Guest Blog by Norena Shopland: Finding Forbidden Lives


When I wrote Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales in 2017, the first completely historical work covering sexual orientation and gender diversity in Wales, I wanted to include stories either little known, or unpublished outside their original source.

But - how do you find those who lived forbidden or hidden lives? Particularly when you consider the majority of terms we use are modern and cannot be dated past the late nineteenth century. A handful do go further back but tend to be dominated by the male experience - and mainly from the criminal record, as male homosexuality was illegal for most of history. For female homosexuality, which was never illegal, and transgender the problem of uncovering them from the historic record is much more difficult. Bisexuality has its own complications in that marriage was a societal expectation and when same-sex activity has been uncovered it is generally put into the ‘gay’ category with little consideration of sexual fluidity.

In order to tackle the problem of locating LGBT+ historic people, it was necessary for me to look at the way glossaries and word/phrases lists were compiled. Of those published on the internet most use modern terms - but rarely are timelines or caveats for use included. For example, the charge under which many men were arrested after 1885 was ‘gross indecency’ - both Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were prosecuted under this law. However, ‘gross indecency’ had a wide variety of definitions including heterosexual cases and even bestiality.

In addition, many individuals, whether they are journalists, diarists, letter writers, or those filling out forms which end up in archives, do not use the same words or phrases; they tend to write in more individualist ways and glossaries need to address this. A further problem is that the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software which locates words and phrases in digital material can be unreliable. If a page is torn, or creased, or the text is so old it appears smudged, the OCR will fail to recognise it. Therefore, having a greater number of search terms means greater results.

Taking all this into account, I devised a ‘pick-and-mix’ style glossary for searching content in historic records. This was published as part of a free research guide, Queering Glamorgan, funded by the Welsh Government and published by Glamorgan Archives. It can be downloaded from https://glamarchives.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Queering-Glamorgan-28Aug2018.pdf

Despite the name, it is a guide that can be used in any English language content across the world and the basic principles allows it to be translated into any other language.

Part of this reworking included looking, not at what people are, but what they were doing. For example, cross-dressing and cross-living were used extensively as a means to live in same-sex relationships, or as a trans person. An example of this from Queering Glamorgan includes:


This style of searching proved so successful that when looking for female same-sex relationships and transmales I uncovered some 3,000+ articles - 80% of which has never been published outside the original source. Collectively, they challenge women’s history.

This study shows that the concept of women living conscripted lives prior to the twentieth century is flawed. Thousands of women, throughout the world, dressed as men and cross-lived and cross-worked often for whole lifetimes - and I have now written up these findings in a book entitled Women in Male Attire: their fight to wear trousers which looks at the gossamer thin line between genders. Many women if they wished to travel or live alone simply changed their clothes and set off. Of course, most of the information recovered is from those who were caught and brought into court as the wearing of men’s clothes by women was seen as ‘being in disguise’ and therefore up to no good. However, many of the accounts include the time the woman had been cross-dressing and this could range from a few days to an entire life. It also raises the question, if thousands of women can be recovered from the written record, how many more thousands were never noticed?

A similar study, which is ongoing, on men cross-living as woman has provided similar results but the publication of that data will not be available for some time.

One very successful result of my searching for unpublished material was the discovery of a real-life legal case concerning the death of Eric Trevanion supposedly from a drugs overdose. I was surprised that it had been overlooked in queer studies because it contained an enormous amount of information about homosexuality in 1913 at a time when LGBT+ history is quite quiet. At the Keep, the East Sussex Records Office, is a whole pile of files proving the Public Prosecutor and the Coroner deliberately suppressed vital evidence because it concerned homosexuality. Leaving us with one vital question - due to this suppression did a man get away with murder? My book The Veronal Mystery presents the facts but readers are divided as to whether murder can be proved, or whether it was manslaughter, suicide or accident. As historians we are left in limbo because evidence has been suppressed, but it does go to show that these vitally important cases can still be found.

With regard to the female same-sex relationships and transmales data collected, only about 10% of the articles were used for Women in Male Attire due to space constraints – and I am currently in talks with a library about moving the remaining data to them so they can make it available for others to use. About 20% of the data can be directly linked to queer studies (although it can be argued all cross-dressing does) and I have numerous stories about those we would today identity as lesbians or transmen which remain unpublished. Having recovered the 3,000+ articles, I stopped collecting as I had enough information to produce the book but when you bear in mind my research only covers the English language and there are over 6,000+ languages in the world, this leaves a lot of untapped material.

Queering Glamorgan proved so popular (it was accessed around 1,500 times) but due to space constrictions and funding criteria, it was only the tip of an iceberg and I have since written a more extensive guide entitled A Practical Guide to Searching LGBTQIA+ Historic Records.

This book looks at researching LGBTQIA+ in more detail and provides a greater range of historic terms. It looks at some areas of study which have been neglected such as coroner’s reports, post mortems, asylum records, workhouses, phone books, divorce papers and many more. The male experience in aversion therapy is well documented but little work has been done on the female or bisexual experience. It also looks at what can be surprising areas to consult, such as genealogy or auction sites (eBay lists FBI wanted posters for those suspected for sodomy).

Taking all this into account, it can easily be seen that there is still a hell of a lot of LGBT+ material waiting for us to discover.

Norena Shopland: author of Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales (Seren Books, 2017); The Veronal Mystery (Wordcatcher Publishing 2020); A Practical Guide to Searching LGBTQIA+ Historic Records (Routledge Focus, forthcoming August 2020); Women in Male Attire: their fight to wear trousers (Pen and Sword Books, forthcoming June 2021)


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