Out of the past and in the pink

A Gay History of Britain

June 1, 2007

In November 2005, the Metropolitan Police in London hosted a gala launch of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) History Month. Barely 50 years after the Met had famously launched what was widely believed to be (if inaccurately, according to this book) a concerted witchhunt against London queers, the police service in the capital was now presenting itself as being in the vanguard of a new era of toleration and acceptance. Live and let live, the best hope of the 1950s, had, it seemed, become live and let love. The cover of this book wittily reminds us of this dramatic and, one hopes, irreversible shift: an image by the urban artist Banksy of two policemen kissing.

The temptation in a book of this kind, which explores the history of male homosexuality in Britain over a thousand years (a lesbian companion history is promised), is to read that history in evolutionary terms, a sort of Whiggish queer history, in which the more or less enlightened present is the ineluctable result of a struggle from darkness into light.

The authors wisely eschew such an approach. This is partly because our historic present is scarcely paradisial - a culture where small boys habitually use the word "gay" as a casual term of abuse, with the support of the BBC, and where a prominent businessman such as Lord Browne is too embarrassed to be open about his sexuality, and as a result gets himself tangled in fatal white lies, has yet to find itself totally at ease with sexual diversity, despite all the remarkable changes that have taken place. More significantly, however, is the fact that there is no single or simple history from which a contemporary emancipation can easily emerge. As the book shows exceptionally well, homosexuality has been structured dramatically differently at different periods.

This is not a history of a fixed sexual minority because such a notion did not exist before the 18th century and was not widely accepted until the 20th. Nor can it be a minority history because you cannot understand homosexuality historically without understanding the wider organisation of sexuality at any particular time. Even the main title of the book carries an ambiguity. As Matt Cook says in his introduction, the term "gay" itself has a very culturally specific meaning that cannot be applied easily to the 19th century, let alone the 12th. There cannot be a single "gay history" of Britain except in the very narrow sense that this is a history written by gay men. The subtitle is a much more accurate descriptor of what we are reading: an account of love and sex between men since the Middle Ages. And that simple sentence itself hides a variety of ways of being.

The authors of this book are extremely well placed to unravel these complexities, combining the magisterial expertise of a pioneer historian of sexuality (Randolph Trumbach, whose first essay on homosexuality in 18th-century London appeared in the 1970s) with the enthusiasm and commitment of talented and theoretically sophisticated younger historians. Each contribution brings a distinctive perspective, reflecting the different modes of understanding required for different periods.

Robert Mills's focus is on the ambiguities of intimate relationships in the Middle Ages, exploring the "blurred spaces" between brotherhood, friendship, companionship, love and marriage. Trumbach's concerns are with the structuring of same-sex relationships and the different systems of desire from the early modern period, comparing the absence of a distinctive minority sense of being in the Renaissance with its still largely unexplained emergence in the 18th century. H. G. Cocks unravels the "secrets, crimes and diseases" of the long 19th century to 1914, while Cook explores the making and remaking of queer life from the First World War to the present.

There are some errors that need to be corrected for later editions. Havelock Ellis was not "an Australian doctor", although he did spend formative time in Australia. Aubrey Walter, not Walker, was a founder of the London Gay Liberation Front. Gay News was first published in 1972, not 1974.

But this is a very worthwhile project, which brings together some of the best insights of modern scholarship. Here we have a very readable history that refuses simple categorisations while providing vivid insights into the complex ways in which sexuality and intimacy are organised. Mills asks for a "more unruly understanding of sex and love" than is usually allowed us by historians of sexuality. This offers an unruly history at its best.

Jeffrey Weeks is professor of sociology at London South Bank University.

A Gay History of Britain: Love and Sex between Men since the Middle Ages

Author - Matt Cook, Robert Mills, Randolph Trumbach and H. G. Cocks
Publisher - Greenwood World Publishing
Pages - 256
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 9781846450020

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