1810 Farmer's View of Homosexuality
February 13, 2020 6:42 PM   Subscribe

From the BBC: "A diary written by a Yorkshire farmer more than 200 years ago is being hailed as providing remarkable evidence of tolerance towards homosexuality in Britain much earlier than previously imagined."
posted by NotLost (20 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
Memory of an NPR interview I heard years ago-- this about a book by a gay man who went around the US interviewing people, and he concluded that farmers only cared about whether people were good neighbors (reliable and helpful), not their sexual orientation.

People in small towns had enough slack to be homophobic.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:47 PM on February 13 [9 favorites]


There’s a reference to a male couple in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford, her novel/memoir of rural Oxfordshire in the 1880s. They were old pensioned-off soldiers who minded their own business, and although apparently boys threw rocks at their windows, they seem to have been more or less accepted, or at least if they weren’t, it was because they had been off in foreign parts for so long.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:06 PM on February 13 [4 favorites]


I found it really interesting to read that not only did he document his notions, he discussed them openly with his friends.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:30 PM on February 13 [5 favorites]


This sounds like the diary of a man who was Questioning
posted by sixswitch at 8:27 PM on February 13


he concluded that farmers only cared about whether people were good neighbors (reliable and helpful), not their sexual orientation.

Gay. Grew up on a farm. Bullshit.
posted by great_radio at 9:39 PM on February 13 [23 favorites]


...remarkable evidence of tolerance towards homosexuality in Britain..

Fascinating to have such diaries but what a strange framing. It seems like an enormous inference from one isolated case.

Also, tolerance in this case means the farmer was for castration instead of the death penalty. So basically the tolerance shown toward Alan Turing in the 1950's.
posted by vacapinta at 12:12 AM on February 14 [13 favorites]


Also, tolerance in this case means the farmer was for castration instead of the death penalty.

As someone born and bred in Yorkshire, this is a Yorkshire farmer we are talking about (and the description of him in the article as 'dour' bears this out). The default is that people should be miserable. Castration is inducing somewhat more misery than Yorkshire-farmer-acceptable levels, but only a bit more.

Also, his farm was about 15 minutes walk from the park that used to be the city's main cruising/cottaging area (though wouldn't be a park until decades after his death, so probably not a factor in his thinking, but an interesting coincidence).
posted by Vortisaur at 12:44 AM on February 14 [3 favorites]


The framing here feels messy, like the idea from the article that bohemians, intellectuals, (some) aristocrats and philosophical radicals were nature's innate anti-homophobes while everyone else was clearly, naturally an innate homophobe.

It feels too close to the neat-but-false narrative that homosexuality and gender nonconformity have always been hated, demonised and persecuted, apart from in the last forty or fifty years when beautiful liberal winds of tolerance have blown through society and caused the scales to fall from most people's eyes. Whereas the truth is closer to "people have felt very differently about these things, at different times in history and in different places geographically"; it feels weirdly reductive to run with the primary assumption that anyone in the past must have been inherently intolerant of things that recent history has had an evolving tolerance relationship with.

It's the kind of thing that seems like it should make sense but doesn't account for actual history, like the way that every generation seems to fall into the trap of "we are the only enlightened humans who have ever lived because of social/technological advances x and y, and all the humans who lived before us must have been inherently less civilised as they didn't have those advances, or the capacity to make such advances."

It also runs the risk of erasing pre-colonial and indigenous attitudes towards sexuality and gender by bundling the views of those societies in with the mass of "historical people less civilised than we are now, who held monolithic attitudes towards things that we modern civilised people now have different attitudes towards", which isn't necessarily an accurate reflection of the attitudes of those societies.
posted by terretu at 1:51 AM on February 14 [37 favorites]


Fascinating to have such diaries but what a strange framing. It seems like an enormous inference from one isolated case.

It doesn't seem that enormous an inference that people's private thoughts about morality, or those they share only with those they trust, are often different from what is publicly acceptable. What I think is highlighted here is that everyone is, in some sense, an isolated case. In this case it illustrates that people living around the start of the Regency were, despite the greater pressures to certain kinds of conformity, fundamentally no more a monolithic block with rigidly shared ideas than people living today. I think that's true of all periods in history, but I think it's also important to remember that the stultifying moral prudishness of the later Victorian period was decades away when this was written.

I don't think the framing suggests that this casts doubt on the real history of persecution that LGBTQ people experience. The point isn't, I think, to suggest that this person held views palatable to a modern liberal, but rather that diversity of opinion exists in even apparently conformist times.
posted by howfar at 3:20 AM on February 14 [6 favorites]


I think we also project 20th Century capabilities of government on societies we read about, and miss out a lot by doing so. A society without television, professional police forces, or even railways is very different to one that has these things.
It's important to remember that the term "outlaw" wasn't always synonymous with "criminal". I've seen it used to mean "someone who lived outside the reach of law". An outlaw could just as easily be said to be missing the protection of the law as they could the enforcement of the law. Official structures didn't always cover every hectare within a country's borders.

I keep starting to add a caveat about the role of the church in this area and historical context, but realise everything I start wouldn't fit in a comment, so just know I'm not overlooking that.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:38 AM on February 14 [5 favorites]


I agree with terretu-- this reads like the reporter either knows almost nothing about 18th- 19th-century history, or else is trying hard to clickbait an audience they believe knows nothing.

Lots of breathless excitement over modes of natural-law reasoning that were 100% period-appropriate, and if anything, a little late in 1810, given that in the 1790s William Godwin is writing that plural marriage should be nbd among rational people. A weird mix of inappropriately projecting modern-day concerns (debate over "sexual orientation") onto the past, and being entirely unaware of the actual important faultlines and wrinkles (around class, wealth, psychology, changing gender models, etc.) in the period's understanding of sexuality. The gross premise terretu cites, that even if, OK, maybe some educated philosophers were capable of reaching our current heights of enlightened sentiment on this subject, the working classes were presumably just wallowing in a slough of ignorance, superstition and bigotry.

The primary researcher mentioned is just a second-year PhD student, and it sounds like the reporter got his not-very-expert take, extracted generic "wow, history, right?" responses from two other academics, and ran with it. I can't see that this is particularly a story, but I guess it'll do for a slow news day.
posted by Bardolph at 4:06 AM on February 14 [7 favorites]


"historical people less civilised than we are now, who held monolithic attitudes towards things that we modern civilised people now have different attitudes towards", which isn't necessarily an accurate reflection of the attitudes of those societies.

Please can you explain how you think the piece actually does this? I mean, when they quote someone saying "It shows opinions of people in the past were not as monolithic as we might think", why do you think the article is actually saying the opposite of that?

the idea from the article that bohemians, intellectuals, (some) aristocrats and philosophical radicals were nature's innate anti-homophobes while everyone else was clearly, naturally an innate homophobe.

Can you explain what you mean by this? The article says "O'Keeffe says it shows ideas were 'percolating through British society much earlier and more widely than we'd expect' - with the diary working through the debates that Tomlinson might have been having with his neighbours". I mean, again, it seems to be agreeing with you.

I'm confused. Am I missing a link?
posted by howfar at 6:35 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]


What I mean by what I said is largely around the "much earlier and more widely than we'd expect" aspect of the article; where are the expectations of "we'd expect" coming from, why would they expect such a thing? I don't personally share that expectation.

The thing that I described as monolithic is the view, now, that everyone in the past held a certain opinion about sexual behaviour. What I'm challenging is the idea that this diary is giving us new information, that it contradicts an existing hypothesis about how people thought in the past. Rather than giving new information that will make me think differently about how people saw homosexuality in the past, I see it as information that bolsters something I already know (that people have held different views about sexual behaviour at different times in the past and in different locations).

Personally I hold the view that I expressed earlier: that people have felt very differently about these things, at different times in history and in different places geographically. So the thing I'm challenging overall is not really the article but the assumption behind it that this is new information in some way. It's being presented as information that might change what readers believe about the past, with implications about what they'd "expect", whereas for me it's information that aligns with and affirms a worldview I already held, because I do not share the expectation that people would only hold views on homosexuality that are more nuanced than "death penalty of course" in a later time period than the time of the diary.

I used the word "feel" a lot in my original comment to note the fact that I was responding to the overall vibe I got from the article, not necessarily anything it says explicitly or any thoughts that I can back up with sources.
posted by terretu at 7:03 AM on February 14 [4 favorites]


howfar-- I think the issue is that the article is written as though the (false) italicized statements you quote were the orthodox, generally-accepted truth, and this document is therefore revolutionary because it constitutes a tiny exception to those rules.

Whereas in reality, those statements are mostly just nonsense that nobody would believe who has even a baseline understanding of the period, so it's annoying that this person seems so excited to find an exception (that they're interpreting poorly, btw).

As a parallel case: supposing somebody wrote a breathless blog post about how this one [member of a minority group] they met at a party was just so articulate and actually even maybe smart and normal, and how it really calls into question the general assumptions everyone has about those people.
posted by Bardolph at 7:05 AM on February 14 [6 favorites]


The reality is that most people do make that assumption, though. I'm not sure how you'd write an article addressing that without actually acknowledging it, but I guess you can think of a way. Fair enough.
posted by howfar at 8:02 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]


I mean, unless the objection is just "I am more educated than this article assumes and it shouldn't do that"?
posted by howfar at 8:05 AM on February 14


this about a book by a gay man who went around the US interviewing people, and he concluded that farmers only cared about whether people were good neighbors (reliable and helpful)

I think that's an oversimplification, but the to some extent this is true of many "frontier" societies. In my own home province of Alberta, Canada, the settlers were historically less racist* than in more established parts of the country, because they had to rely on one another for survival. This changed as the region became more "civilized" and more British immigrants were shipped west on the new railroads to make it appropriately British/Canadian. I haven't studied enough about people's ideas on sexual orientation during that era, and the two forms of bigotry (racism and homophobia) don't neatly parallel one another, but it's certainly a plausible inference (even if it's ultimately incorrect).


*This applies to relations between settlers of different races more than it does between settlers and indigenous peoples, but even that relationship wasn't always as fraught as it would latter become.
posted by asnider at 8:17 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]


In my own home province of Alberta, Canada

Hello fellow Albertan! Born and raised, or long-time transplant? I'm the latter, and I've only just been introduced to the work of George Ryga. I think much of his writing speaks to what you are saying. And I agree.. when the English show up, the prominence of "race" does appear to grow in the imagination of remote communities.
posted by elkevelvet at 9:26 AM on February 14


Born and raised, elkevelvet. Ironically, it wasn't until university that I really learned much about my own province, though. The K-12 curriculum when I was in school seemed to focus mostly on eastern/central Canada (the history of Confederation, and the early fur trade) and very little on the place we actually lived. That was all many, many years ago at this point, but I remember it being a revelation at the time.
posted by asnider at 10:41 AM on February 14


"What's striking is that he's an ordinary guy, he's not a member of the bohemian circles or an intellectual," says O'Keeffe, a doctoral student in Oxford's history faculty.

So. fucking. classist.

Bardolph and Terretu share my take exactly, and said it far more clearly and eloquently than I would have. The framing disappoints and worse, misleads about the complexity of actual history. In the end, it just serves to reinforce contemporary prejudices, both about the past and about the nature of human sexual relationships. The diary, in itself, sounds interesting. The "discovery" (you can't "discover" something in an archive) does not surprise, upend or overturn anything in current thinking about the history of sexuality.

The doctoral candidate is a military historian.
It is not a guarantee that he has any depth of familiarity with the historiography of sexual behavior.
posted by Miko at 11:01 AM on February 14 [5 favorites]


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