LGBT History - Resources, Tips and Ideas
The histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people can be difficult to trace; throughout history such people have, for religious, social, and/or personal reasons, been forced to conceal this facet of their lives, and in many cases their stories are only now coming to the surface. Knowing where to start researching this subject can seem a daunting task. Some work has been undertaken at the WSHC to try and find out what exactly these archives could hold in terms of insights into the lives of LGBT people in the past. The resources and hints on this page are by no means exhaustive, and are simply a compilation of what has been found to work so far.
Criminal records – male homosexual behaviour was illegal until 1967, so evidence of men being convicted of such can be found in, for example, records from the Wiltshire Court of Quarter Sessions. Calendars of Prisoners are a good place to start.
Newspapers – for further information on criminal cases, but also articles containing reactions to the passing of new laws regarding homosexuality.
Council policy documents – for example, council health policies on HIV/AIDS and gender reassignment issues.
Books – in the Local Studies Library there are books on some of the more well known LGBT figures from the county, such as William Beckford.
Tips for research
Terms – Throughout history various terms have been used for LGBT people. One of the things to remember when researching LGBT history is that the language used to describe homosexual activity is very different to what might be used today and may be shocking to the modern reader, many of them will seem bizarre or offensive. However, they are often the best things to look out for if you want to find any relevant material. People can be referred to as deviant, immoral, an invert or a sodomite; homosexual criminal offences are frequently referred to as gross indecency, obscene, abominable, unnatural or offences ‘against the order of nature,’ and occasionally sodomy or buggery. It is a stark reminder of the overriding attitudes towards homosexuality, especially during the 19th century, and the kind of labels that would have been applied to some people that they may not have been able to escape for the rest of their lives.
Gender – because of the nature of the laws surrounding homosexuality (lesbian activity was never made illegal in this country) it is very difficult to find any reference to female homosexuality. Do not be disheartened if you only find male examples, unless you have a specific individual you are investigating.
Mental health – whilst it is true that historically some LGBT people have been treated as mentally ill and placed in institutions, there has so far been little evidence of this happening in Wiltshire mental hospitals. Only attempt to research this if you have a specific individual to look for, and bear in mind that most records cannot be accessed until they are 100 years old.
More advice on researching LGBT history can be found on the National Archives’ website (see link below).