Rictor Norton is the renowned historian of early modern and nineteenth-century homosexuality, best known for his book Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830 (1992). His website is a treasure trove of primary sources and essays, including his online-only source book Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England. NOTCHES caught up with Rictor to discuss issues such as how he got started in the 1960s and 1970s, his views on interpreting historical homosexuality, and the future of LGBTQ studies.
Stephen Brogan: When did you first start work on the history of homosexuality, and why?
Rictor Norton: My interest in gay literature was initially prompted by Alistair Sutherland and Patrick Anderson’s Eros: An Anthology of Male Friendship (1963), which I acquired through a gay mail-order book club in the late 1960s, which greatly inspired me by its demonstration of the existence of a great and honourable tradition of love between men. When I went to graduate school at Florida State University, Tallahassee, in 1967, I frequented a radical student bookstore that sold Gay Sunshine (San Francisco) and Body Politic (Toronto), both of which featured long articles on gay history and literature. I became convinced that LGBTQ history played an important role in the development of community identity and social solidarity.
I joined the newly founded Gay Liberation Front, and in 1971 I taught one of the first university courses on Gay and Lesbian Literature, which a committee of the English Department described as ‘a seminar in sodomy’. I gave a talk about my course at a conference, and this led to my being asked by the National Council for Teachers of English to guest-edit (with Louie Crew) a special issue of their journal College English, which was published in 1974, and which was quite influential as the first-ever all-gay issue of an academic journal. I had decided to write my doctoral dissertation on homoerotic themes in English Renaissance literature, which has resulted in me being described as “The first individual in the United States to receive a PhD for work dealing with the history of homosexuality”.
I began to write up some of my research as articles for Gay Sunshine and The Advocate (Los Angeles). But it wasn’t a great time to come out publicly (e.g. I had addressed the Florida State Senate Committee arguing against the sodomy statute), and I found myself unable to get a teaching post. Consequently, I left Florida and came to London in 1973, partly attracted by the fact that England had partially decriminalised sex between men in 1967. Here I wrote articles on gay history and literature for gay magazines in the US and the UK, and began working full-time at the fortnightly newspaper Gay News in late 1974 (and worked for them until late 1979). My expertise was in literary history rather than political or economic history, but from 1974 I began focusing my research more towards social history than literature, using the resources of the British Library and what is now the London Metropolitan Archives (e.g. trial records). I came to be especially interested in the idea of LGBTQ heritage, often associated with ‘queer geography’. From writing popular articles for Gay News with titles such as ‘The Gay Heritage Guide to Hampshire’, I’ve gone on to write books and contribute to academic journals- a high point was providing an entry on Mother Clap for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I have also been involved in the initial stages of the Old Bailey Online project, and Historic England’s Pride of Place mapping project.
SB: You have advocated a different interpretation of early modern homosexuality to Alan Bray. Would you be able to summarise the differences and to explain why you think your view is stronger?
Rictor Norton: Alan Bray, in his 1982 study Homosexuality in Renaissance England, used the same sources as I do, and he indeed confirms the existence of the molly subculture. But he argues that homosexuality as a social identity was created by the persecutions of early eighteenth-century society and had not existed in ‘the sodomite’ of the previous Elizabethan and Jacobean societies. My own work in these earlier periods finds a lot more evidence of homosexual self-awareness than Bray thought possible, but I don’t disagree strongly with him regarding the eighteenth century. The problem is that Bray’s argument was so elegantly and concisely expressed that what he acknowledged were provisional hypotheses quickly became accepted dogma in the ‘social constructionist’ approach to sexual history (indebted to Foucault).
The traditional approach of ‘recovering gay history’ became marginalised in favour of examining how ‘discourses of control’, especially legal and medical, shaped the understanding of the ‘modern homosexual’. This ‘postmodern’ approach claims that homosexuality is constructed by external social forces, which means we should focus on tools of control such as the law; my approach assumes that homosexuality arises from innate desire, which means we should focus on identity, from self-awareness through to expressions of social community. The extreme social constructionists have accepted the dogma that what we think of today as homosexual identity didn’t exist before it was created by legal-medical discourse in the late nineteenth century. A great fear of ‘anachronism’ seems to have blinded some historians to the recognition that some individuals in the past, long before the term ‘homosexual’ was coined, closely resembled drag queens, size queens, rough trade, tomboys and butch dykes, to name a few, and I think that historical research has increasingly demonstrated that there are more continuities than differences between past and present sexual behaviour and mentalities.
The debate between the two approaches became polarised. In the social constructionist model, knowledge is shaped through ideological discourse and can be uncovered by deconstruction. In the traditionalist or ‘essentialist’ model, knowledge is discovered, repressed, suppressed, and recovered through history and experience. Essentialists take the view that there is a core of homosexual desire that is innate, constitutional, stable or fixed in its basic patterns. Personal homosexual identity arises from within, though it may then be consolidated along lines suggested by the homosexual subculture as well as by the wider culture. I don’t have an ideological axe to grind: it just seems to me that the social constructionist position that homosexuality could not have become a defining orientation of identity until modern times is simply incorrect. I think a greater understanding of this identity can be achieved by a focus, for example, on the pleasures of the molly house and the camaraderie between men who loved one another, than upon the homophobic courtroom and statistics of hangings. Foucault notoriously declared that around 1870 ‘Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of superior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.’ But in fact, as early as 1734 Dutch sodomites were described by their contemporaries as ‘hermaphrodites in their minds’. A lot of social constructionist history is just bad history.
SB: You have been an early pioneer of open access via your website. This contains a huge amount of primary sources and secondary works that you make freely available to the public. What inspired you to do this?
Rictor Norton: I was attracted by the opportunities of spreading knowledge through publishing on the internet. I suppose I also wanted to say ‘here is the evidence’ in support of my interpretations. I decided to begin republishing my old articles on my own website, and later I uploaded chapters from my books if they had gone out of print and wouldn’t sell enough copies to justify a reprint. I was still driven by the desire to ‘recover gay history’ and I realised this was a way to make this recovered material widely available. I especially want to reach the ‘ordinary’ LGBTQ audience rather than the academic audience. Academic books are exorbitantly expensive, and are mostly held in university libraries, which are not widely accessible.
I was also inspired by Paul Halsall’s early website ‘People with a History’, which uploaded large quantities of gay history sources, being the internet equivalent of Sutherland and Anderson’s Eros: An Anthology of Male Friendship. I began uploading full-text transcriptions of all the material I had used for my books, mainly trial records, newspaper reports, satires and pamphlets. During the Covid lockdown I uploaded thousands of newspaper reports, as I sat at home doing an online search of the material in the British Newspaper Archive and the Burney Collection of 17th and 18th century newspapers. I’m gratified that my two Sourcebooks (Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England, and Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England) are widely used by college students for their history papers. I find it a very engaging and soothing pastime to transcribe the results of my electronic searches on the keywords ‘unnatural crime’, ‘indecent act’, ‘abominable assault’, ‘gross indecency’, ‘detestable act’, ‘nameless offence’, ‘buggery’, ‘catamite’, ‘sodomy’…
SB: Regarding other historians of homosexuality, whose work do you admire and why?
Rictor Norton: The kind of histories I like best are those which deal lightly with theory and delve most deeply into primary sources. I was impressed by King James and the History of Homosexuality (2nd edn 2016) by Michael B. Young, Professor of History at Illinois Wesleyan University. His book demonstrates that James’s contemporaries in the early seventeenth century thought of him as ‘a homosexual’ in much the same way that we would today. Another favourite is Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity, and Community in Early Modern Europe (2016) by Gary Ferguson, Professor of French at the University of Virginia, who even documents same-sex wedding ceremonies in the late sixteenth century. And outstanding work has been achieved by Charles Upchurch, Assistant Professor of History at my alma mater Florida State University, in his detailed history of sex between men in the Regency and early Victorian periods, Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform (2009), and in his newest book ‘Beyond the Law’: The Politics of Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain (2021), which uncovers new documents about an attempt to reform the law relating to homosexual acts in 1840 to 1841 – well before reform was thought possible. In the UK, I’m also a great admirer of the work of Harry Cocks of the University of Nottingham, Matt Houlbrook of the University of Birmingham, and Matt Cook of Birkbeck, University of London, all of whom do wonderful in-depth analyses of primary sources relating to LGBTQ life in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
SB: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of starting to research the history of homosexuality?
Rictor Norton: Try not to become depressed! Constantly bear in mind that homophobia and homosexuality are two different things. Think about what exactly will be your field of research. If you start off concentrating on attitudes towards homosexuality, you’ll be drawn into focusing on legal definitions and works by zealous Christians and psychiatrists – and the catalogue of views you assemble will be pretty depressing! Try to avoid writing a history of victims and martyrs: a catalogue of executions may achieve little more than feelings of resentment. Remember that the opinions of society are largely homophobic, and law and religion are even more homophobic because they change so slowly and seldom keep up with the times. Narrow in upon your real subjects, which are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender individuals, perhaps by reading between the lines, so as to capture what their own feelings and relations were. In records of trials or sensational newspaper reports, give more weight to those precious moments when we hear the actual words of LGBTQ individuals. Try to tell the stories of what these individuals did and felt before that moment when they found themselves in court, focusing on their relations with one another and with family and friends. Don’t act as though you are the judge and jury; you’re trying to determine the likelihood of events, not what occurred beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt. In the story you reconstruct, try to remove the homophobic veil of legal discourse by avoiding repetition of terms and phrases such as ‘defendant’, ‘prisoner’, ‘buggery’, ‘assault’, ‘detestable’ etc., which can negatively colour our reception of the material. Also, look past specifically sexual behaviour in order to glimpse the social context of such behaviour. And don’t launch out into big projects dealing with homosexuality across world cultures, but work on smaller topics, perhaps delving into local history and family history resources, perhaps beginning with your local queer archives, which are increasingly being collected by queer-friendly institutions.
SB: What are your thoughts on the future of the discipline?
Rictor Norton: As far as the formal academic discipline is concerned, university support for cultural studies and gender studies programmes seems to be waning, and the number of students majoring in history seems to be declining. On the other hand, many archives and museums and art galleries are ‘queering their collections’, i.e. highlighting their LGBTQ holdings, and LGBTQ historians play an important role in directing these endeavours. But even without the framework of a formal discipline, there will always be room for individual initiative if one wants to study LGBTQ history. I think there will be expanding opportunities for the study of LGBTQ history outside the academy, namely by ‘community historians’. With the rise of the internet, the digitisation of sources is making such material much more accessible for research; though access to some databases requires a subscription, some are available through library membership, and many are also free, such as the Australian convict records and the Old Bailey Online. There are also opportunities for individuals to publish their research, through blog posts and Zoom talks, often recorded later for widespread sharing (e.g. on YouTube). Open-access publishing is becoming increasingly possible, through academic publishers as well as sites such as Academia.edu, and self-publishing is becoming increasingly easy through media such as Amazon Kindle. Some resources and services require payments, but they are much lower than average student fees!
Rictor Norton is a social and literary historian and writer, specialising in gay history. His many books include Mother Clap’s Molly House (1992). He maintains a website which includes extensive content on gay history and literature, and tweets from @RictorNorton
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