Studying the history of sexuality and gender identity can be difficult. Many of the terms we use today to describe Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people only appeared for the first time in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In addition, religious and cultural attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity often limited the extent to which such things could be openly discussed and explored, using ambiguous or critical language and imagery. As such this is a history that is still, in many ways, in its infancy, with new sources and new stories to discover.
This introductory guide aims to uncover some of this hidden history, particularly within the records held at the Borthwick. It describes some of the main collections of documents which may include relevant material. To illustrate this, you can also link to the stories of three individuals whose stories are a part of LGBTQ+ history. These case studies demonstrate how the story of an individual can be pieced together from different sources at the Borthwick together with material from other archives. None of these case histories are complete and we would welcome any suggestions or new insights into the stories they tell. Suggestions of records which may help are given.
Institutional attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity are an important area of study. Amongst the Borthwick's holdings, the records of the established Church, both before and after the Reformation, give information about its attitudes towards sexual behaviour and gender conformity. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Church had a series of courts in each diocese, hearing cases on a variety of subjects. These included charges against people accused of sodomy, a word which had a number of meanings (at least until the eighteenth century) but could include accusations of sexual relations with members of the same sex. Records of these cases do not often survive in ecclesiastical archives. The earliest known survival in England is a fourteenth century case amongst the records of the secular court of the Corporation of London concerning a male sex worker called John Rykener who ‘dressed up as a woman’. A full transcription of the case is available on the internet and names a number of other people, men and women, who knew of, or assisted Rykener.
Among the court records of the Diocese of York, a notable case of this kind is that of Edward Hewitson of Over Poppleton, near York, who was accused of engaging in homosexual behaviour with other men over a period of fourteen years in 1516-1517. More details about the Hewitson case can be found on our website. An even earlier case, which has yet to be studied, can be found in the register of William Melton, Archbishop of York. In 1321 Thomas, Rector of Lowthorpe, was brought up on the charge of ‘sodomy’ with Roger Pell of Hedon. The recent digitisation and indexing of the York archbishops’ registers demonstrates how new information can be found even in our oldest records, bringing to light cases and individuals that might have previously been overlooked.
Homosexuality has increasingly become an area for discussion in the Church of England. Debates can be followed in the General Synod's papers and reports (including their papers on human sexuality): the annual summer meeting of the synod is held in York and copies of many of these papers are in the Borthwick. The correspondence of individual bishops and clergymen may also prove to include discussion of such issues. The Borthwick also holds the records of members of Church of England communities with particular concerns with contemporary theology and pastoral issues, such as the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield and the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham.
Attitudes of the medical establishment towards sexuality and gender identity have yet to be fully explored. The records of the York psychiatric hospitals at Bootham and Clifton and the private psychiatric hospital The Retreat include extensive patients' case records and admissions registers from the late eighteenth century onwards. Same-sex attraction or aversion to marriage, for example, could be interpreted as mental illness, and those who might in modern terms be described as LGTBQ+ were subject to mental health treatment. A study of these may well reveal patients whose problems relate to their sexuality or gender identity (particularly amongst women diagnosed as nymphomaniacs or as frigid) and provide information about how doctors saw and treated these patients and whether attitudes changed over time.
Please note that data protection legislation restricts access to records less than 100 years old and researchers wishing to use twentieth century medical records should contact the Borthwick for further information.
LGBTQ+ history frequently makes use of biographical case-studies. Standard sources should not be overlooked when piecing together LGBTQ+ biographies: it is always worth looking at family letters and papers, records of baptisms, marriages and burials and probate records. At the Borthwick we hold wills for the majority of Yorkshire up to 1858, as well as some wills of those from other parts of northern England, and parish records for the city of York and approximately twenty miles round. We also hold some relevant microfilms of diaries. These resources enable us to provide information about famous women identified as lesbians such as Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, known as The Ladies of Llangollen, whose diaries are on microfilm, and Anne Lister of Shibden Hall in Halifax. Anne Lister's case study shows that whilst the bulk of the Lister family records are held by the West Yorkshire Archive Service there is also important biographical material about Anne and her partners at the Borthwick.
The archives can also shed light on the stories of other, less famous men and women. An intriguing example of this is the case of Barbara Hill, who in 1757 married Ann Steel at Bolton Percy, near York, under the name of John Brown. The marriage took place without controversy but later a note had been added, stating that Brown was ‘afterwards discovered to be a woman dressed in man's apparel and of course separated from the said Ann Steel’. A full discussion of the Barbara Hill case can be read at this link. It demonstrates how parish records can be combined with other contemporary sources to add depth and context to such an unusual register entry, and raises the question of what other, similar stories are still waiting to be found.