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social sciences

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United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century  
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His final play, The Importance of Being Earnest, was first produced shortly before the trials that were to change his life. With camp humor, this play mocks the prejudices of British society and subtly evokes the double life of the homosexual through the "Bunburying" of the central character. Although not explicitly stated, the homosexual theme of the play undoubtedly was recognized by the many men who sported green carnations in their lapels at the premiere.

Wilde's downfall was the result of his association with Lord Alfred Douglas, with whom he had been involved since mid-1891. Although Douglas probably introduced Wilde to the homosexual subculture of London, his father, the Marquis of Queensbury, blamed Wilde for his son's decadence. On February 28, 1895, Queensbury delivered to Wilde at his club an insulting note, accusing him of a being a sodomite. Encouraged by Douglas, Wilde brought a libel charge against Queensbury on March 1, and the trial for this began on April 3. Two days later, the jury acquitted Queensbury.

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Also on April 5, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Wilde on charges of gross indecency, as result of information that had come to light at the Queensbury trial. Wilde's first trial ended on April 26 without a decisive verdict, and many of Wilde's associates encouraged him to flee the country before he could be retried. Encouraged by Douglas and his mother, he became convinced he would be acquitted in the second trial. However, Wilde's hopes were misplaced, and he was convicted and sentenced to the maximum penalty of two years hard labor on May 25.

Throughout both trials, newspapers eagerly reported salacious details of testimony concerning prostitution and other aspects of the homosexual subculture in which Wilde and other Londoners participated. At the conclusion of the second trial, newspapers praised the verdict as a warning to those who would lead British youth astray. Wilde's name became anathema, and countless sermons were preached against him during the next several years in both Britain and America.

Because Wilde had been such a popular and prominent figure, his conviction created a climate of great fear among homosexual men, many of whom fled England for more tolerant climes. Following his trial, gay men distanced themselves from the dandy subculture and sought to adopt more conventional masculine public images. Ironically, the renewed awareness of the dangers posed by expressions of homosexual desire probably increased the market for male prostitution and other aspects of the hidden subculture that had provoked so much scandal at the trial. Yet, despite the immediate devastating impact of the trials, shock and resentment at the decision ultimately may have helped foster the emergence of a homosexual identity in opposition to mainstream values, as Havelock Ellis recognized at the time.

Lives of Queer Women in Nineteenth-Century Britain

The pervasive ideology of separate spheres for both men and women made it feasible for some women to maintain close relationships with other women without threatening patriarchal authority. Yet, although women's interactions were not subject to the types of legal penalties applied to men, increasing efforts were made to regulate them towards the middle of the nineteenth century. Many handbooks, offering advice to middle-class women, stressed that women should not become absorbed in one another to the exclusion of their family responsibilities and that they should avoid unbecoming physical expressions of feeling for one another.

As Martha Vicinus has shown, romantic "crushes," called "raves," permeated English boarding schools and may have helped to establish lifelong patterns for many women. Generally, the "raves" developed in ways that reinforced institutional hierarchies: younger girls falling in love with older ones; students adoring teachers; and teachers focusing upon the headmistress. Conforming to the emphasis placed upon moral responsibility, individuals of higher status (that is, older students and teachers) were encouraged to exploit the crushes as a means to inspire commitment to higher spiritual ideals. Yet, while sexual feelings probably were sublimated in most cases, there are indications that they sometimes were given physical expression.

For economic and various other reasons, nineteenth-century women who felt committed to one another generally found it difficult to establish households together, but private papers reveal longings for alternative possibilities. Thus, for example, in over 500 letters to her lifelong friend Ellen Nussey, Charlotte Bronté (1816-1855) lamented that they could not live together and cherish one another forever. However, in some of her letters, she claimed that she found consolation by focusing upon religious beliefs condemning "unnatural love."

Written in code to protect them from prying eyes, the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) feature an unusually explicit treatment of sexual adventures. By 1832, when she established a partnership with a wealthy heiress, Lister had adopted a male persona, "Gentleman Jack."

Many of the women involved in the feminist movement towards the end of the nineteenth century found encouragement for their political endeavors in close relationships with other women. For instance, Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904), who campaigned tirelessly for women's rights as a writer, educator, and political activist, lived for over thirty years with Welsh painter Mary Lloyd (d. between 1894 and 1898).

By the end of the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom, gay male and (to a much lesser extent) lesbian subcultures had become visible. A consequence of this new visibility was that many expressions of same-sex affection that had been regarded as benign were now viewed with suspicion. At the same time, however, the new self-consciousness of sexual identity gave impetus to a movement toward liberation that, despite many setbacks, would mature in the twentieth century.

Richard G. Mann

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A theory of art and an approach to living that influenced many European and American gay male and lesbian writers at the turn of the twentieth century, aestheticism stressed the independence of art from all moral and social conditions and judgments.

literature >> Overview:  The Bible

Perhaps no other book has been more influential--for better or worse--in determining the construction of gay and lesbian identity in the modern world, as well as social attitudes toward homosexuality, than the Bible.

literature >> Overview:  Bloomsbury

The Bloomsbury circle's open acceptance of erotic license and hostility toward social convention are important elements in the history of homosexuality among the English upper classes in the first half of the twentieth century.

social sciences >> Overview:  Brighton

After a period of decline, Brighton, an English seaside resort with a reputation for attracting the artistic and the bohemian, is once again vibrant, thanks in no small part to a flourishing glbtq community.

social sciences >> Overview:  Cambridge Apostles

The Cambridge Apostles, founded in 1820 as a secret society at Cambridge University, is significant for the glbtq cultural legacy because it fostered frank discussions of homosexuality, promoted Platonic love, and helped establish Bloomsbury.

literature >> Overview:  Decadence

Nineteenth-century Decadent literature either describes aspects of decadent life and society or reflects the decadent literary aesthetic.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Medieval

Although it occasionally celebrates homosocial bonding, surviving medieval English literature is condemnatory of homosexual behavior.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Nineteenth Century

From its beginning, the nineteenth century in England had a purposeful homosexual literature of considerable bulk, both male and female, though it was fettered by oppression.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Renaissance

Homosexuality is writ large in English Renaissance literature, but its inscription is only rarely direct and unambiguous.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Restoration and Eighteenth Century

Throughout the Restoration and eighteenth century, sodomitical characters were both presented and pilloried in literature.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Romanticism

Since homosexuality was severely persecuted during the Romantic period, writers who treated the subject more or less positively were forced to encode it or leave it unpublished and were themselves frequently forced into exile.

literature >> Overview:  Gothicism

The Gothic has always offered writers and readers the chance to experience the excitement of transgressive sexuality of various kinds, including male and female homosexuality.

social sciences >> Overview:  Ireland

Given the dominance of the Roman Catholic church on its culture, Ireland was a country in the closet until relatively recent times.

social sciences >> Overview:  London

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.

social sciences >> Overview:  Manchester

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social sciences >> Overview:  Molly Houses

In early eighteenth-century London, molly houses provided men who were interested in other men sexually a space in which to act on same-sex sexual desires and to develop a sense of community.

literature >> Overview:  Romantic Friendship: Female

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, intimate, exclusive, and often erotic romantic friendships between women were largely perceived as normal and socially acceptable.

literature >> Overview:  Romantic Friendship: Male

Critics use the term male romantic friendship to describe strong attachments between men in works ranging from ancient epics and medieval romances to Renaissance plays, Gothic novels, westerns, and war movies.

literature >> Overview:  Scriblerians

The "Scriblerians," an all-male club flourishing in the early eighteenth century, remains among the most thoroughly homosocial literary groups to be found in modern history.

social sciences >> Overview:  Sodomy

First used to refer only to anal intercourse, sodomy was progressively defined by the Church Fathers, and many later lawmakers, to include all sexual acts that could not result in procreation.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present

Twentieth-century efforts to reform British law and public opinions about homosexuality met with mixed results, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the United Kingdom has emerged as a leader in recognizing the rights of its glbtq citizens.

literature >> Aelred of Rievaulx

A twelfth-century English abbot, Aelred of Rievaulx was a specialist in friendship who used the image of John, the beloved disciple, as an icon of masculine love.

social sciences >> Atherton, John

John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, was hanged in Ireland for sodomy under a law that he had helped to institute.

literature >> Barnfield, Richard

The English Renaissance poet Richard Barnfield wrote two volumes of homoerotic verse.

literature >> Beckford, William

Extremely wealthy and connected to the aristocracy, British author and connoisseur William Beckford was ostracized by English society for the last sixty years of his life because of his homosexuality.

literature >> Behn, Aphra

British dramatist, novelist, and poet Aphra Behn was known to her contemporaries as a "scandal" for both her writings and her flamboyant personal life.

literature >> Bentham, Jeremy

The most notable law reformer in the English-speaking world, English philosopher, jurist, economist, and political scientist Jeremy Bentham argued for a tolerant attitude toward homosexuality in a series of papers first published in full in 1985.

arts >> Blunt, Anthony

The distinguished career of art historian Anthony Blunt came to an end upon the revelation that he had been the unnamed "fourth man" in the Cambridge spy scandal of the 1950s.

literature >> Butler, Lady Eleanor, (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831)

Known as the Ladies of Llangollen, an enduring emblem of female romantic friendship, Butler and Ponsonby eloped to Wales where they lived together for over fifty years and entertained several important writers.

literature >> Byron, George Gordon, Lord

The bisexual Lord Byron treated many of his homosexual love affairs in his poetry, encoding them by the use of classical references or by purporting that they were affairs with women.

literature >> Carpenter, Edward

Edward Carpenter, a champion of both women's and homosexuals' liberation, was one of the great socialist visionaries of England at the turn of the twentieth century.

arts >> Charke, Charlotte

Actress and writer Charlotte Charke was known for portraying male characters on the eighteenth-century English stage and for cross-dressing in private life.

social sciences >> Clap, Margaret

Margaret Clap, also known as "Mother Clap," operated one of the more popular "molly houses" in London; after it was raided in 1726, she was pilloried and imprisoned.

social sciences >> Cleveland Street Scandal

The Cleveland Street scandal of 1889, involving members of the nobility and allegations of a government cover-up, fueled the perception of homosexuality as an aristocratic vice that corrupted working-class youths.

literature >> Douglas, Alfred Bruce

Lord Alfred Douglas is remembered today for his tumultuous association with Oscar Wilde and as a minor poet.

social sciences >> Edward II, King of England

Edward II, an early fourteenth-century king of England, formed intense relationships with his favorites, which ultimately cost him his throne and his life.

social sciences >> Ellis, Havelock

Henry Havelock Ellis--British psychologist and writer--was one of the first modern thinkers to challenge Victorian taboos against the frank and objective discussion of sex.

literature >> Forster, E. M.

One of the finest English novelists of the twentieth century and a tireless defender of humane values, Forster deserves a special place in the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

literature >> Gray, Thomas

Thomas Gray, the best-loved English poet of the eighteenth century, wrote several poems that express the love he felt for other men.

literature >> James VI and I

Sponsor of the English translation of the Bible that bears his name and himself an accomplished author, James VI of Scotland (and later James I of England) was well known for his passionate attachments to handsome young men.

social sciences >> Keynes, John Maynard

The thought of John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the twentieth century, was influenced by his experience as a homosexual.

social sciences >> The Labouchère Amendment

The Labouchère Amendment criminalized all sexual contact between men in Great Britain in 1885 and remained on the books until 1967.

literature >> Lister, Anne

Between 1817 and 1840, the diarist Anne Lister recorded in code her romantic and sexual relationships with several women.

literature >> Marlowe, Christopher

Christopher Marlowe represents homoerotic situations and incidents in his plays and poems more frequently and more variously that any other major English Renaissance writer.

literature >> Pater, Walter

The aesthetic of the important and influential Victorian critic Walter Pater reflected a homosexual sensibility.

literature >> Philips, Katherine

Two-thirds of the poems of Katherine Philips, "The Matchless Orinda," concern erotic relationships among women.

literature >> Rochester, John Wilmot, Earl of

In his poetry and his dramatic farce Sodom, the Restoration rake Rochester depicts heterosexual love as imperfect or incomplete and offers homosexual intercourse as a natural alternative.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

literature >> Strachey, Lytton

The English biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey spoke openly of his homosexuality to his Bloomsbury friends, but his openly gay works were published only after his death.

literature >> Symonds, John Addington

John Addington Symonds was the most daring innovator in the history of nineteenth-century British homosexual writing and consciousness.

social sciences >> Vere Street Coterie

The 1810 conviction of London's Vere Street Coterie led to the most brutal public punishment of homosexuals in British history.

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Throughout his life, Horace Walpole was devoted to other men, and his exploration of dysfunctional families in The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother probably stems from his own experience with a destructive father.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.

social sciences >> Wittgenstein, Ludwig

Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is considered one of the most significant thinkers of the twentieth century, was uncomfortable with his homosexuality.


Bamforth, Nicholas. Sexuality, Morals and Justice: A Theory of Lesbian & Gay Rights Law. London: Cassell, 1997.

Bergeron, David M. King James and Letters of Homoerotic Desire. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Boswell, John B. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 1982. Rpt. with a new afterword and updated bibliography. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Bristow, Joseph. Effeminate England: Homoerotic Writing after 1885. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Cooper, Emmanuel. The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West. 2nd rev. ed. London: Routledge, 1994.

Donoghue, Emma. Passions between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668-1801. London: Harper Collins, 2001.

Fone, Byrne. Homophobia: A History. New York: Picador USA, 2000.

Goldsmith, Netta Murray. The Worst of Crimes: Homosexuality and the Law in Eighteenth-Century London. Aldershot: Ashagate, 1998.

Hyde, H[arford] Montgomery. The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name: A Candid History of Homosexuality in Britain. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1970.

McKeon, Michael. "Historicizing Patriarchy: The Emergence of Gender Difference in England, 1660-1760." Eighteenth-Century Studies 28.3. (Spring 1995): 295-322.

Miller, Neil. Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Oram, Alison, and Annmarie Turnball. The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex between Women in Britain. London: Routledge, 2001.

Richardson, Colin. "What Brings You Trolling Back, Then?" The Guardian (January 17, 2005):,,1391811,00.html

Sato, Tomoko, and Lionel Lambourne, eds. The Wilde Years: Oscar Wilde and the Art of His Time. London: Barbican Art Galleries, 2000.

Simpson, Colin, Lewis Chester, and David Leitch. The Cleveland Street Affair. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976.

Summers, Claude, ed. Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Context. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1992.

Trumbach, Randolph. "The Birth of the Queen: Sodomy and the Emergence of Gender Equality in Modern Culture, 1660-1950." Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr., eds. New York: New American Library, 1989. 129-40.

Vicinus, Martha. "Distance and Desire: English Boarding School Friendships, 1870-1920." Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr., eds. New York: New American Library, 1989.212-29.

Weeks, Jeffrey. Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. London: Quartet Books, 1977.

_____. "Inverts, Perverts, and Mary-Annes: Male Prostitution and the Regulation of Homosexuality in Renaissance England in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries." Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chancey, Jr., eds. New York: New American Library, 1989. 192-211.

_____. Making Sexual History. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000.

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    Citation Information
    Author: Mann, Richard G.  
    Entry Title: United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2007  
    Date Last Updated October 8, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2007 glbtq, Inc.  


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