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Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender history


Studying Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender history can be difficult. Even the very words we use today to describe lesbian and gay people only appeared for the first time in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and many historians would argue that the concept of homosexuality, as a separate identity, dates no earlier than the 1700s.

This page aims to help begin 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 LGBT history. These case studies demonstrate how the story of an individual can be pieced together from different sources at the Borthwick together with some material from other archives. None of these case histories is complete, and an interested researcher may well be able to add to this information. Suggestions of records which may help are given.

The Church

Institutions' attitudes towards homosexuality are an important area of study. Amongst the Borthwick's holdings, the records of the Church, both before and after the Reformation, give information about its attitudes towards sexual behaviour. 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 prostitute: this is available on the internet. Amongst the records of the diocese of York , the only known survival of a case concerning sodomy with men is that of Edward Hewitson, in 1516-1517.

Church papers

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 recent 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 information on morality. 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.

Medical records

Other institutional attitudes towards sexuality have not yet been explored. The records of the York psychiatric hospitals at Bootham and Clifton and the private hospital The Retreat include extensive patients' case records and admissions registers for the nineteenth century. Strong same-sex attraction or aversion to marriage could be interpreted as mental illness and those who might in modern terms be described as homosexual 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. The Data Protection Act affects records less than 100 years old and researchers wishing to use twentieth century records should get advice from the Health Trust Archivist.


LGBT history frequently makes use of biographical case-studies. Standard sources should not be overlooked when piecing together LGBT biographies: it is always worth looking at family 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 The Ladies of Llangollen (whose diaries are on film) and Anne Lister. 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, for example that of Barbara Hill who travelled the country disguised as a man in the mid-eighteenth century.