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Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day

Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day

by Peter Ackroyd
Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day

Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day

by Peter Ackroyd


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In Queer City, the acclaimed Peter Ackroyd looks at London in a whole new way–through the complete history and experiences of its gay and lesbian population. In Roman Londinium, the city was dotted with lupanaria (“wolf dens” or public pleasure houses), fornices (brothels), and thermiae (hot baths). Then came the Emperor Constantine, with his bishops, monks, and missionaries. And so began an endless loop of alternating permissiveness and censure. Ackroyd takes us right into the hidden history of the city; from the notorious Normans to the frenzy of executions for sodomy in the early nineteenth century. He journeys through the coffee bars of sixties Soho to Gay Liberation, disco music, and the horror of AIDS. Ackroyd reveals the hidden story of London, with its diversity, thrills, and energy, as well as its terrors, dangers, and risks, and in doing so, explains the origins of all English-speaking gay culture.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781419730993
Publisher: ABRAMS
Publication date: 05/08/2018
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Peter Ackroyd is an award-winning historian, biographer, novelist, poet, and broadcaster. He is the author of the acclaimed nonfiction bestsellers London: The Biography, Thames, and London Under; biographies of figures including Charles Dickens, William Blake, and Alfred Hitchcock; and a multi-volume history of England. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the Somerset Maugham Award. He holds a CBE for services to literature and lives in London.

Read an Excerpt


What's in a name?

The love that dares not speak its name has never stopped talking. If it was once 'peccatum illud horribile, inter christianos non nominandum' – that horrible crime not to be named among Christians – it has since been endlessly discussed.

'Queer' was once a term signifying disgust, but now it is pronounced with a difference. It has become the academic word of choice, and 'queer studies' are part of the university curriculum.

'Gay' comes from who knows where. It can be construed as a derivation from 'gai' in Old Provençal, meaning merry or vivacious, or from 'gaheis' in Gothic, meaning impetuous, or from 'gahi' in Frankish, meaning fast. Whatever the language, it used to connote frantic fun and high spirits. In English, 'gay' was originally attached to female prostitutes and the men who chased them. All the gay ladies were on the market. Its twentieth-century same-sex sense seems to have been invented by Americans in the 1940s. There was a long period of incubation before it made its way to England; even in the late 1960s, there were still many who did not understand the phrase 'gay bar'.

Sodomy was, from the eleventh century, a catch-all term that could mean anything or everything. It was applied to heretics and adulterers, blasphemers and idolaters and rebels – anyone, in other words, who disturbed the sacred order of the world. It was also associated with luxury and with pride, and was regularly connected with excessive wealth. It was of course also employed for those who had different ideas about the nature of sexual desire, and was sometimes thrown in as a further accusation with other crimes including buggery.

The 'bugger' was originally a heretic, specifically one of the Albigensian creed which had come from Bulgaria; but since part of that creed condemned matrimonial intercourse, and indeed any kind of natural coupling, the connotations of the word spread beyond the grounds of religion. It is derived from the French bougre, as in pauvre bougre or poor sod.

The 'ingle', or depraved boy, was well known by the end of the sixteenth century. Is there a phrase – every nook should have an ingle? Ingal Road still survives in east London. 'Pathic', or the passive partner, came to the light of day in the early seventeenth century; ironically the pathic did not need to be aroused, but the male agent did. Yet only the pathic was punished. It was a question of social, rather than sexual, disfavour. The pathic was following his own path in defiance of convention and in dereliction of his social duty. He was like a cat among sheep.

'Catamite' was coined in the same period as pathic. A 'chicken' was an underage boy, hence the term 'chicken hawk'. Such words might have had an underground existence for many decades before becoming common currency since, of course, the activity was still not to be named. The prototype of slang terms for all boy queers was the young and beardless 'Ganymede', often portrayed with a cockerel in his hand and also known as kinaidos.

In the eighteenth century 'mollies' were singled out for attention. 'Jemmy' was an abbreviation for James I whose appetites were well known, although a less common term was 'indorsers' from the boxing slang for pummelling the back of an opponent. In one Newgate transcript a pickpocket is advised to 'leave these Indorsers to their beastly Appetites'. A more polite term was 'fribble' after a character invented by David Garrick. Other eighteenth-century terms included 'madge' and 'windward passage' as well as 'caudlemaking' or 'giving caudle' from the Latin cauda for tail. Queers were often called 'backgammon players' or 'gentlemen of the back door', sometimes engaged in 'caterwauling'. They might also engage in 'gamahuche', or the act of fellatio, which was applied to females as well as males.

Effeminacy has always been part of what David Garrick, as Mr Fribble, called 'ooman nater'. It was not entirely reserved for queers, and indeed was also applied to men who loved women too dearly for their own good. In John Wycliffe's biblical translation of the late fourteenth century, 'effeminati' is rendered as 'men maad wymmenysch'. They were considered self-indulgent and silly. They were soft or weak. To complicate matters still further, they may have been asexual.

'Effeminate' is not to be confused with 'camp' which implies a deliberate intention to divert, to shock, or to amuse; camp suggests a flourish, or a display, and it is supposed to come from the Italian verb campeggiare, to stand out or to dominate. The sovereign of camp was, perhaps, the 'queen' or 'quean'. The word was first applied to immodest or bold women, the strong ones of their sex, but by the early twentieth century it was equally applied to extravagant queers who could out-female the females.

A Hungarian, Karl-Maria Benkert, coined the term 'homo-szexualitás' in 1869, thus becoming one of the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. It was for him not a question of morality, but of classification. The subject needed a clinician rather than a priest. Flowers are still placed on Benkert's grave. Twenty-three years later, Charles Gilbert Chaddock rendered his term into English where it has remained ever since. Havelock Ellis described it as a 'barbarous neologism, sprung from a monstrous mingling of Greek and Latin stock' but he may have been mistaking the word for the deed.

When in 1918 J. R. Ackerley was asked whether he was 'homo or hetero', he did not know what the question meant. Another English memoirist, T. C. Worsley, recalled that in 1929 homosexuality 'was still a technical term, the implications of which I was not entirely aware of'. Even in the 1950s elderly gentlemen were flummoxed by the word. It did not arrive in the Valhalla of the Oxford English Dictionary until the supplement of 1976.

Another term emerged in 1862, in the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. 'Uranian' or 'urning' was derived from Plato's description of same-sex love in the Symposium as 'ouranios' or 'heavenly'. ('Ouranos' literally means 'the pisser', opening up a further line of enquiry.) Whatever its celestial origins, the term did not quite catch on. Who would want to be called an 'urning'? It sounds like some sort of gnome. An 'urnind' was a queer female, while 'uranodionings' were bisexual. Further awkward nomenclatures were found, 'similisexualism' and 'homogenic love' among them. The 'invert' was also discovered in the late nineteenth century, but he did not prosper as much as 'pervert'.

Various euphemisms were in use among the mixed band of brothers and sisters in the late nineteenth century. Is he earnest? Is he so? Is he musical? Is he theatrical? Is he temperamental? Is he TBH? Or, in other words, is he to be had? A pair of young men, in the 1930s, might be asked whether they 'share a flat'. Less euphemistic terms included 'fairy', 'shirt-lifter', 'pansy', 'nancy boy', 'pervert', 'bone-smoker', 'poof' which had once been 'puff', 'sissy', 'Mary Anne', 'fudge-packer', 'butt-piler', 'pillow biter' and, in the American tongue, 'faggot' or 'fag'. Faggots were the sticks of wood on top of which accused sodomites were burned to death. That is, at least, one explanation. It may equally derive from the schoolboy drudge of a senior prefect. More complicated words came out of thin air. A 'dangler', in the nineteenth century, was one who pretended to like women but in reality did not.

The female variants of same-sex passion included 'sapphist' and 'lesbian' after the peerless poet of Lesbos, the latter term first appearing in the 1730s. 'Sapphist' often became 'sapph' in the early twentieth century. There are also allusions to 'tribades' or 'tribadic women' that come from both Latin and Greek sources. There is the 'fricatrice', one who rubs, and 'subigatrice', one who works a furrow. A 'tommy' is to be found in eighteenth-century England, and is first mentioned in the Sapphic Epistle of 1777. 'Butch', 'femme', 'dyke', 'bull-dyke' and 'diesel-dyke' can still sometimes be heard.

The use of the word 'queer' signifies defiance and a refusal to use Karl-Maria Benkert's clinical neologism – homosexuality. 'Queer' can also be construed as being beyond gender. It is an accommodating term, and will be used as such in this study. But it does not preclude the use of other words in this volume, such as gay, where they seem to be more appropriately or more comfortably placed. 'Homoerotic', another refugee from the twentieth century, may be useful in an emergency. It might also be necessary to invoke 'LGBTQIA', beginning with lesbian and ending with asexuality with transgender somewhere in the middle.

So queer people stream out of space and time, each with his or her own story of difference. Some may consider this to be a queer narrative, therefore, but the queerer the better.


A red and savage tongue

Of London, before the Romans came, little has been recorded. Yet it may be possible to peer into the suppositious Celtic twilight in order to glimpse unfamiliar passions. The name of the city itself is presumed to be of Celtic origin. It is easy to imagine that the male members of these early tribes were avowedly active in manner and nature, tearing out the heart of a stag with one hand while beating the taut animal skin of a drum with the other. In fact many of their leaders dressed in female clothes and, in ritual ceremonial, imitated the female orgasm and the pains of labour. Aristotle observed that the Celts 'openly held in honour passionate friendship between men'; he uses the Greek word synousia for that passion, literally meaning 'being together with' or 'of the same nature as', but in more vulgar terms alluding to sexual intercourse. The Celts were known for their dark complexions and dark, curly hair. Oil was the lubricant of choice. 'They wear their hair long,' Julius Caesar wrote, 'and shave all their bodies with the exception of their heads and their upper lips.' You can still see them walking in the streets of London.

Strabo, the Greek philosopher and geographer, declared that Celtic youths were 'prodigal of their youthful charms'. His near contemporary, Diodorus Siculus, commented in his universal history that the Celts paid little attention to their women but were instead greedy for male embraces; he recorded that it was considered to be a disgrace or a dishonour if a Celtic youth rejected an adult male's sexual advances. The men lay on animal skins with a young male bed-mate on either side. His observation is repeated in Athenaeus of Naucratis, but he may just have been passing on a sexy story which could be applied to the Germanic as well as the Celtic peoples. It may be better to investigate individual tribes, many of them dating to the Mesolithic period, rather than denominate 'Celtic' or 'Germanic' peoples, but the subject is thoroughly confused. We can only speculate on activities rather than origins.

In the fourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea noted that among the tribes young men were ready and eager to marry one another according to custom. Bardesanes of Edessa wrote that 'handsome young men assume the role of wives towards other men, and they celebrate marriage feasts'. Sextus Empiricus wrote of the Germanic people that sodomy was 'not looked upon as shameful but as a customary thing'. The sources, fortunately, all agree.

These handsome young men were not unusual in a predominantly military culture, and the references are so frequent that they suggest an identifiable part of the population who took on the passive role as part of their transition to adulthood. Slaves, the clergy, and those who did not aspire to military honour were also of their number. From the evidence of the scholars, therefore, an alternative to conventional procreation was readily available and much in demand. This has remained throughout the history of London.

In Roman London we are on well-documented foundations. When the conquerors brought their brick and marble, they also brought their social customs. In the beginning two principal streets of gravel ran parallel to the river on the eastern hill. A military camp was established in the north-western quarter of the city. Taverns and brothels grew around them as naturally as wild grass. London was at this time a relatively new settlement, and therefore more receptive or more vulnerable to new practices and influences. By the time it had become a city, and a capital, it had grown out of all proportion. It also had become a rich city, filled with merchants and businessmen (or negotiatores) who no doubt purchased bodies as well as goods. It is one of the few settlements on earth that began as a city and has always remained one, with all the commercial and financial entanglements this history implies.

Urban life was conducted in the Roman fashion. The most ubiquitous practice of same-sex love occurred in the relationship between master and slave or between man and boy. The passive partner, in other words, had no political role. In what was essentially a city state, with its own independent government, the difference in status is important. Only the active could rule. Sexuality is not a free agent in society; society defines and dominates sexuality. Warriors who had been overcome in battle could be raped by Roman citizens. The defeated were sometimes instead penetrated by 'radishes'; that may not sound too painful an ordeal but in fact the 'long white icicle radish' has always been grown in southern England to a length of just under six inches.

Paedophilia, or sex with a child, and pederasty, sex with an adolescent, were not condemned. The love between two free men was, on the other hand, considered undesirable and worthy of censure; this is not to say, of course, that it did not happen. But if a man were accused of such infamia, he might be stripped of his civic rights.

In the middle of a busy city such as Londinium, many opportunities were afforded by the various lupanaria or 'wolf dens' (public pleasure houses), fornices (brothels) and the thermiae (hot baths). The pleasure houses were expensive, and were no doubt largely patronised by the Roman administrators and Romano-British nobility. The brothels of a lower class might have curtained entrances, behind which a number of small booths were established. The wooden houses had roofs of thatch and brightly painted plaster interiors. The palaestrae, or sporting facilities, within the hot baths were well known for casual pickups.

But sex could be advertised in the open, for the delectation of passing trade. Sometimes a male prostitute might stand in front of his own stall or 'cell' waiting for custom. He might also haunt a tavern, a lodging house or a bakery. He might come from the lower classes, or he may have been a foreigner or a slave. Slaves or captured foreigners were disembarked in open spaces near the major quays known as 'Romelands', and may have been sold on the spot; 'Romelands' could be found at Dowgate, Queenhithe, Billingsgate and the Tower. Male prostitutes were prized for the tax raised from them, and they had their own public holiday.

A Roman apologist for Christianity, Minucius Felix, stated that homosexuality was 'the Roman religion' and the second century Assyrian scholar, Tatian, confirmed that pederasty 'was held in pre-eminent esteem by the Romans'. It was considered to be an admirable activity, and was no doubt as common in London as in Rome. It hardly deserved notice or comment, no more than the 'Herms' or stone pillars which stood at the major intersections; they represented Hermes with an erect phallus, and sometimes the phallus alone. It has not been emphasised enough, perhaps due to the modesty of classicists, that Roman society was intensely phallocratic; the worship of the penis was only ever equalled in regions of India.

The queer man in Greek history, who bears some relation to his Roman or even English brother, was described in the anonymous Physiognomonics (c. 300 BC) as having 'an unsteady eye and knock-knees; he inclined his head to the right; he gestures with his palms up and his wrists loose; and he has two styles of walking – either waggling his hips or keeping them under control. He tends to look around in all directions.' He was also homo delicatus in Rome and London who, according to Scipio in 129 BC, 'daily perfumes himself and dresses before a mirror, whose eyebrows are trimmed, who walks abroad with beard plucked out and thighs made smooth'. He was soft, with mincing steps and shrill or lisping voice. He wore violet and purple rather than white, but he also loved light green and sky blue. He kept his hand upon his hip and scratched his head with one finger. In his discussion of Britain in his life of Agricola, Tacitus in the first century states that 'the barbarians, as well, learn to condone seductive vices'. He also explains that the Romano-British soon imitated the vices and follies of their masters; in their ignorance they called it 'civilisation' but it was really 'a part of their servitude'. New London became the mirror of old Rome.


Excerpted from "Queer City"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Peter Ackroyd.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations, vi,
1 What's in a name?, 1,
2 A red and savage tongue, 7,
3 A military lay, 23,
4 The friend, 31,
5 No cunt, 35,
6 Bring on the dancing boys, 47,
7 Soft and slippery, 59,
8 The rubsters, 69,
9 Suck thy master, 85,
10 Arsey-Versy, 97,
11 Continually wet, 105,
12 Good golly Miss Molly, 119,
13 Flats, 135,
14 Tiddy dolls, 147,
15 Rump riders, 163,
16 Omi-palone, 181,
17 Damned and done for, 197,
18 Howl, 215,
Acknowledgements, 233,
Bibliography, 235,
Index, 245,

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