Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Queer City reveals a long tradition of gender-fluid Londoners

Peter Ackroyd's gay history spans from the Romans to the present day.

Fifty years of gay emancipation contrast with two thousand years of queer history in Peter Ackroyd’s survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender life in London. Queer City is both a commemoration and a celebration of “the ultimate triumph of London” and its diversity. Yet it also proves that it has ever been the case.

The Romans brought their brothels, catering to every requirement. “It has not been emphasised enough, perhaps due to the modesty of classicists, that Roman society was intensely phallocratic,” Ackroyd notes (with the assistance of his excellent researchers).

Thus Homo delicatus sashays down Lon­dinium’s streets, a proto-metrosexual who “daily perfumes himself and dresses before a mirror, whose eyebrows are trimmed, who walks abroad with beard plucked out and thighs made smooth”.

Long, loose clothing was suspect, as were tattoos. Gay women had their own heroines: female gladiators, who roused scorn. “How can a woman be decent,” Juvenal wrote, “sticking her head in a helmet, denying the sex she was born with?” The coming of Christianity challenged such Latin gender fluidity. But Ackroyd points out that when Pope Gregory I declared some enslaved Angles on sale in Rome to be “Non Angli, sed angeli” (“Not Angles, but angels”), the pontiff himself was accused of sodomy. And proscription even spawned a new word: “felony” has the same root as “fellatio”.

After Roman rule, other categories evol­ved in the taxonomy of desire, the gradation of need. Straight-acting Anglo-Saxon men who enjoyed sex with similarly masculine peers were known as “waepnedmen”. “Terms such as baedling or mollis” – perhaps the origin of 18th-century mollies – “also indicate some kind of permanent sexual identity, part of a passive subculture,” Ackroyd writes. “The participants may or may not have been ‘queer’ but no one could tell.”

It is this inconstancy, which seems so modern, that informs Ackroyd’s parade of otherness. He posits an Anglo-Saxon “third gender”, inspired by male corpses buried with grave goods more associated with women, and records female monks who cut their hair short and “dressed, worked and lived like men”. Twelve hundred years before Queen Victoria denied the existence of lesbians there were religious edicts against them: “If a woman has intercourse with another woman, she is to fast for three years.” Another ruling forbade the use of a “machina”, a medieval dildo.

When the Normans arrived in England even kings and princes turned queer: from William Rufus, who surrounded himself with young men with pointy shoes and hair in ringlets, to Richard the Lionheart, whose relationship with Philip II of France roused astonishment “at the passionate love between them”. This may have been a political as much as a sexual gesture, Ackroyd notes, asking in a typically dry aside: “Why else would you sleep with a king?”

Twelfth-century London was full of sodomites, “as many as the shells of the sea”, and Richard of Devizes compiled a cast list worthy of Lou Reed’s wild side: glabriones (smooth-skinned pretty boys), pusi­ones (hustlers), molles (effeminates) and mascularii (man-lovers). Thomas Malory mentions transvestite knights in chivalric contests; the Knights Templar were notorious for buggery; and Edward II’s disastrous attachment to Piers Gaveston scarcely bears retelling, what with all that in vitio sodomitico nimium delectabat (great delight in sodomy) ending with a red-hot poker. Yet the same monarch fathered five children, one of them illegitimate. As Ackroyd argues, “our modern descriptions of what is gay or queer need to be thoroughly revised in order to understand the past”.

Chaucer’s hairless, effeminate Pardoner is resurrected as a potential female transvestite or hermaphrodite. London has always had such shape-shifters hiding in plain sight. The law enabled the righteous to express moral outrage through sporadic culls in which offenders were sentenced to the stocks – which could easily end in death, because bricks were hurled as well as faeces. In 1533 the Buggery Act entered the statute books; elements of it remain part of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. “A new and brutal reality had entered the consciousness of Londoners,” Ackroyd writes. “You could die for deeds done in the dark.”

The 17th century swung between Puritan oppression and Stuart revelry: in 1629 five queer boys found on a boat bound for New England were stopped just in time, before they could infect the Pilgrim Fathers. But the 18th century brought a blossoming of queerness in all classes. Coal merchants and watermen adopted “impudent” cross-dressing personalities. Other men in drag went by the names of the Princess Seraphina or Primrose Mary – characters who wouldn’t have looked out of place at Leigh Bowery’s Taboo nightclub in 1985.

Most celebrated was the Chevalier d’Eon, who lived as a male in France until his twenties but became a female spy in St Petersburg in 1755, before serving as a captain in the dragoons and then switching back to being a woman in France. “I have been the plaything of Nature,” this real-life Orlando declared. “I have gone through all the strange vicissitudes of the human condition.”

So much of this story is about performance. Ackroyd cites Italo Calvino, who described how: “Cities, like dreams, are made up of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules absurd, their perspective deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” But the overt performance of mollies and tommies (their female equivalents) provoked a backlash. By the early 19th century – when executions for sodomy reached their peak, with over 80 men being hanged for the crime between 1806 and 1835 – “the queers were the enemy within”. The increasing social control on an uproarious city in an industrial era put paid to the carnival of queers and queens; and yet, at exactly the same time, some European countries were decriminalising sex between men.

Lesbians fared better by being somehow invisible, or less threatening. They could even join the forces in drag. Catherine Walsh, the “Chelsea Amazon”, fought with the Scots Greys and was wounded in action at the Battle of Ramillies in 1706. The Hellfire Club extended its invitation to lesbians. And in 1815 an unnamed black woman, aged 26, who had served as the foretop captain on a ship, featured in London as a prizefighter. “In her manner she exhibits all the traits of a British tar, and takes her grog with her late messmates with the greatest gaiety.”

As the queer meme passed on through London into the 20th century, it was increasingly subject to control, from the Pemberton Billing trial of 1918, which converted lingering suspicion of Oscar Wilde into war hysteria and homophobia, to the trauma of the punitive 1980s, when queerness once more became the subject of legislation in Section 28 – the repeal of which our present Prime Minister voted against in 2000.

The nature of this “unnatural” history is often horrific. But is it indeed history at all? Such violence is still being inflicted on LGBT people in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This book necessarily dwells on the dramatic. What is missing from it is ordinary people whose sexual identities were not expressed publicly, and whose names and preferences never entered the record books. But by shining a light in dark places, Ackroyd has created a triumphantly queer picture of a city he loves – a city as queer as any other.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare (Fourth Estate) is published in July

Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day
Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus, 264pp, £16.99​

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

Photo: Channel 4
Show Hide image

Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers


Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1


This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2


James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3


Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4


Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures


Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6


Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7


Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8


Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9



Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)


Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 


Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.