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The capital of the United Kingdom and one of the world's largest and most interesting cities, London has recently become home to an active and diverse glbtq population.

Medieval and Early Modern Periods

In the Middle Ages London emerged as the largest city in England. As the city grew, it offered individuals the benefits of urban anonymity, which no doubt facilitated same-sex sexual activity that would not have been possible in smaller cities and towns. Not surprisingly, London became a center of sexual diversity, as is clear from the satirical literature of the medieval and Renaissance periods.

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The numerous, usually satirical, references to and point to a concern with sodomy as a social problem in the city. References to "male stews" in the sixteenth century, for example, may refer to gathering places where same-sex sexual activity was condoned.

Moreover, in the world of early modern London, including especially the Court, where men's most important emotional and social bonds were with other men, same-sex sexual activity was also facilitated. The Court of James I, who ruled from 1603 until 1625, was especially known as a site of same-sex sexual attraction. The emergence of as a serious theme in Renaissance English literature, especially drama, probably bespeaks an awareness of the power of same-sex sexual relations in real life.

The Georgian Era and the Rise of an Urban Subculture

In Mother Clap's Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830, historian Rictor Norton argues that in periods such as the Elizabethan and Stuart age, same-sex desire flourished only in particular environments such as courts. However, after 1700, when London became the largest city in Europe (boasting a population of 750,00 by 1725), it achieved a population large enough to support subcultures of all sorts. It was at this time in London that men who desired other men began to come together in organized social settings that could be defined as an urban subculture.

At the beginning of the Georgian era (1714-1811), inner London provided an environment in which homosexuality and homosexual desire were viable options. Institutions known as "molly houses" began to spring up on the north side of the river Thames and along the Strand south towards Fleet Street. Molly Houses, either a series of private rooms adjoining a tavern or a private home, catered to a pre-industrial middle-class clientele, mainly tradesmen and artisans such as carpenters and blacksmiths.

The "mollies" who gathered in these places were a new phenomenon in that many of these derived their identity from a larger group identity based on their sexual proclivities, long before the creation of the category of homosexuality and the homosexual near the end of the nineteenth century.

The molly houses of London provided a sense of community and identity; they offered a place for men to join together in the spirit of drink, dance, and song, and, if desired, have sexual intercourse with one another. For many of the mollies, this guarded venue also represented one of the few urban spaces where one could engage in same-sex desires without fear of reprisal. Essentially, the molly house was a place were one could remove the mask of conformity.

Besides the molly house, eighteenth-century London had several other public spaces where one could find willing participants for casual sexual encounters. Indeed, cruising became a popular pastime for many Londoners, and the piazzas of Covent Garden, the greens of Lincoln's Inn, and the gardens of St. James Park provided ample space for those looking for anonymous sexual partners.

These molly houses and cruising areas did not appear all that odd against the London backdrop. The city was already full of male-only institutions such as schools, theaters, and army barracks. Places such as these offered environments where same-sex sexual contact was likely. In some of them, such as the cruising grounds, upper-class individuals, the capitol's elite, could merge with the easy-going and sexually expressive artisan class that frequented the taverns and saloons of the Strand and Fleet Street.

The freedom enjoyed by London's early male homosexual subculture proved to be short-lived. In 1720, London offered over 50 venues that could be considered predominantly gay by today's standards. In 1726, however, the "Society for the Reformation of Manners" began what was to be the first of several raids aimed at closing down the molly houses of London.

For the most part, the reformers' goals were met. Using spies and decoys to entrap and then prosecute individuals, the Society succeeded in closing the last of the molly houses in 1810. Some of those men arrested and found guilty of sodomy were executed; others were sentenced to stand in the pillory, where they were subject to verbal and physical abuse from a London crowd increasingly hostile towards same-sex eroticism.

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Top: Detail from an aerial photograph of London created by Mai-Linh Doan in 2005.
Above: The Old Bailey (criminal court) where Oscar Wilde was convicted of "gross indecency." Photograph by David Monniaux.

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