In the last couple of years I’ve become one of those people who spend their spare time scouring the internet to find out where I came from. Family History Research is big business now, thanks mainly to the decision, some years back, to put census data on line. There are literally millions of home detectives out there now, signing up to sites such as Ancestry and Find My Past, and making use of free facilities such as Family Search.
Without leaving the relative comfort of my own desk chair, I have discovers a Great-times-11 set of grandparents who were alive in the 1500’s, and many other ancestors from around that time too. I’ve seen hundreds of census sheets, parish registers (this is a UK ancestor hunt you understand) and other pieces of information. I have discovered that a great-grandfather went bankrupt, my great-grandmother had a child, my grandmother, before she was married, I’ve found ancestors who were vicars, farmers, respected townspeople and craftsmen, and the search has taken me from Ireland to Essex.
But I have not found any gay ancestors. Or have I?
Actually I know for a fact that I had a gay uncle, so if you subscribe to the view that it ‘runs in the family’ then there must have been others. In fact just talking statistically there must have been hundreds of others. But how do you know? This information isn’t on census sheets. Here are a few of my thoughts for anyone interested in researching their gay ancestors.
By definition, most gay ‘ancestors’ won’t actually be ancestors unless they had children. So they’re more likely to be unmarried, or at least, childless siblings of ancestors. Having said that, of course, there will be many gay people from the past who will have had children, King James I of England being one who immediately springs to mind, Oscar Wilde another.
It’s also worth thinking, or finding out, how the law treated gay people at various times in history, and you should always put your ancestors in the context in which they existed. I think it was in Henry VIII’s reign that gay sex, though it wasn’t called that then, was made a capital crime. And it’s worth looking at the vocabulary through the ages too. Example: bear in mind that sodomy comes from Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible (itself drawn on ancient Babylonian stories) because the sin of Sodom was thought to have been, well, Sodomy. The men there tried to… ‘shag’ the angel God sent them. Which is interesting in itself because it clearly shows that angels must have been men. But I digress.
You may know that in the UK lesbianism was never recognised, and lesbians were effectively invisible (Queen Victoria refused to allow anything in law because she didn’t believe it existed). And yet throughout history there have always been obvious lesbian relationships, a single woman and her companion for example. This is often difficult to call, though, as a single (possibly ugly) woman would have no choice but to have a woman companion in those days.
But once again you are left to draw conclusions only. Where is the hard evidence? Well, I recently saw a parish book, from around 1700, where it was written against a burial entry that the man buried was killed for ‘importuning…’ and there then followed another man’s name. A suggestion that this man was gay, or had gotten drunk and ‘tried it on’ but either way it’s not totally hard evidence.
So, apart from getting your hands on criminal records for any ancestors who ran foul of the law, you’re only ever going to discover the odd hint about a person’s sexuality. It’s ever only going to be circumstantial. And often, anything that looks like it might be a clue quite often isn’t because of the “innocence of the period”. Another example: in Victorian times it was quite unremarkable for an older boy to be seen walking around with his arm round the shoulder of a younger one, and it may well have been perfectly innocent.
A lot has to do with the mind and social attitudes. Today, only one conclusion would be drawn. And consequently, anyone ‘innocent’ wouldn’t even run the risk of doing anything that looked ‘suspicious’.
I finish with a thought about a great-uncle who, during his life, never married, ended up living with his aunt, and who travelled around the country working in various public houses and hotels. Was he a gay wanderer in the late 19th and early 20th century, or just a man who never found the right woman to wed? I shall never know.