Many library collections contain rich stories of individuals across centuries who transgressed sexual and gender norms, as well as documentation of the people and systems against which they transgressed. These historical artifacts can help shape new narratives around queer history and identity, or enrich old ones. Coded language and oblique references may pose challenges to researchers, but there is a wealth of material to find on queer people throughout history.
Last November, Houghton Library hosted a program led by writer, educator, and bookseller Brooke Palmieri, titled “A Queer View of History: Finding Gender Non-Conformity in the Library.” This program inspired us to examine our own and other collections more closely. Each case in this exhibit highlights a different approach to researching queer history: using known figures, embracing uncomfortable terms, being open to the unexpected, and using secondary sources. Although we explored a number of fascinating stories, our research barely scratched the surface. We encourage researchers to continue the exploration, and we hope this exhibit will give you some tools to get started.
We paid special attention to the question of language in this exhibit. Wary of assigning labels to individuals who cannot speak for themselves, we have not sought to label the people highlighted here. We used the language that individuals used for themselves when it was available, and employed “they/them” for individuals whose personal pronouns are not well established historically.
This exhibit was curated by AJ Blechner, Anna Martin, and Mary Person. It was on view September 4, 2019 - February 14, 2020.
Many LGBTQ+ historical figures - such as Oscar Wilde and the Chevalier d’Eon - remain cultural icons to this day. Starting with a familiar name, such as Alfred Kinsey, can help researchers identify items in archival collections, shedding new light on old stories. Full text search options are often not available for archival collections, but researchers can identify collections with notable figures by using research guides and collection descriptions such as online finding aids. Contemporary or older books on historical figures may also shed light on how a particular person was viewed over time. The ongoing work of queer theorists furthers our knowledge of historical figures who are becoming part of a more nuanced understanding of history. You can find this discourse in journals, articles, and books through the HOLLIS catalog.
Author and playwright Oscar Wilde was arrested and tried—twice—for “acts of gross indecency.” He received the maximum sentence of two years of hard labor and it was in Reading Gaol, once considered a model Victorian prison, where Wilde spent most of his incarceration.
Image credit: Front View of Reading Gaol, T.J. Rawlins, lithographer, in Prison discipline, and the advantages of the separate system of imprisonment … now pursued in the new County Gaol, at Reading, John Field, London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1848, HOLLIS 990029375670203941
The language used to describe gender and sexual minorities has changed substantially over time and continues to evolve. However, the language used in historical materials is fixed and it helps to know the terms used during any particular period. Searching outdated and uncomfortable keywords may be necessary to conduct effective research. Language used to discuss people and practices that were considered transgressive in their times has varied widely across eras, cultures, classes, and languages. Several terms that we found effective in finding relevant results included: sodomy, inversion, urning, female husband, abominable offence, and unnatural or detestable crime. To learn about more terms that were used to describe queer people historically, visit the resources section of this website.
There are several popular press trial accounts of the 1817 trial and conviction of Reverend John Church (1780-ca. 1825), for attempted sodomy. His status as a popular and controversial preacher only added to the scandal and public curiosity. You can see on the title page of this account the term "abominable offence."
Image credit: Title page of The trial and conviction of that infamous hypocrite John Church, ..., Fourth edition, London: John Fairburn, [1817?], HOLLIS 990043804900203941
Be Open to the Unexpected
When conducting research, it is always helpful to be open to unexpected discoveries. In historical materials, language describing people who may have transgressed gender norms and sexual practices of the time was often coded or veiled, requiring the audience to read between the lines. A librarian or archivist is an invaluable resource and may have knowledge of materials not discoverable in the HOLLIS catalog or readily accessible. Academic literature on queer theory and historical analysis is also available to help newer researchers decode the deeper meaning in such materials. Other times, these interpretations may be speculative and an opportunity for a researcher to make compelling new contributions to this ongoing discussion.
The notoriety of Mary Frith, a.k.a. Moll Cutpurse (ca. 1584-1659) bordered on legend even in her own day. A London thief and sometime actor and pimp, she was the subject of gossip and stage plays. She quickly acquired a reputation for being an aggressive, lewd, and rowdy “roaring girl” and for dressing as a man, drinking, and smoking tobacco in public, challenging the societal view of gender roles.
Image credit: Detail of engraving Mary Frith, or Moll Cut-Purse, Criminals: Prints and Photographs Collection, Box 1, Folder 41, HOLLIS 990068529090203941
Secondary sources are typically a good place to begin research. This is especially true when searching for archival and other unique primary source materials that may not have been digitized or may not be available with full-text searching. Secondary sources with strong bibliographies or footnotes such as William Eskridge’s 2008 book, Dishonorable passions: sodomy laws in America, 1861-2003, can be valuable tools for locating historical and primary source materials in archives and special collections. If you find a secondary source in your area of interest, check the other sources the author consulted; you might find material they chose not to include, leading to a wealth of additional information.
Some resources that may be helpful in researching LGBTQ+ history.
- Old Bailey Online :The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913. Includes information on legal context of homosexuality, prosecutions, cultures of homosexuality, lesbianism, search strategies, introductory reading, and an extensive bibliography.
- Homosexuality in Eighteenth-century England: A Sourcebook
- GLBT Historical Society
- Lesbian Herstory Archives
- Wikipedia Timeline of LGBT History
- Archive of Sexuality and Gender (database)
- Digital Transgender Archive
- ACT UP Oral History Project