Helen Smith

In 2009 when I made the decision to come back to academia and start a PhD, I had it all planned out how it would go. I was freshly inspired by my umpteenth re-read of the brilliant Queer London and was determined to try and do something similar but for the long-ignored north of England. And for the similarly elusive working-class man. It’s no secret to those who know me how deeply attached I am to my northern roots. Not only that, but my upbringing in a mining and steel town in a family of miners and steel workers has strongly influenced my identity and way of seeing the world. In retrospect, I was foolish not to realise how important these issues would prove to the men I would discover.

Moss Bay Works, Sheffield (Wikimedia Commons: Chris Allen)

At first, I was frustrated that I couldn’t find the type of rich and compelling evidence of drag balls, defiant queans and the excitement of queer life. Sadly, there were no long-unworn and glamorous outfits to transport me into the past. Or photos to introduce me to the men that I was glimpsing in court records, newspapers and the odd letter (I have to thank the Edward Carpenter Archive for the latter). What I found was altogether more down to earth – lots of working-class men having sex with each other in fields, behind pubs, at each others houses and, perhaps most significantly, at work. These men were more often than not employed in traditional, industrial jobs and the vast majority of them seemed to have no concept of sexual identity or even that sex with another man was illegal or could be considered abnormal.

I was blown away by this information and it took months, if not years of thinking about how to interpret what it might mean to understandings of sexuality, selfhood, gender and class. In fact, I’m still puzzling it out now and probably will be for a long time to come, although the recent work of Laura Doan has been incredibly enlightening. One thing is absolutely clear: for working-class men in the north of England, work, region and class were the most important influences on their understanding of self. For many men, these things gave them a strong sense of their own masculinity which in turn allowed them to have sex with other men without it impacting on their sexuality. When they were unlucky enough to be brought before the law, the response of friends, relatives, wives and girlfriends and even employers suggest that sex between men was, if not spoken of, a part of every day life.

This suggests to me that the history of sexuality needs to be reframed and sexual categories need to be re-examined. This is particularly relevant for the twentieth-century before decriminalisation. In the north of England the ties between sexual preference, identity, class and masculinity were complex and sometimes contradictory but this example makes clear that same-sex desire must be studied as grounded in the social context. Categories of gay, straight and bisexual are not really applicable here. It is more appropriate to rethink the notion of a sexual normal that could potentially encompass sex with other men as easily as it could marriage and children.


Helen Smith is an historian of sexuality, gender, class and region in modern Britain. She is currently working as an Associate Tutor and Research Assistant at the University of Sheffield alongside working on turning her thesis into a book. Helen tweets from @DrHelenSmith



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9 Comments

  1. Jonathan Miller

    My mum, sadly now dead, used to tell me about the men who dressed up in women’s clothes and stand at the bottom on Attercliffe Road in Sheffield when she was growing up. She was born in 1936 so I am guessing this was in the 1940’s. She was struck by how accepting everyone was and contrasted it with how people in later decades characterized the period as so sexually repressed. Your research sounds fascinating, good luck with the book.

    • Thanks for sharing this Jonathan! This is fascinating and ties in with my impression of this area of the city. I think that it’s so important that memories like these are preserved because this type of experience seems to had faded from memory.

  2. This is very interesting work and I look forward to hearing more.

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