Queer City reveals a long tradition of gender-fluid Londoners

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

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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 www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

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