February 13, 2020 at 12:36 pm PST | by John Paul King
200-year-old journal challenges notions about historical attitudes toward homosexuality

Image courtesy BBC News.

The writings of a Yorkshire farmer in a 200-year-old journal have revealed that historical attitudes toward homosexuality may have been more sympathetic than previously suspected – at least in Great Britain.

BBC News reports that historians from Oxford University were taken aback by entries in the 1810 diary of Matthew Tomlinson, a widower in his 40s with “middling income” whose writings expressed comparatively open-minded views about same-sex attraction, including saying that he regarded it as being a “natural” human tendency.

The discovery challenges preconceived notions about how “ordinary people” viewed homosexuality, revealing that there was wider debate over the subject than previously assumed. Although more accepting views toward homosexuality are known to have been expressed privately by more educated, “philosophically radical” individuals of the era, and though Tomlinson was writing around the same time as that of another Yorkshire diarist, Anne Lister, who wrote coded details of her lesbian relationships into her own journal, the idea of a rural worker even having such opinions, let alone being willing to express them, is one which shifts the perspective on the way LGBTQ people have been viewed in history.

Oxford researcher Eamonn O’Keeffe, a doctoral student who has been examining the diary, told the BBC that the diary shows liberal ideas about homosexuality were “percolating through British society much earlier and more widely than we’d expect.”

“In this exciting new discovery,” he said, “we see a Yorkshire farmer arguing that homosexuality is innate and something that shouldn’t be punished by death.

“What’s striking is that he’s an ordinary guy, he’s not a member of the bohemian circles or an intellectual. It shows opinions of people in the past were not as monolithic as we might think – even though this was a time of persecution and intolerance towards same-sex relationships, here’s an ordinary person who is swimming against the current and sees what he reads in the paper and questions those assumptions.”

Tomlinson’s private diaries, which span the years 1806 – 1839, have been in Yorkshire’s Wakefield Library since the 1950s and are presumed to be part of an earlier acquisition of old books and documents. There are three surviving volumes, with another eight presumably lost.

The entries in question concern a scandal of the day in which a respected naval surgeon had been court-martialed and sentenced to death after being caught engaging in homosexual activity. In his journal, the farmer expressed his Tomlinson dissatisfaction with the decision, questioning the newspapers’ characterization of such behavior as “unnatural,” and arguing from a religious perspective that punishing someone for how they were created was implied that the Creator Himself was at fault.

In an entry from January 14, 1810, he wrote, “It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty should make a being with such a nature, or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whom he had formed, should at any time follow the dictates of that Nature, with which he was formed, he should be punished with death.”

The farmer went on to write that if there was an “inclination and propensity” for someone to be homosexual from an early age, “it must then be considered as natural, otherwise as a defect in nature – and if natural, or a defect in nature, it seems cruel to punish that defect with death”.

Tomlinson also refers to being informed by others that homosexuality is apparent from an early age – indicating there had been discussions between the diarist and members of his social circle about the case, and that the subject matter was not unknown to them.

As forward-thinking as his opinions might seem, the 19th-century farmer still had plenty of room to evolve. He also made what O’Keefe calls the “extremely jarring” concession that if someone was homosexual “by choice, rather than by nature,” that he was willing to consider punishment as an acceptable option – though he favored the “more moderate” approach of castrating the offender, rather than sentencing them to death by hanging.

Still, O’Keefe says the discovery has both “enriched and complicated” our understanding of public opinion in the pre-Victorian era.

The journal has drawn international interest from historians, such as LGBTQ history expert Rictor Norton, who said, “It is extraordinary to find an ordinary, casual observer in 1810 seriously considering the possibility that sexuality is innate and making arguments for decriminalization.”

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