Researching LGBTQ+ history

The criminalization, stigmatisation and persecution of the LGBTQ+ community has made researching LGBTQ+ history a challenge. Throughout history people have for religious, social and personal reasons been forced to conceal this aspect of their lives. You’ll often see it referred to as a ‘hidden history’. Knowing where to start researching this subject can seem a daunting task. 

Homosexuality and sex between men was made an illegal act in 1553.  With punishments ranging from hanging, to the pillory and ‘chemical rehabilitation’, fines and hard labour, it’s easy to understand why members of the LGBTQ+ community would not have openly advertised their lives.

The National Archives has useful guidance on researching gay, lesbian and bisexual histories, and following consultation with LGBTQ+ history researchers, they have also included information about researching transgender and gender identity history. In the past, the state often combined gender identity and sexuality meaning that references are often found in the same types of records. As an area of study which is still in its infancy The National Archives’ guide on Sexuality and Gender Identity History is a great resource for both researchers and archive repositories which may hold relevant records, including which sources can be searched online.

The state has played a major role in oppressing, controlling and censoring the lives of LGBTQ+ people whom it considered a threat to the ‘natural’ order of society.  As a result, the main sources of information tend be court and police records and those outlining policy and legislation, reflecting society’s attitude towards homosexuality over time.  Lesbian lives are almost invisible in this historical record as female homosexuality was never criminalised.  This often leaves us with a negative view of LGBTQ+ history. 

Searching for LGBTQ+ history in traditional family history resources can be particularly difficult simply because this information was not asked for. Census returns, for example, did not ask for a person’s sexual orientation.  Many of the main sources of records used by family historians are related to births and marriages.  You may be left to ‘read between the lines’ with regards to information you find, for example, same sex single persons living together.

Descriptions and how to search

When you consult original records, it is useful to be aware of the different terms that have been used for sexuality and gender identity, and for the offences which people were charged with, and that this language has changed over time. The term homosexuality, for example, was not used with its contemporary meaning until the end of the 19th century. Many terms used in historical records are considered offensive today, reflecting the attitudes of the time.

Identifying records relating to sexuality and gender identity is particularly difficult as catalogue descriptions may not always make it clear that they contain relevant material and many sources are not immediately obvious. Here at Derbyshire Record Office we work hard to improve the descriptions on our online catalogue in order to make material easier to find.

Below are some historical terms to consider when searching for and consulting archive material. The list contains terminology which you may find offensive:

Historical terms relating to sexuality: character defect, pervert, queer, deviant, immoral, invert, sapphism, sodomite, tribade

Historical terms for relevant criminal offences: unnatural offences, unnatural act, against the order of nature, buggery, disorderly house, gross indecency, importuning, indecency, obscenity, sexual offences, sodomy, soliciting, street offences

Historical terms relating to gender identity: males in female attire, females in male attire, female husband, cross-dressing, hermaphrodite, masquerading, sex change, change of sex, transvestite, gender, gender recognition, transsexuals

Records to consult

Records of crime and punishment – As male homosexuality was illegal until 1967 the legal control of homosexual sex has created the bulk of surviving LGBTQ+ relevant archives in county record offices.  For example, Calendars of Prisoners, found within the records of the court of Quarter Sessions, provide lists of prisoners held before trial.  They provide the prisoner’s name, crime and date of arrest. See the record office’s guide to the records of crime and punishment for more information.  

Extract from a Calendar of Prisoners dating from 1879, recording “a crime against the order of nature”

Divorce records – The homosexuality of one partner was often cited in divorce proceedings.  Divorce records aren’t held at county record offices but certain records of divorce prior to 1937 can be found at The National Archives  . Case files dating from 1858-1916 can be viewed online via Ancestry. For legal proof of divorce in England or Wales since 1858 to the present, go to the GOV.UK website.

Hospitals and health – in the past LGBTQ+ men and women were perceived as mentally ill.  The records of hospitals, particularly asylums, may contain admissions of gay, lesbian and transsexual people.  Bear in mind that hospital records dating within 100 years are likely to be unavailable under General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). Search our catalogue for records of hospitals and asylums.

Local Authority records – these can be consulted when tracing the implementation and repeal of laws.  For example, the implementation of the Wolfenden recommendations in 1967 which legalised homosexual acts between consenting adults and Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 (repealed in 2003). This controversial amendment stated that a local authority should “not intentionally promote homosexuality, or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” nor “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. 

Papers of individuals and family collections – diaries, letters and photographs can be sources of information.

Same sex institutions – same sex institutions, such as same-sex schools and prisons presented a constant source of concern for those in authority.  Where there are large groups of men, or women, these will often be material recount anxieties about homosexuality. See our guide to the records of schools and colleges. Try looking in punishment books, minutes and correspondence relating to these institutions, GDPR permission permitting, of course.

Local Studies collections – articles can be found within newspapers, periodicals and published works on LGBTQ+ subjects or by LGBTQ+ authors.  See a previous LGBT History Month blog post for examples from the record office collection

From our Local Authors collection – ‘Born this Way: the life of Joshua’ by Brett Bradley-Howarth.  A coming of age story about Joshua, growing up as a young man coming to terms with being gay

Other sources:

Our blog post from earlier this month on Gay Rights pioneer Edward Carpenter and his Chesterfield connections

The LGBT Archive (formerly the LGBT UK History Project)

England’s LGBTQ Heritage on Historic England website

If you would like to help us improve our collections for LGBTQ+ communities, we’d love to hear from you.

3 thoughts on “Researching LGBTQ+ history

  1. Pingback: Local and Community History | Derbyshire Record Office

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