A recent survey found Millennial Americans to be the “gayest” generation with 7% of respondents identifying as LGB or T. My immediate first thought was that same sex attraction probably hasn’t increased but tolerance for it has. I decided to write some this morning about sexual minorities in the 1700s and 1800s in England. (And may write on queers in the early US at a later date.)
The earliest Enghlish gay clubs we know of were called “molly houses”, after the feminine names, costumes, and mannerisms adopted by men who frequented them. In 1690 the Society for the Reformation of Manners was formed to combat the social vices of profanity and brothels. Society members considered molly houses to be brothels although it is more likely the majority of sex in such meeting places was not monetized.
A network of informers, they infiltrated molly houses and cruising grounds to have men arrested and charged with buggery (a capital offense) or sodomy (a lesser but still serious charge). The SRM was motivated and effective, leading to the arrest of nearly a hundred men in the single year of 1707. Several of the charged men committed suicide while awaiting trial. In 1726 an SRM raid on a molly house run by a Mother Clap resulted in her sentenced to the pillory and three of her patrons put to death.
The first victim of the Society’s efforts was Captain Edward Rigby, a British officer who’d been cleared at a court martial on sodomy charges. Society members worked with the constabulary to entrap Rigby. He was sentenced to the pillory, a year in jail, and a massive $1000 fine. After his release Rigby fled to France, England’s enemy, and joined their military where he was showered with honors.
Newspapers and smaller publications followed the Mother Clap and Rigby cases with scandalized glee. The new availability of relatively cheap printing combined with the activities of the SRM combined to create a flurry of media around homosexual meeting places, practices, and sex acts. Satirical pieces mocked the feminine gay men, while others somewhat seriously debated if these men presented a “third sex”. Doubtless some were transgender. Cross dressing was a frequent past time in their clubs already.
The SRM was overall a small group primarily located in Middlesex and neighboring London. By the mid 1720s, they were seen as finger wagging interferers and too moralizing by half. They disbanded in 1738, and prosecutions ceased. Because most of the records we have of 18th century queers were court documents or reporting on various trials, this gap in persecution also means a gap in records.