Image of two men kissingGay History and Literature: Essays by Rictor Norton

The Suppression of Lesbian and Gay History


The whole of lesbian and gay history and culture, not merely queer sex, is frequently silenced. It is important to recognize that because of the common prejudice that male–male or female–female love is obscene per se, any texts that celebrate this love, despite being utterly devoid of explicit sexual details or even innuendo, are subject to suppression. When Christina Rossetti’s brother edited her poetry for publication, he apparently destroyed some half-dozen of her poems, not because they were explicitly ‘erotic’, but simply because they were love poems addressed to women. The censorship of sexuality is seldom taken as seriously as the censorship of politics or religion, hence because homosexuality is usually considered solely as a sexual problem its censorship is seldom perceived as having racial or political overtones. The reason given for destroying Sappho’s works was their ‘immorality’. But the effects of suppression are the same as if the motivation were cultural imperialism, as it was when the English destroyed the archives of Ireland, or when missionaries destroyed much of the culture of Central and South America, or when Nazi newspapers praised the destruction of Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science as ‘a deed of culture’.

A few examples of South American pottery depicting male anal intercourse and lesbian relations survive, but the vast majority of pottery illustrating sexual practices or representing sexual objects was destroyed by the Christian missionaries. Even in the twentieth century when people in Peru found some pre-Columbian pieces which showed same-sex images, they destroyed them because they were ‘insults to national honour’. There is much evidence suggesting widespread homosexual relationships amongst the Mayans during the sixteenth century, but the Spanish Jesuits destroyed the Aztec and Mayan libraries, so our knowledge about Aztec or Mayan queer culture does not predate the Conquest and does not come direct from the people themselves.

The suppression of gay history is the deliberate destruction of a culture, and it is no good making excuses for, say, early nineteenth-century historians by referring to their different sexual ‘morals’. By regarding queers as people with dirty habits rather than people with a culture, sociologists and historians with more enlightened sexual ‘morals’ have connived at the obliteration of this culture. We must not lull ourselves into believing that this is merely a matter of distaste at obscenity. In India from the 1920s to the 1940s ‘Gandhi decided to send squads of his devotees to destroy the erotic representations, particularly those depicting homoeroticism and lesbianism, carved into Hindu temples dating from the eleventh century, as part of a program to encourage both Indians and non-Indians to believe that such behaviors were the result of foreign, namely Euro-western, influence’ (Conner 1997). This desecration was temporarily halted by Rabindranath Tagore, but renewed under Jawaharlal Nehru, who ‘became extremely irritated with his friend Alain Daniélou when the latter, together with his lover, published photographs of the same-sex erotic and transgendered-themed sculptures.’ Daniélou was no mere collector of obscene postcards; he was committed to making a photographic record of ancient queer culture before evidence of it was systematically effaced from Indian temples and monuments. The first law criminalizing homosexual relations in India was passed by the British rulers in 1860, imitating the British penal code. Most modern Indians firmly believe that homosexuality is a decadent Western import, whereas in fact homophobia was the product of British colonialism.

The erasure of historical images of homosexuality is the cultural equivalent of ethnic cleansing, and the battle is still underway. In 1993 Shivananda Khan, founder of London’s Asian HIV health promotion agency the Naz Project, visited Daniélou in Rome to examine his collection of 10,000 photographs for ‘proof that Asians have enjoyed gay sex for centuries’, and subsequently showed pictures from Daniélou’s archive to new members of the Naz male sexual health group in an effort to counter prejudice that homosexuality was a Western disease. In July 1996 Scotland Yard’s child protection unit began investigating complaints that Shivananda Khan and his agency were distributing ‘pornography’. He was suspended pending the outcome of inquiries; funding of the agency was suspended; its staff was accordingly issued with redundancy notices (Pink Paper, 26 July 1996). The Naz Project, which has spread the safer-sex message among Asian, Turkish and Iranian communities in Britain and which has worked on safer-sex projects in Bangladesh, Delhi and Calcutta, barely survived this crisis. (Daniélou has since died, and donated his collection to a Berlin museum.) The masculinization of feminine and lesbian iconography is current practice in Gujarat, and anti-gay cultural vandalism has been witnessed by Giti Thadani (1996): ‘In Bhuveneshvar, at the Lingraj temple, I saw the breasts of a goddess being cut, then polished over with orange, and a new male divinity was born. At Tara Tarini, the temple of the lesbian twin goddesses, the original iconography of the goddesses in an embrace has been replaced by a heterosexual image.’ Normative heterosexuality has been retrospectively imposed upon the history of India.

Similarly in China queer culture has been inverted into its opposite. The ‘Two Flower Temple’, built near Guilin in southern China in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century to honour the homosexual love of the handsome scholar Choy and a male actor, both murdered when they refused to submit sexually to a rogue named Wong, attracted pilgrims celebrating same-sex love until the nineteenth century – when it was rededicated as the ‘Temple of Virtuous Female Ancestors’, ‘its earlier history purposely buried’ (Conner 1997; it was destroyed by the Japanese in 1894).

Outright destruction

Research into queer history faces an insuperable problem – the outright, total destruction of the queer record. Much of our knowledge about homosexuality in the ancient world comes from literary works which feature homosexual characters or incidents which are peripheral to the central action and hence contain only a limited amount of information. But many works which do not survive were devoted entirely to homosexuality, and presumably would have given us a much fuller picture: for example, Athenaeus at the beginning of the third century cites the titles of no-longer-extant works such as The Pederasts by Diphilus, a play called Ganymede, and The Effeminates by Cratinus. Four lost plays by Aeschylus were pederastic in theme, as was Euripides’ lost tragedy Chrysippus and Sophocles’ Lovers of Achilles. There seem to have been at least a dozen ancient comedies titled Sappho; presumably they would have satirized a licentious lesbian and were full of realistic everyday details about queer life, but they are no longer extant. Of course a vast amount of Greek literature in general has disappeared, and this is a problem common to all historical investigation. Nevertheless the fact that not one single play dealing entirely with a homosexual theme has survived seems to suggest that queer works were deliberately suppressed and destroyed rather than merely lost during the passage of time.

As Christianity established its base in the remains of the crumbling Roman empire, celebrations of ‘pagan immorality’ were systematically destroyed by monastic compilers busily engaged in rewriting history with a Christian slant. The destruction of the works of Sappho of Lesbos (c. 612–558 BC) is deemed by many, straight as well as gay, men as well as women, to be the greatest single loss in all literature. Although in her own day her works were widely popular and statues were erected and coins were minted in her honour, her works were burned in the late fourth century during the tenure of Gregory Nazianzen Bishop of Constantinople (c. 390), appointed by Emperor Theodosius’ First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople which outlawed paganism and declared homosexuality to be crime punishable by death. In the Western Empire, only fragments survived the further destruction ordered by Pope Gregory VII during his reign (1073–85). These consist mostly of phrases quoted as examples in ancient books on rhetoric and poetic diction, and the archaeological discovery in 1897 of copies of a fourth-century Alexandrian edition on shreds of papyrus subsequently used as wadding material to stuff mummified sacred animals in Egypt – what survives typically consists of only one or two strips torn from a scroll, so that every line has one or two gaps. In all, scholars have pieced together some 600 lines from a total output estimated at 12,000 lines – tantalizingly insufficient for the reconstruction of lesbian history, but precious for all that (Klaich 1974). Only two complete (or nearly complete) poems by Sappho survived outright destruction, but they did not survive censorship, at least in their English translations. Her ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ in its last line indicates that the gender of the beloved is feminine, but translators regularly rendered this as ‘he’ until the twentieth century. ‘Blest as the immortal Gods is he’ is an ode addressed to Sappho’s mistress, but its pronouns were transposed in the late eighteenth century. Many women also translated Sappho, but were as guilty of censorship as the men, even more so (Donoghue 1993).

It is not solely Christians who are responsible. Homer’s Iliad was subjected to censorship even in ancient times, for example by the Alexandrian editor Aristarchus, who omitted a line in Book XVI in which ‘Achilles asks the gods to rid the world of all humanity except Patroclus and himself’, and a line in Book XIV about Achilles mourning Patroclus’ death, in which Thetis finds him ‘Lying in the arms of Patroclus / crying shrill’ (Spencer 1995). If lines with homosexual import could be censored at such an early stage, it is quite possible that the oral tradition regarding the homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was modified by the time the epic got written down for posterity. Many modern homophile readers have sensed the homosexual relationship in the story, even without resorting to a psychoanalytical interpretation.

John Boswell, in his research into the ceremony of same-sex union that existed in the eastern Christian church from the sixth through the sixteenth century, came across much evidence of the censorship of documents:

folios from the ceremony have been ripped out of at least one Euchologion from the thirteenth century, . . . and in two other Greek prayer books the folios immediately following the ceremony have been torn out, suggesting either that the censor was not good at reading Greek or that there was some additional text that could not be shared. Even Gerald of Wales’ [late twelfth century or early thirteenth century] description of the ceremony in Ireland has been defaced in one of its recensions and tampered with in others. . . . [The title] has been cut out of the page, along with a drawing. This was obviously deliberate. (Boswell, 1994)

Thus visual evidence as well as textual evidence has been destroyed. In two twelfth-century liturgical texts containing this ceremony, the phrase ‘united together’ is immediately followed by a lacuna in the manuscript; in another case the phrase is followed by the very rare word euchlinus which seems to mean ‘well in bed’, so censorship of the homoerotic aspect seems likely. The office of same-sex union survives only in Greek and Old Church Slavonic texts, but Gerald of Wales’s account proves that this homosexual marriage ceremony survived in Ireland, where Greek probably would have been unfamiliar (and Slavonic unknown), where the service was almost certainly conducted in Latin. Boswell thinks that all of the Latin liturgical texts of the ceremony were destroyed rather than simply lost, as a result of the fourteenth century attack on homosexuality when such ceremonies were condemned in the West.

Destruction is not limited to the ancient or medieval world. The history of the early gay rights movement is hampered by the destruction of much material. On 6 May 1933 Nazi students from the Gymnastic Academy ransacked the library of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, and Hirschfeld’s own apartment in the same building, seizing some 12,000 books and 35,000 photographs, plus thousands of irreplaceable original manuscripts. As two lorry-loads of books were removed, the students insultingly chanted out the names of such authors as Freud, Havelock Ellis, Wilde, Carpenter, Gide, and Proust, and ended by singing a ‘particularly vulgar song’ and the Horst-Wessel song (Lauritsen and Thorstad 1974). Everything was burned in a huge bonfire on the square in front of the University of Berlin on 10 May 1933. Photographs, including a torchlight procession in which Hirschfeld’s bust was waved aloft, and a cinematic film of this public bookburning became famous as a symbol of Nazi censorship and the destruction of culture. Few people realize that it was queer culture specifically that was going up in flames.

Protection of privacy

Much of gay history has gone up in flames, just like the records of sodomy trials in medieval Europe, which were burnt together with the convicted queers, including some lesbians, because the information they contained was too shameful (or too threatening?) to become public knowledge. In the history of gay history, the register of bonfires makes sorry reading. Sir Richard Burton’s wife destroyed the manuscript he was working on at his death, supposedly a massive study of homosexuality in the form of an annotated translation of Sheikh Nefzawi’s Perfumed Garden. The wife of C. R. Ashbee, founder of the Guild of Handicrafts and promoter of the arts and crafts movement, after his death in 1942 burnt his notebook Confessio Amantis, in which he probably described an affair with a young soldier named Chris. A box of ‘secret papers’ belonging to Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the poet and playwright who killed himself in 1849, found its way into the possession of Robert Browning, who told Edmund Gosse, who was editing Beddoes’ works, that ‘the particular fact about which you enquire is painful enough, and must remain a secret, at least for some time longer’, whereupon ‘the dismal box’ disappeared forever (Elliman and Roll 1986). The papers of Edward Lear, who had many passionate friendship with men, were destroyed by his literary executor, presumably because they compromised his non-literary reputation.

John Addington Symonds – the father of gay history – wrote to his wife Catherine from his death bed in Rome in 1893, asking her to give all his manuscripts, diaries, letters ‘& other matters found in my books cupboard’ to his friend Horatio Forbes Brown (also gay) – ‘I do this because I have written things you could not like to read, but which I have always felt justified and useful for society. Brown will consult & publish nothing without your consent.’ Catherine withheld her consent. Brown fully understood the importance Symonds attached to the memoirs – whose whole raison d’être was to chart the emotional and intellectual growth, the ‘coming out’, of a homosexual man, in the hopes of helping to liberate homosexuals of the future – and that they must be saved from destruction after his death. But Brown had to obey the wishes of Catherine, and he therefore totally suppressed all homosexual references in his biography of Symonds. The strange gap sensed by most readers was inferred as an indication of a secret religious melancholy. Sir Charles Holmes, who was working at the publishers (Nimmo) at the time, said that Brown ‘exercised little more than ordinary discretion in cutting out the most intimate self-revelations. But a straiter critic had then to take a hand’. That critic was almost certainly Edmund Gosse, who received the bowdlerized proofs of the biography and proceeded to completely emasculate them. Brown died in 1926, bequeathing Symonds’ memoirs and papers to Gosse. Gosse and the librarian of the London Library made a bonfire in the garden and burned everything except the memoirs, which were deposited in the London Library with injunctions that they were not to be made available or published for fifty years. The papers that were destroyed probably included Symonds’ sexual diary and material collected for his project with Ellis on the history of sexual inversion; correspondence with fellow homosexuals across the world; and love letters. Symonds’ granddaughter Janet Vaughan was nauseated by the ‘smug gloating delight’ with which Gosse informed her what he had done to preserve Symonds’ good name.

Women in particular have been brought up to value discretion, modesty and propriety, and families take special care to protect the unblemished reputation of their female members: this ‘would have ensured that most passions between women were presented in letters and memoirs as harmless and innocent’ (Donoghue 1993). But at the same time, women tend to record more intimate personal details in their diaries and letters than men, possibly because they are urged to cultivate their sensibilities and express their feelings more than men, so it is not surprising that documents of possibly-lesbian important are frequently suppressed. None of Ellen Nussey’s letters to Charlotte Brontë survive; presumably they were destroyed just as Nussey was asked by Brontë’s husband Arthur Bell, soon after their marriage, to destroy those she had received from Brontë because of their ‘passionate language’. She refused, but her proposed biography of Brontë had to be suppressed because Bell refused to grant her copyright permission to quote any of the letters. A surviving letter from Charlotte to Ellen dated 20 october 1854 shows her husband’s surveillance in action:

Arthur has just been glancing over this note . . . you must BURN it when read. Arthur says such letters as mine never ought to be kept, they are dangerous as Lucifer matches so be sure to follow the recommendation he has just given, ‘fire them’ or ‘there will be no more,’ such is his resolve . . . he is bending over the desk with his eyes full of concern. I am now desired to have done with it . . . (Miller 1989)

George Eliot (pen name of Mary Anne or Marian Evans) had formed intense friendships with women in her youth. In April 1849 she wrote to Sara Hennell, ‘I have given you a sad excuse for flirtation, but I have not been beyond seas long enough to make it lawful for you to take a new husband – therefore I come back to you with all a husband’s privileges and command you to love me’. Such passages were omitted from the letters quoted by Eliot’s husband when he wrote her biography in 1885 (Johnson 1989).

Sixteen lines of a letter by Mary Wollstonecraft describing her passion for Fanny Blood were obliterated by some ‘well-meaning scholar’, and are irrecoverable (Faderman 1994). Willa Cather destroyed the letters she had written over a period of forty years to Isabelle McClung, with whom she fell in love though McClung got married and denied her a passionate relationship, and after her death in 1947 most of her personal papers were burned in accordance with her instructions. Lorena Hickok, apparently Eleanor Roosevelt’s lover, burned Roosevelt’s letters after her death; the biographer Doris Faber tried to suppress the surviving letters between the women, for fear they would be ‘misunderstood’. In the 1920s Emily Dickinson’s niece censored Dickinson’s passionate letters to her sister-in-law Sue Gilbert. Annie Fields, companion of the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, wanted to publish Jewett’s letters to her after the novelist’s death in 1911, but was advised by the official biographer to omit most of the affectionate references for fear of ‘all sorts of people reading them wrong’.

Many families continue to protect the family honour by not allowing access to papers which would incriminate one of their members. (For most of history, evidence of homosexuality is literally evidence of criminal activity.) When Henry Maas edited The Letters of A. E. Housman (1971) he was refused permission to include Housman’s letters to Moses Jackson, the great love of Housman’s life. Maas was allowed to see these letters but he was not allowed even to summarize their content – all he could say was that they were ‘of the greatest interest’. The family continues to refuse permission for publication.

Wives are understandably reticent concerning their husbands’ papers. T. S. Eliot’s widow in 1988 allowed the publication of some letters to him from Jean Jules Verdenal, with whom Eliot lodged in Paris in 1910–11 and to whom he dedicated The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, recently interpreted as a gay love song. Verdenal’s letters are full of youthful enthusiasm and devotion to ‘mon cher ami’, but Eliot’s replies have not been published, and there are said to be others that are franker. Although Yukio Mishima’s autobiographical novels reveal his homosexual relations with complete frankness, his wife will not allow the publication of her husband’s letters.

Federico García Lorca, who was executed for leftist sympathies in 1936, has been subject ‘to deliberate manipulation and "cleansing" of his image by surviving family members’ (Eisenberg, ‘Lorca’, EH). His openly queer play The Public was partly published in 1976 against his relatives’ opposition; his homoerotic Sonnets of Dark Love were withheld by his family but published clandestinely in 1983; much other material is still suppressed and his intimate letters have not been published. When William Warren Bartley published a biography (1973) revealing that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was homosexual, Bartley was vilified as a liar and mischief-maker by Wittgenstein’s friends and admirers even though Wittgenstein’s literary heirs possess a coded diary detailing the philosopher’s cruising for rough trade in Vienna. When Weatherby (1989) was preparing his biography of James Baldwin – who was quite open about his homosexuality – he discovered that ‘Many of Baldwin’s most intimate companions or lovers didn’t wish to be interviewed. . . . Several did talk providing they weren’t identified. . . . Others explained that they didn’t trust American society’s inconsistent attitude toward homosexual relations and thought they were safer remaining silent.’ So even in the liberal 1980s it was not possible to write a full and frank biography of an openly gay man.

Sometimes family protectiveness is carried too far. Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès (1753–1824), Napoleon’s Arch-Chancellor, was openly homosexual and the object of prejudice. Though he is wrongly credited with being responsible for the decriminalization of homosexuality under the Code Napoleon, his papers nevertheless ought to contain valuable material for the gay historian. But his memoirs remain unpublished, and his heirs have refused historians permission to examine their archives, according to Jean-Louis Bory who wrote his biography in 1979.

The protection of the reputation even of people long dead is still relatively common. Cole Porter’s satiric song ‘Farming’ describes a bull as being ‘beautiful, but he’s gay’, but Bronski (1984) was unable to say much more than that: ‘The Cole Porter estate refused permission to reprint six lines of lyrics from "Farming" because they did not want them to appear in a "risque context".’ For an even more absurd example, the South Caroliniana Library in 1978 tried to prevent the foremost gay scholar Martin Duberman from publishing gay love letters written in 1826 by Thomas Jefferson Withers, an important politician in the antebellum South. Withers wrote nostalgically to his former ‘chum’ James Hammond: ‘I feel some inclination to learn whether you yet sleep in your Shirt-tail, and whether you yet have the extravagant delight of poking and punching a writhing Bedfellow with your long fleshen pole – the exquisite touches of which I have often had the honour of feeling.’ Duberman went ahead and published the letters without permission, accompanied by an excellent essay on the dilemma of how gay historians can remain true to the ideals of their profession when confronted with such censorship. Lillian Faderman was refused permission to include poems by Edna St Vincent Millay in her anthology Chloe Plus Olivia (1994) because, according to Millay’s literary executrix, ‘These poems are not appropriate for your collection, as Millay did not write lesbian literature. She wrote poetry – pure and simple.’ As possibly the most absurd example, the Fellowship of the School of Economic Science, London (not to be confused with the London School of Economics), and their publishers Shepheard-Walwyn, refused to grant me permission to include any selection from their modern English translation of the letters of Marsilio Ficino in an anthology of gay love letters, though it does seem preposterous that a modern academic institution would wish to prevent a sixteenth-century philosopher from appearing in a queer context.


The intimate, private life is difficult to trace in the public pages of history. While marrage and children are fairly clear public markers of heterosexual private lives, non-marriage or lack of children do not automatically signify homosexual private lives, although if people talk about a man being a ‘confirmed bachelor’, that’s a pretty good giveaway. A natural prudence about one’s personal life is exacerbated when certain revelations would subject one to ridicule or ostracism or criminal prosecution. Working-class people seldom have the leisure or inclination to record and examine their lives in diaries, and the middle classes are often too ‘proper’ to record details that are not quite ‘respectable’. It is remarkable that queer-revealing diaries and letters get written at all, much less survive the death of their writer. Countee Cullen, leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1930s and 1940s used codes in letters to his friends recording his gay affairs, and even signed letters to his lover with a pseudonym. Tchaikovsky once said, ‘To think that one day people will try to penetrate the intimate world of my feelings and thoughts, everything I have kept so carefully hidden throughout my life, is very depressing and hard to bear.’ But when his brother Modest, who was actually more openly gay than he, compiled Tchaikovsky’s Life and Letters in twenty-five volumes, not a word was mentioned about gomoseksualiszm, which the Great Soviet Encyclopedia in its 1952 edition defined as a symptom of the ‘moral decay of the ruling classes’.

The fact that the lesbian sections of Anne Lister’s journals in the early nineteenth century were written in a code using the Greek alphabet and special characters is ample testimony to the perceived need for secrecy. Anne Lister was always quite careful in the phrasing of the letters that she wrote to her lover Mrs Barlow after returning to England in 1825; she even asked her to burn them and was rather disturbed that Mrs Barlow was not so cautious as she. One day Anne carefully studied a love letter she had composed the previous night, to determine if it was safe enough to send or if it should be modified to avoid exposure if it was read by a third party:

This ought not to be seen – not that there is anything in it flaming but some allusions to herself & others; telling her how much I am altered; to have no fear of me in future, etc., which might be ambiguous & turned against us. Yet there is nothing, I think, I could not manage to explain away to warm friendship if I had the letter before me & was obliged to defend myself.

This journal entry constitutes important and incontrovertible evidence that lesbians disguised their writings so that their sentiments could be ‘explained away’ as part of a non-sexual ‘friendship’ tradition. If someone in 1825 can self-consciously avoid giving the appearance of being a ‘flaming’ lesbian (‘flaming’, as in ‘flaming faggot’, was a slang word for ‘flagrant’ from about 1780), then ‘passing’ must have been part of lesbian practice for at least a generation or two earlier, well into the period for which we supposedly have ‘no evidence’ other than the literature of ‘romantic love’ between female friends. Surely we can no longer dismiss documents expressing ‘warm friendship’ without carefully considering the possibility of self-censorship.

There are probably a vast number of queer love letters which have not survived because (a) personal papers of unmarried persons without younger heirs are destroyed immediately when personal effects are cleared up; and (b) they are destroyed prior to marriage. Many such letters were brought to light in the 1950s as a result of police investigation and helped to convict many men of various homosexual offences (Higgins 1996). John Reynolds, one of the RAF airmen involved in the prosecution of Lord Montague of Beaulieu, Peter Wildeblood (diplomatic correspondent to the Daily Mail) and Michael Pitt-Rivers in 1953/4, had written a letter describing one of his friends as ‘my husband dear’, which did not help when Lord Montague’s letters to ‘Dear Johnny’ were read out in court. Upon conviction of these men for indecency (with boy scouts and RAF men), Michael Davidson, foreign correspondent for the Observer who was over-fond of young men, ‘destroyed two suitcases of letters, diaries and photographs of friends. He was far from alone. Late-night burning of incriminating material occurred far and wide’ (Spencer 1995). In an unrelated case, Lieutenant Colonel Julius Caesar, sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in 1954, had written to Private John Everton ‘I am dreadfully afraid that I am desperately in love with you. . . . Please, please, try to make chances to meet me privately somewhere. I want you so much . . . Burn this without fail.’ I have no doubt that this closing injunction was obeyed by many persons, and that much documentation of queer love has been thrown upon the flames of prudence. One man who saw Victim in 1961 recorded in his diary (cited in Bourne 1996): ‘Victim – and for me a lesson in how not to become one. . . . It was letters which exposed the Wilde–Douglas affair, and in this film it was the same. I’ll never commit anything to paper in that aspect, and destroy all I may receive.’

The dearth of material for British lesbian life in the 1930s (and the stigmatization of spinsters as lesbians) may be owing to the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness for obscenity in 1928. In that year the poet Charlotte Mew burned most of her work, almost certainly an attempt to destroy all evidence of her lesbianism, and then killed herself. In the 1930s well-known lesbians wrote very circumspect autobiographies (e.g. Viscountess Rhondda, Cicely Hamilton, Elizabeth Robins), and ‘One of Constance Maynard’s executrices apparently destroyed a particularly revealing portion of her intimate diaries’ (Lesbian History Group 1989, 1993). Ann Bannon, author of the Beebo Brinker series of lesbian novels in the 1950s, destroyed all the correspondence she received from women in response to her novels for fear that it would be discovered by her children.


A serious problem for lesbian and gay history is the deliberate effort by scholars to disguise the queer matter in historical documents. This has been a common practice since medieval times, when Latin translators of Arabic and Greek writings on ancient medicine simply deleted passages detailing homosexuality, e.g. Prose Salernitan Questions around 1200 draws on the ancient Problemata but ‘omits the passage dealing with pathic homosexuality’ (Greenberg 1988). Thomas Aquinas quoted a passage from Aristotle about homosexuality but deliberately suppressed the passage in which Aristotle says that some homosexual urges are determined ‘by nature’, which would have contradicted Aquinas’s argument that sodomy is a (sinful) choice rather than something innate. Some medieval lais were edited, and homosexual references were suppressed or turned around to become unfavourable references (Greenberg 1988). Matteo Ricci was so distressed at the prevalence of male prostitution in Peking that when he translated the Ten Commandments for the Chinese in 1584, the commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ was replaced by ‘Thou shalt not do depraved, unnatural, or filthy things.’

Boswell’s (1994) survey of the nineteenth-century translations of the office of same-sex union is illuminating: Goar, a major scholar, translates the operative Greek term adelphopoia as spiritualis fraternitas despite the fact that ‘the word for "spiritual" does not occur in a single manuscript title for the ceremony’, and another major scholar, Jean Frcek, translated the Old Church Slavonic term as fraternité adoptive, ‘though no word occurring in or relating to the ceremony in any version in any language justifies introducing the concept "adoptive"’. Boswell offers convincing evidence that ‘soul mates’ is a much more accurate translation than ‘spiritual brotherhood’ or ‘adoptive brother’, though mainstream scholars still find this view provocative.

Horatio Alger Jr. (1832–99), the American novelist famous for his boys’ stories promoting the American dream of success, early in his life was driven out of town for having sex with boys, evidence of which was suppressed and not rediscovered until 1971. Prior to that date, and even since that date, the biographies of ‘the great American’ simply created bogus relationships with women, complete with detailed episodes that were wholly fictitious. For domestic consumption Alger was a successful heterosexual, when in fact the great love of his life was a ten-year-old Chinese boy named Wing.

Women’s feelings for other women are regularly trivialized in biographies, while their feelings for men are exaggerated. To dismiss the love of Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey as an ‘adolescent crush’, as has been done, is to define adolescence ‘as a somewhat protracted period continuing until the age of 25 or so’ (Miller 1989). Similarly, ‘Octavia Hill’s passionate friendship with Sophia Jex-Blake was written out of mid-twentieth-century biographies, while a hasty engagement which lasted exactly one day was elevated into the romance of her life, with Hill holding the young man’s memory "sacred to her heart till the end of her life". In fact she lived for the last 35 years of her life with another woman, Harriot Yorke’ (Lesbian History Group, 1989, 1993). The Lesbian History Group attributes this ‘normalizing’ process to the negative associations of the word ‘lesbian’ – an insult, a label of abnormal perversion or pitiful handicap, a description solely of a sexual practice rather than a cultural universe. We should also recognize that there is a well-established economic market for heterosexual history, and only a niche-market for gay history.

The year 1996 marked the centenary of the death of Frederic Leighton, and the Royal Academy of Arts – of which he was President from 1878–96 – held a major exhibition of his works in February–April. I suppose it was too much to expect the Royal Academy to endeavour to bring to light proof of Leighton’s long-suspected homosexuality, but I burst into laughter when I read the catalogue entry describing his sculpture The Sluggard, which acknowledged the extraordinary languor and sensuous beauty of this young male nude, but dismissed it as evidence of Leighton’s ‘suppressed homosexuality’ because ‘for Leighton this represented the ideal’! Can it really be possible that (heterosexual) critics do not recognize the link between the real and the ideal? Or do their mental faculties just seize up when faced by queer tangibility? Art historians probably are not really blind to the obvious – they just refuse to countenance it. Andrée Hayum in her 1976 biography of Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, ‘Il Sodoma’, claimed that ‘speculations about his private personality’ – including the source of his nickname ‘The Sodomite’– were ‘essentially fruitless’ and ‘an extraneous issue’. Extraneous to whom? It is for historians such as these that we require Saslow’s excellent survey of Ganymede in the Renaissance (1986) to prove what is self-evident: that the image of Ganymede was ‘an artistic vehicle’ for the homoeroticism of artists or their patrons.

Mainstream critics and historians would rather do anything than call a queer spade a queer spade. Jason Wilson in the introduction to his 1995 translation of the natural historian Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey has invented the curious term ‘male-scientific friendships’ to describe Humboldt’s love of other men, so as to site it within the tradition of friendships among colleagues in scientific professions – but this hardly accounts for the fact that all of Humboldt’s protégés and travelling companions were handsome young men. Wilson acknowledges that ‘Humboldt deliberately suppressed his private life. He burned or destroyed many letters in order to further efface himself from biographers.’ Many historians regularly refrain from reaching what seems to me to be the obvious conclusion: not that certain individuals have suppressed their homosexuality, but that they have suppressed evidence of their homosexuality. Humboldt died in 1859, one decade before ‘the homosexual’ was allegedly ‘invented’; but Hirschfeld gathered reminisces of him from people still living in 1914, who recalled his participation in the gay subculture of Berlin.


George Caitlin, who observed and described and painted the North American Indian berdache in the 1830s, concluded his account by saying ‘I should wish that it might be extinguished before it be more fully recorded.’ Such a sentiment was not rare; surely many observers refrained from recording details that shocked their European sensibilities.

Greenberg (1988) has an excellent appendix outlining the methodological problems in anthropological research on homosexuality which amount to a conspiracy of censorship: anthropologists often ignored the subject for fear of being suspected as participants themselves; they feared not being allowed to return to a research site; they were simply obtuse. As late as 1980 one anthropologist in New Guinea, despite published reports going back to the nineteenth century about ritualized sodomy in the area, ‘Even though he saw a good deal of same-sex physical contact, . . . simply assumed that homosexuality could not be a part of the culture.’ It is impossible to gather evidence of indigenous attitudes to homosexuality that has not been tainted by negative Western attitudes: ‘For many cultures, sexual mores have been deeply affected by prolonged and extensive exposure to the sermons of missionaries, the lectures of school teachers, and the offhand comments of traders, tourists, and government agents.’ An anthropologist in the 1950s found that among the Winnebago, ‘the berdache was at one time a highly honored and respected person, but . . . the Winnebago had become ashamed of the custom because the white people thought it was amusing or evil’. If homosexuality is unrecorded for some 60 per cent of known indigenous societies we must ask if that is because contact with Western moral puritanism has exterminated it.

Bleys (1996) has established that the general tendency among nineteenth-century ethnographers was to focus exclusively on passive, effeminate roles and to dismiss the sexuality of their active partners or equal-age partners as merely ‘circumstantial’; indigenous behavior that did not consolidate the Western preconception that homosexuality was a feature only of passive or cross-gender or age-structured roles was simply ignored: ‘When these conditions were not fulfilled, observers were reluctant to acknowledge that, in these cases too, same-sex praxis may spring from an inborn drive or propensity.’ Literally scores of native terms were translated indiscriminately as ‘sodomite’ or ‘hermaphrodite’ or ‘catamite’ depending on the anthropologists’ prejudgment about what constitutes the homosexual, and without offering detailed observations that would help us sort out the semantics today; the Hawaiian aikane were literally ‘man-fucking men’ whose relations were neither age-structured nor gender-structured, yet they were grouped by early observers under the category of cross-gender roles.

Boswell (1994) reviews the many attempts made by anthropologists to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon of same-sex union, adelphopoia. Giovanni Tamassia in 1886 (L’Affratellamento), discussed it solely as a folk custom of ‘artificial kinship’; since then, ‘blood brotherhood’ and ‘collateral adoption’ ‘have become the standard anthropological sleights of hand to obscure its more troubling aspects’. Boswell accuses the modern pro-gay anthropologist Gilbert Herdt of himself representing homosexuality among the Sambia as merely a ‘phase’, ‘apparently hoping to placate the dogmatic school of history known as "social constructionism"’.

When the ‘pathological’ discourse was being consolidated by the medical and criminological professions, the contrary views of anthropologists that ‘uranism’ could be found in quite normal and healthy peoples were suppressed. For example, when the Dutch criminal anthropologist Arnold Aletrino presented a paper sympathetic to homosexuals in Amsterdam in 1901, his colleagues and the President of the Congress prevented his views being publicized by the press. One of the reasons why social constructionists are able to assert that homosexuality did not become a subject of discourse until the later nineteenth century is because homosexual discourse preceding that date had been suppressed and censored.

Suppression of research

The increasing difficulty of maintaining effective censorship from the late nineteenth century has led to the illusion that the subject of homosexuality is ‘modern’, because only in recent times do we know so much about it. But in fact homosexuality was certainly a subject of discourse from the mid-eighteenth century in Europe. Johann Matthias Gesner gave a scholarly lecture on Socrates’ homosexuality in 1752, though the text, Socrates Sanctus Paederasta, was not published until 1769, eight years after his death, and not in Germany, but in Utrecht where there was greater freedom of the press. From the 1750s in Germany and from the 1780s in the Netherlands there were several studies of Greek pederasty, and theories about ancient Indo-European pederasty were developed in the early nineteenth century. Prior to this, the late-medieval and early Renaissance studies of Platonic love and friendship are arguably self-censored or disguised studies of homosexuality. Homosexual apologetics existed centuries before the supposed ‘invention’ of homosexuality, but have never achieved high profile precisely because they formed part of the ‘secret history’ tradition.

The Utilitarian philosopher and law reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) wrote some 500 manuscript pages on the place of homosexuality in history, using common sense to counter the view that would dominate the nineteenth century:

The Greeks knew the difference between love and friendship as well as we – they had distinct terms to signify them by: it seems reasonable therefore to suppose that when they say love they mean love, and when they say friendship only they mean friendship only. And with regard to Xenophon and his master, Socrates, and his fellow-scholar Plato, it seems more reasonable to believe them to have been addicted to this taste when they or any of them tell us so in express terms than to trust to the interpretations, however ingenious and however well-intended, of any men who write at this time of day, when they tell us it was no such thing.

Bentham’s extensive defence of homosexuality in 1785 – arguing that it is neither unnatural nor immoral – was never published because he feared being branded a sodomite himself; as he noted in marginal jottings: ‘To other subjects it is expected that you sit down cool: but on this subject if you let it be seen that you have not sat down in a rage you have betrayed yourself at once’ (Crompton 1978). Among Bentham’s papers are ‘fair copy’, polished essays on this subject, obviously intended for circulation and perhaps sent to colleagues in France: his writings should therefore be treated as part of Enlightenment ‘discourse’.

Historical research in southern Europe is still hampered by Mediterranean machismo: the censorship imposed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is compounded in modern times by ‘a certain reluctance by Italian historians to enter "obscure zones of a special character"‘ (Dall’Orto, ‘Italy’, EH). In Latin America anything that seems to legitimate homosexuality in print is censored as an apology for vice.

Kinsey’s findings on the widespread practice of homosexuality provoked a massive reaction from university professors, Congressmen and religious leaders, led particularly by Henry Van Dusen of the Union Theological Seminary who was also on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation which funded Kinsey. Because of the outcry, the National Research Council requested the American Statistical Association to examine Kinsey’s work. Though the ASA eventually praised Kinsey’s methods and findings, the examination took many years, during which time Kinsey’s financial backing disappeared. He had been effectively silenced, and never again has sexual research on this scale been attempted.

Public access to books dealing with homosexuality has been restricted until recent times, and the books themselves stigmatized so as to render them untouchable. When Judy Grahn (1984) in 1961, at the age of twenty-one, tried to investigate the subject of homosexuals and lesbians in a library in Washington, DC, ‘The books on such a subject, I was told by indignant, terrified librarians unable to say aloud the word homosexual, were locked away. They showed me a wire cage where the "special" books were kept in a jail for books. Only professors, doctors, psychiatrists, and lawyers for the criminally insane could see them, check them out, hold them in their hands.’

Censorship of literature

When ONE Institute of Homophile Studies gave its first course on Homosexuality in History in 1957, the first thing they discovered when preparing the course was that ancient classical texts had been inaccurately translated, that names and genders were transposed, that behaviour had been deliberately obscured and unpleasant facts evaded through mistranslation, that even Plutarch was censored. After almost fifty years of offering such courses, the Institute still has to emphasize that the essential working tools for homophile studies are ‘bias-free translations of texts from other languages and periods. . . . Whether done consciously or through inability to believe that a text in question meant what it said, meanings have been subverted’ (Legg 1994). Some of the euphemisms used in such inaccurate translations are the words ‘lewd, weak, dissolute, companion, favorite, friend, bohemian, decadent, fop, dandy, Arcadian, epicene, thigh, groin’ (Legg 1994). Hinsch (1990) criticizes David Hawkes for a modern translation of Long Yang zhi xing as ‘Lord Long-yang’s vice’ because the Chinese word xing is always a positive word, and denotes ‘joy, merriment, passion, desire, and appetite’ rather than ‘vice’.

Of course homosexual themselves have taken a lot of trouble to disguise the meaning of their writings. The homosexual literary tradition has employed many strategies of camouflage and concealment that require decoding, and has also used deliberately cryptographic language in order to convey secret messages. Giovanni Dall’Orto has described a genre of early sixteenth-century Italian poetry created by Francesco Berni, a priest once imprisoned for a year and a half in a monastery because of a homosexual scandal, who composed ostensibly innocuous poems for boys which were actually obscene when decoded. Even in his private letters he employed a secret language so that ostensibly quite ordinary correspondence secretly conveys a request that his friends send him boys. Many authors (presumably gay) wrote this ‘Bernesque’ poetry employing double meanings in which, for example, a chamber pot symbolized the anus or a needle symbolized the penis; asciutto, meaning ‘dry’, stood for sodomy (often called the dry fuck), monte, ‘mountain’, signified the anus, and in a more convoluted manner tagliare, ‘to cut’, meant ‘to sodomize’, from the tagliere or round chopping board which symbolized the anus. This secret language has not been the subject of any intensive scholarship, and no key has been worked out.

Writers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took enormous delight in being clever, as illustrated by the complex allegories of Edmund Spenser and the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. In 1993 eighty-five-year-old Elsie Duncan-Jones revealed that when she was helping Dame Helen Gardiner compile her 1965 edition of The Elegies and Songs and Sonnets of John Donne, she suggested to Helen Gardiner that the real ‘marriage of souls’ celebrated in Donne’s poem ‘The Anniversarie’ was that of Donne and John King, chaplain to Sir Thomas Egerton, for whom Donne worked as a secretary. But Helen Gardiner’s response to this interpretation was: ‘Forget it.’ That is still the attitude of many English teachers and literary historians even today.

I believe that the vast corpus of pastoral-mythological literature of the Renaissance period has a homoerotic ambience not by the accident of imitating the ancients, but because the references to Corydon and Hylas are deliberately coded (Norton 1974). A vast corpus of late nineteenth-century pederastic poetry employed code words such as ‘earnest’ to mean boy-love and used simple acrostic techniques to spell the names of their boyfriends in their verse (d’Arch Smith 1970). Modern homosexual intellectuals have always rather enjoyed establishing contact with one another through the use of coded language. Henry James recognized that John Addington Symonds was simpatico and introduced himself by alluding to the love that dare not speak its name:

I sent [my article] to you because it was a constructive way of expressing the good will I felt for you in consequence of what you had written about the land of Italy – and of intimating to you, somewhat dumbly, that I am a sympathetic reader. I nourish for the said Italy and unspeakably tender passion, and your pages always seemed to say to me that you were one of the small number of people who love it as much as I do . . . for it seemed to me that the victims of a common passion should exchange a look. (Summers 1995)

The censorship and bowdlerization of erotic literature is of course an established fact, and I shall not belabour the point that queer erotic literature has been suppressed. What I wish to focus upon is the anti-queer substitution for the original texts. Heterosexualization is a very curious operation to which only queer history has been subjected. Not only are queer details deleted from the lives of notable people, but heterosexual details are gratuitously invented for them. In a comedy written two centuries after her death, Sappho was portrayed as the lover of the sailor Phaon, a figment of the heteroerotic imagination made popular by Ovid. Sappho’s alleged marriage to Cercylas (cercos, penis) of Andros (‘city of men’) is a patent fabrication: ‘Generations of classical scholars abused these bits of ancient wit to construct the preposterous image of a heterosexual Sappho whose unconventional [i.e. lesbian] love was a legend fabricated by slander or even by misogyny, and their falsehoods continue to be parroted in standard reference works’ (Evelyn Gettone, ‘Sappho’, EH). In Vasco da Lucena’s medieval French translation of the ancient Roman History of Alexander the Great by Quintus Curtius Rufus, Alexander’s boyfriend the eunuch Bagoas appears in both text and illumination as a beautiful young woman: Vasco says the change was made ‘to avoid a bad example’. Saslow (1989, 1990) has traced the suppression of same-sex imagery in seventeenth-century art, e.g. Rubens’s copy of a painting by Titian transforms embracing male cupids into heterosexual couples, and Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo omits the pederastic section of the life by Poliziano upon which it was based. The ancient story of the same-sex love of Polyeuct and Nearchos was transformed into a heterosexual triangle including Polyeuct’s wife ‘Paulina’ by Corneille in the seventeenth century and by Cammarano in the nineteenth century, a situation which ‘is utterly wanting in the early texts’ (Boswell 1994). In other words, on one hand it is claimed that homosexual love is not universal and therefore we need not pay much attention to it, and on the other hand homosexual lovers are disguised as heterosexual lovers because the love they express is clearly meaningful and relevant for all men and women.

Film censorship

The suppression of queer themes in the most public forms of art – the theatre, television and the cinema – has been amply demonstrated (Russo 1981, Bourne 1996, Howes 1993). From about 1930 until 1961 the Hays Code, the voluntary self-censorship code of the American film industry, specifically forbade any representations of either male or female homosexuality. This resulted not only in indirection, subterfuge and camouflage, but in the rewriting of history. ‘Hollywood rewrote original scripts, and even history, to ensure the exclusion of lesbian material – as witnessed, for example, by the 1950 We Three heterosexualized version of Lillian Hellman’s play, The Children’s Hour, or Garbo’s portrayal of a heterosexual romance to explain the abdication of the Queen of Sweden in Queen Christina’ (Kitzinger 1993). Similarly for the emperor of China: ‘Although copious evidence exists to confirm the homosexuality of Puyi, final ruler of the Qing, the creative heterosexual love scenes in the acclaimed film The Last Emperor have created a lasting impression in both Asia and the West that Puyi zestfully took full advantage of his female concubines’ (Hinsch 1990). In the 1940s film The Red Shoes, Diaghilev’s boyfriend Nijinsky is transformed into a woman, played by Moira Shearer. During this period, whenever a novel was adapted for the screen, the gay character was either straightened out or the gender was reversed. In 1952 Brian Desmond Hurst abandoned his dream of producing a film about Ludwig II because ‘the Bavarian Royal Family didn’t want any mention whatsoever of the King’s homosexuality so it became pointless to continue with it’ (cited by Bourne 1996). Even theatrical and nightclub acts were censored through the 1920s and 1930s; female impersonation and pansy acts were prohibited, cabarets had their licenses withdrawn if performers sang campy songs by Cole Porter, and theatre chains nationwide prohibited use of the words fairy and pansy in vaudeville routines (Chauncey 1994). It really is not until the 1960s that film censorship ceases to be a serious problem, though filmmakers had to proceed cautiously. John Trevelyan, Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors, in 1962 advised Bryan Forbes regarding Scene 404 of The L-Shaped Room (cited by Bourne 1996): ‘When Mavis talks about the love of her life, we learn from the photograph that this love was for another woman. . . . I suggest that you shoot the scene in such a way as to make the omission of the photograph, if considered desirable, something which could be done without spoiling the scene.’

Secret history

A modern history of homosexuality published in Hong Kong in 1964 by Weixingshi Guanzhaizhu is appropriately titled Zhongguo tongxinglian mishi (The secret history of Chinese homosexuality). Secrecy has always been an important feature of queer history and culture, partly because sexual relations are usually very private affairs, whether they be the sexual rituals of religious mysteries that must be kept secret from the uninitiated, or the ‘secret games’ played between the Chinese Emperor Jing (reigned 156–141 BC) and his favourite Zhou Ren, to cite but one example from hundreds. Homosexual relations are frequently forbidden by a hostile society and therefore become especially secretive, even ‘furtive’. When queer culture began to be driven underground in America in the 1930s, surreptitious communication networks were developed; for example, ‘Science-fiction clubs attracted some, who corresponded with one another through the personal columns of the clubs’ newsletters’ (Licata 1980, 1978). The Mattachine Foundation was formed in 1953 with secret cells along the Communist model so as to avoid widescale discovery in the case of infiltration by outsiders, and an article in the Mattachine Review in 1955 explained that the society was named after late medieval societies of ‘unmarried townsmen who never performed in public unmasked’. In premodern times queers were said to gather in ‘secret synods’ – which historians should not dismiss as homophobic rhetoric. In more recent times there have certainly been secret homosexual societies, such as the Order of Chaeronea (named after the spot where the Sacred Band of Thebes fell) organized by George Cecil Ives (Weeks 1977). In America there were several semi-secret gay rights organizations about which little is known, such as the Sons of Hamidy around the turn of the century which was reorganized in 1934, the Knights of the Clock formed by the gay black man Merton Bird in 1949 to combat homophobia and racism, and the Cloistered Loyal Order of Conclaved Knights of Sophistacracy in 1951–52 (Licata 1980, 1978). It is not widely known that the largest homophile society in the world in 1970 was the Society of Anubis, a semi-secret organization with a thousand members and a ten-acre club site in the San Gabriel Valley, interested primarily in social and community programmes (Legg 1994).

Robert Martin, founder of the Gay Academic Union in America, in an interview in Gay News following the publication of his book The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry, observed that

In the teaching of English literature there is a kind of accepted tradition that an author’s gayness comes under the heading of gossip, that it has nothing to do with the work. It’s this English thing that gayness is an amusing eccentricity, you chat about it over tea, entre nous, but otherwise it should be avoided. I see it, and resent it, in the works of someone like A. L. Rowse who treats it like telling tales. [Reference to the Cambridge historian’s Homosexuals in History]

While I sympathize with Martin’s dislike of the somewhat smutty contextualization of such knowledge, thank goodness for gossips, without whom queer historians would hardly get anywhere in our research. ‘Secret history’ – that long tradition of scandalous memoirs and political smears – is essential to the compilation of queer history. Classic examples include Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars; Luca Ombrosi’s eighteenth-century Vita dei Medici sodomiti, biographical gossip about the last two rulers of the house of Medici; The Private Life of the King of Prussia, in which Voltaire reveals the homosexual relations of Frederick the Great (1712–86) and reprints Frederick’s Le Palladion, a privately printed defence of homosexuality, which Voltaire successfully smuggled out of Prussia although Frederick’s agents had his luggage searched.

The chroniques scandaleuse of eighteenth-century France have many references to secret gay and lesbian scandals. Such books are too often dismissed as libellous fictions, but they draw heavily upon contemporary gossip and insider information from court spies. Voluminous notes appended to the anonymous pederastic poem Don Leon (published sometime before 1853) help to document queer life in the early nineteenth century, while Henry Spencer Ashbee’s po-faced Bibliography of Prohibited Books (1877–85) helps us do the same for the mid-nineteenth century. Books dealing with curiosae are invaluable for queer historians.

Lesbian clubs – the Order of Anandrynes – are supposed to have flourished in Paris in the 1780s and are fully described in several secret histories such as Hic et Haec ou l’Eleve des RR.PP. Jesuites etc. (Berlin, 1798), La Cauchoise, etc. (London, 1788), Le Petit-Fils d’Hercule (1788), L’histoire de la secte anandryne, and Mairobet’s L’apologie de la Secte Anandryne and his more notorious L’espion Anglais (1779). Members supposedly included even married women such as the Marquise Terracenes, the wife of the Attorney General, and several actresses such as Mlle Arnould. Such ‘histories’ are imaginatively embellished and salacious, but the real reason why the leads they contain have not been seriously followed up is because lesbian and gay history is considered to be merely gossip not worth pursuing. To say that we know hardly anything about lesbian history, and then to say that gossip is not worth investigating, that it is pornographic ‘literature’ rather than history, is a dual bind that ensures that queers will always remain hidden from history.

Queer historians cannot afford to be as ‘strict’ as mainstream historians, who seldom allow much weight to anonymous works (as many secret histories are, if not pseudonymous) patently motivated by political animosity or private malice. But a good working hypothesis is that secret history is about 90 per cent accurate. The fact that defamatory accusations occur in the context of a political attack does not necessarily mean that the basic facts are untrue, only that they have been embellished so as to show the most negative aspect. Everyone who works in the news media knows a great many more facts than they are willing to publish, partly because of libel laws. When the British Government failed to equalize the age of consent for homosexual men and lowered it only to eighteen, demonstrators outside the Houses of Parliament chanted the names of alleged queers in John Major’s Cabinet; though done for the benefit of the television and newspaper reporters present, the chanting was not reported or broadcast. This kind of information is widely known and widely hinted at. Peter Tatchell’s (1996) article provocatively titled ‘Have You Slept With Michael Portillo?’ begins, ‘At least 15 gay MPs, including two cabinet ministers, have voted against equality since 1994.’

The homosexuality of many celebrated people is an ‘open secret’ while they are living, though it may not reach print until after their death. As the Observer commented when reporting on the disposal of the ‘155 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures of the male nude’ from the estate of Rudolf Nureyev at the end of 1995: it ‘tells us much about the dancer that was never made public while he was alive’. A kind of secret history finally becomes public knowledge at the death by violence of people not always widely known to have been gay: the suicide of Sir Hector MacDonald in 1903; the drowning, apparently as a lovers’ pact of joint suicide, of Rupert Buxton and Michael Llewellyn Davis in 1921 (one of the boys on whom J. M. Barrie modelled Peter Pan); the murder of García Lorca in 1936; the suicide of Alan Turing in 1954; the murder of Joe Orton by his lover in 1967; the murder of Marc Blitzstein by a hustler in 1968; the murder of Ramon Novarro by two hustlers in 1968; the hari-kari of Yukio Mishima in 1970; the suicides of Hart Crane, William Inge, Freidrich Alfred Krupp, F. O. Matthiessen, Charlotte Mew, Alfred Redl, Renée Vivien, James Whale, Virginia Woolf and many others. In recent decades, many rumours have been confirmed by death from AIDS.

A study of suicides (and murders disguised as suicide) in the past would no doubt turn up much queer material. A footman in the service of the Prince of Wales shot himself shortly after the Vere Street raid and trials in 1810, and a manservant of the Duke of Cumberland, the future King of Hanover, was discovered in the Duke’s bedroom in St James’s Palace with his throat cut. Cumberland said it was suicide, but the rumour was that he had killed the servant, who had discovered the Duke’s homosexual relations with his valet, who in the meantime had vanished. Cumberland took a close interest in the Vere Street case, and was in the Newgate press-yard to witness the hanging of two of the convicted men in 1811. When the rumour about Cumberland was published in 1813 the journalist was sentenced to fifteen months in prison; when it was published again in 1832, another journalist was sentenced to six months (Norton 1992). Further contemporary details of the affair appeared in 1861, in the gossipy Autobiography of Miss Cornelia Knight, Lady Companion to the Princess Charlotte of Wales.

To refuse to credit gossip and rumour merely on the grounds that they are gossip and rumour, is to seriously undervalue the validity of any sexual information that is not allowed a place in the conventional public record. There is no legitimate reason why the historian of private lives should not rely upon private records, of which secret histories are a prime example. The more secret the life, the more secret will be the source that reveals that life. It is imperative for the queer historian not to succumb to the mainstream prejudice against secret history, for secret history is queer history.

It is the duty of the queer historian to make public that which was private, to reveal that which has been suppressed. In so far as censorship is an incontrovertible fact, and the prejudicial rewriting of history/literature is a demonstrable fact, it seems to me that after we have recovered as many facts as possible, the still-existing gaps have to be filled in with a pro-queer interpretation rather than an apologetic admission of defeat. The ‘nature of the evidence’ is not so much that the evidence is limited, but that the signs of suppression are plainly evident. What I want to suggest on the basis of all the above is that the queer historian should not despair when confronted by the charge that we really do not have the ‘genital evidence’ to prove incontrovertibly that someone was queer, for we often have abundant evidence of suppression which in itself is sufficient confirmation of the likelihood of a queer interpretation. Queer historians should never apologize for basing queer history on context rather than text, on socio-cultural rather than sexual behaviour, on broad ‘queer’ paradigms rather than narrow ‘homosexual’ ones.


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Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be republished in whole without the permission of the author.

CITATION: Rictor Norton, "The Suppression of Lesbian and Gay History", 12 February 2005, updated 21 February 2010 <>

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