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Lawrence, T. E. (1888-1935)  

Thomas Edward Lawrence, or "Lawrence of Arabia," is best known as the author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1935), a brilliant account of his role in the revolt of the Arabs during the latter half of World War I, a revolt instigated by the British in order to drive the Turks out of Syria and Palestine. Lawrence chose Emir Feisal to lead the campaign and masterminded the guerrilla tactics that would contain and cripple the Turkish garrisons, especially at Medina, by cutting railways and telegraphs in surprise raids.

But Lawrence labored under a sense of duplicity, knowing that the British had no genuine interest in Arab independence and were simply using the Arabs in the war against Germany. Though he mourned the brutality into which the campaign gradually sank, the contrast is striking between Lawrence's tidy and effective raids on the Eastern Front and the appalling waste of "human ammunition" on the Western.

Although homosexuality is the subject of only a tiny portion of this epic narrative, it plays a pivotal role in the psychological background. Chapter 80 tells how Lawrence was captured while on reconnaissance in Deraa and how he rejected the sexual advances of the Turkish Bey who held him. It then describes vividly the torture he received from the Bey's guards and, more obliquely, their brutal of him.

Lawrence, who maintained complete celibacy and hated even to be touched, never recovered from this trauma; he believed that he had been robbed of his "integrity" and his spirit had been broken, apparently forever.

Lawrence largely hides from view a later and equally discouraging event, namely, news of the death of Salim Ahmed, the young man who was the "S.A." to whom the book is dedicated. Lawrence had met Ahmed while working on an archeological dig in Carchemish, Syria, several years before the war. At this time, Ahmed (or Dahoum as Lawrence called him) was only fourteen, but they established a close friendship.

Seven Pillars opens with a cryptic dedicatory poem, which hints that it was for the sake of "S.A." that he worked and suffered for the cause of Arab independence. When Dahoum died of typhoid behind Turkish lines in September, 1918, the revolt had nearly reached its goal at Damascus. In Seven Pillars, and more explicitly in his correspondence, Lawrence suggests that his distaste for the entire exploit in its last triumphant days was owing largely to news of his friend's death.

The authorized biography attempts to defend Lawrence against "charges" of homosexuality, and indeed anyone seeking proof of his orientation in sexual acts will find little evidence of any sexuality at all. But there is no doubt that Lawrence was able to form closer attachments to young men (such as Dahoum, R. A. M. Guy, and Jock Chambers) than to women.

Meyers (Homosexuality and Literature) produces strong evidence from the letters that Lawrence was tormented by the knowledge that he had surrendered to the rapists at Deraa and had experienced a masochistic sexual pleasure.

Lawrence was the illegitimate child of Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Lawrence who, after eloping in Ireland, changed their name by deed poll in England. Lawrence himself would change his name to John Hume Ross, when he joined the Royal Air Force in 1922, and again to T. E. Shaw when he joined the Tank Corps a year later. His experiences as a recruit are the subject of The Mint, a sequel to Seven Pillars of Wisdom published posthumously in 1955.

On May 13, 1935, he suffered severe injuries in a motorcycle accident and died six days later.

David Lean's 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, and Terence Rattigan's play of the same year, Ross, have helped shape the myth that surrounds this complicated and enigmatic figure. But well before these dramatic portrayals, Lawrence served as a model for the neurotic hero--the "Truly Weak Man" who must continually prove himself by acts of heroism--in the works of the angry young gay men of the 1930s, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

Matthew Parfitt


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Aldington, Richard. Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry. London: Collins, 1955.

Asher, Michael. Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia. London: Viking, 1998.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Homosexuality and Literature, 1890-1930. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1977.

_____. The Wounded Spirit: T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Preface by Sir Alec Kirkbride. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

_____. T. E. Lawrence: A Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1974.

Rattigan, Terence. Ross, A Dramatic Portrait. New York: Random House, 1962.

Wilson, Jeremy. Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence. New York: Atheneum, 1989.


    Citation Information
    Author: Parfitt, Matthew  
    Entry Title: Lawrence, T. E.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 8, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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