Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform

UpchurchCharles Upchurch is Assistant Professor of History at Florida State University. He is also the author of Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (UC Press, March 2009). In his blog entry below, Upchurch talks about his motivation for the book.


By: Charles Upchurch

In some ways this book harkens back to an earlier tradition of “gay history,” because at its core is the idea that there is value in demonstrating that same-sex desire and the individuals motivated by it were always visible within society. I could have finished it years earlier, but I extended the primary research phase to be able to prove that in this period between 1820 and 1870, when most scholars believed that discussion of same-sex desire was all but nonexistent within the public sphere in Britain, mainstream newspapers reported on trials related to sex between men multiple times in almost every year. You couldn’t read the newspaper, especially in the 1840s, and not encounter these reports. Sure, this behavior was “unspeakable” in most all of the novels, personal letters, and other written records surviving from the early and mid nineteenth century, but here it wasn’t.

In many ways, I think what I’ve tapped into is the conversation that allowed the broader silence to exist. Norms of gender and sexuality are often presented within the culture that spawns them as “natural” and “self-evident,” and yet what the research of the past two generations has shown is that they’re anything but. Norms of behavior change over time, and the lessons have to be relearned or re-inscribed on a continual basis. The way the state enforced laws related to sex between men changed in the 1820s, and the courts and the newspapers were central to disseminating the new rules over what was and what was not acceptable.

I’ve also been able to find unpublished court documentation and personal letters of involved individuals, and while this has helped me to flesh out my understanding of motivations, in many ways I’m less excited about it than what I’ve found in the public sphere. The ubiquity of this material in the newspapers has to change what we assume the average nineteenth-century Briton knew.

Not only was I surprised by the amount of material I found publicly circulating, but equally surprising was the degree to which women and families were central to these stories of sex between men. Usually when family is a topic in these kinds of studies, it’s about the new families that men have created with other similarly motivated men. While that’s an important story to tell, at least for my period the actions of mothers, sisters, wives, and fathers are a lot more prominent. It has been a revelation for me to get beyond the rhetoric of the elite men of the time, and discover that ties of family were often stronger than the cultural stigma attached to “the worst of crimes.”

I’ve been piecing together a very different image of sex between men in the mid Victorian period for some years, and I’m very happy to finally be at the point where I can share it with other interested readers.

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