professor Fara Dabhoiwala and Dr. Rictor Norton each agreed that O’Keefe was right. This diary entry was rare and potentially significant.

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You see, Tomlinson’s apparent attitudes towards homosexuality appear to have been more tolerant than has come to be expected from someone from the early 19th century. Of course, Tomlinson is just one man, and so he certainly doesn’t speak for everyone of his time. His viewpoint, however, has undoubtedly disrupted existing presumptions about how people thought a couple of centuries ago.

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The press of Tomlinson’s era tended to regard homosexuality in an extremely negative light. Yet if Tomlinson himself is anything to go by, it seems that not everybody in society accepted the mainstream media’s narrative. Tomlinson – and potentially many more – opposed the notion that homosexuality should be punishable by death.

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Having said all this, however, Tomlinson’s stance was clearly unacceptable by today’s standards. Despite accepting homosexuality as a potentially natural human tendency, he nonetheless thought punishment of a sort might be appropriate. But instead of executing offending individuals, the farmer and diarist suggested, it might be better to castrate them.

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So, Tomlinson’s thoughts are still horrifically discriminatory by modern standards. But they do appear to suggest that a certain degree of openness amongst the British populace existed as far back as 200 years ago. Indeed, several of the farmer’s points seem to foretell ideas that would come to the fore in future LGBTQ+ movements.

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O’Keefe himself wrote about Tomlinson’s surprising stance in his Oxford Arts Blog post. As he put it, “Tomlinson’s remarkable reflections suggest that recognizably modern conceptions of human sexuality were circulating in British society more widely – and at an earlier date – than commonly assumed.” Other historians appear to agree with this very point.

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Professor Dabhoiwala, of Princeton University, is a specialist on the subject of historic attitudes to sex. In response to O’Keeffe’s discovery, he said, “This wonderful archival find by Eamonn O’Keeffe provides vivid proof that, even during times of severe persecution, historical attitudes to same-sex behavior could be more sympathetic than is usually presumed.”

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Dabhoiwala went on to state the specific importance of the journal entry. He said, “Matthew Tomlinson’s diary illustrates that, by 1810, even an ordinary Yorkshire farmer could seriously entertain the idea that homosexuality was not a horrible perversion that deserved the death penalty, but simply a natural, divinely ordained human quality.”

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Another expert, Dr. Norton, has also given his thoughts on the matter. The writer and former Florida State University lecturer commented, “It is extraordinary to find an ordinary, casual observer in 1810 seriously considering the possibility that sexuality is innate and making arguments for decriminalization.. Tomlinson’s diary reflections on homosexuality are unique for their time.”

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As for O’Keefe, he seems pleased to note the occasional similarities between Tomlinson’s thoughts on sexuality and contemporary understanding. “What I find so fascinating about Tomlinson’s reflections is that he anticipates some of the arguments that have been deployed so successfully in recent decades by proponents of LGBT equality and marriage rights to argue for greater acceptance and celebration of sexual diversity,” he stated. “The diary suggests that recognizably modern ideas about sexuality were in circulation in British society more widely and at an earlier date than is often believed.”

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