What should I know about gay history?

I had no idea.  Literally no idea.

AIDS, when it first appeared in San Francisco and New York in the early 1980s, was called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) by the press.  The Lancet called it gay compromise syndrome and some even called it the gay cancer.

By the end of 1984, there had been 3665 AIDS deaths in the US and 46 in the UK.

Ryan White, a 13 year old haemophiliac from Indiana, who became infected with HIV from a contaminated blood treatment in 1984, was banned from his school for fear that being in the presence of other pupils would infect them, and was only allowed back on the condition that he use disposable cutlery, separate bathrooms and not do gym class.

In 1985, a Los Angeles Times poll found that the majority of Americans favoured quarantine for AIDS sufferers and that 15% advocated tattooing them.

AZT, the first antiretroviral drug to treat HIV, only became available in 1987.

Since the beginning of the epidemic, there have been 90,000 AIDS death in California alone.

I am slightly ashamed that, until I watched the brilliant documentary San Francisco’s Year Zero: We Were Here this week, I didn’t know any of this.  I was alive when the first AIDS death was recorded in the States (although, admittedly, only 2 years old), and I have been alive the entire time that people, gay and straight, have been fighting against this epidemic, and, yet, I know so little about it.  I always thought I knew a lot about this defining moment (or, rather, moments) in gay history, but now I realise I know very little.

It gets me wondering how much else I do not know about gay history.  I certainly don’t know a lot of the important dates.  And there are a lot of famous things I’ve heard about, but the specifics of which I am ignorant.  What were the Stonewall riots, for example?  I know they involved a bar in New York, but what happened exactly?  And who was involved?  I don’t know any of the big names in the gay civil rights movement in the UK, apart from Peter Tatchell.  I don’t really know what advances there were in gay rights before Civil Partnerships and the lowering of the age of consent and I don’t know exactly what Section 28 was.  I’m not entirely sure when homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK.

It could be argued that I, and all other gay people, should know these things.  It’s the history of our community after all and, whether or not we like the idea of identifying with that separate community, we should know what has happened in the past that now allows us to live in the free society we have today (in this country at least).

As a history buff, I love discovering things I didn’t know about the past.  The past fascinates me.  I remember being about 6 years old and being genuinely upset when I realised that I would never be able to experience the past for myself.  I wanted to walk the streets of Victorian London and see the singing urchin children and cruel workhouse masters for myself (my vision of London in olden times was based solely on ‘Oliver Twist’, you understand), and I was disappointed I would never be able to.  It still disappoints me a little bit to this day.

But, watching the documentary this week, I realised that it is possible to experience the past if you see it through the eyes of someone who was there, if you focus on the people and their experiences and feelings, rather than the dates and the statistics.  What made We Were Here so moving was that it was real people telling real stories.  Yes, there were statistics and, yes, they were shocking.  But the real punch came when a man broke down in tears recounting how he had lost 3 partners to AIDS.  Or when a kind and generous man who had volunteered on an AIDS ward told of how he’d realised after a few years he didn’t have the emotional energy to do it any more.  These people really were there.  And, listening to them, so was I.

If you go to a website called Old Bailey Online, you can find the details of over 190,000 criminal trials conducted at the Old Bailey between 1674 and 1913, completely digitised and indexed, and completely free of charge.  If you go to the search page and click on the drop-down menu for Offence, you will see an enormous range of crimes, from “vagabonding” to “highway robbery”.  If you scroll down to the S’s, you’ll find Sexual Offences, a sub-group of which is Sodomy.  If you search for Sexual Offences – Sodomy between 1674 and 1913, you’ll find 1,075 cases.  Amongst the crimes of bestiality, acts involving minors and cases of rape, which were severely punished, and quite rightly, you’ll find an enormous number (the majority) that involve two consenting gay or bisexual men engaging in what came naturally.  Or, as the officials of the time put it, “an Unnatural and Horrid Sin”, or “the heinous and detestable sin of Buggery”, or “Sodomitical Practices” that are “among Christians not to be named”.  After about 1800, the trial transcripts and witness statements become almost non-existent, and all you get is a stark description of the crime and the punishment, as in the 1828 case of Martin Mellett and James Farthing, which reads:

MARTIN MELLETT & JAMES FARTHING were indicted for b-gg-y .


18 heart-breaking words, I’m sure you’ll agree.  It’s hard to imagine the young men behind the words and to picture the circumstances that lead to them being sentenced to death.  But the fact that they both were  makes it highly unlikely that it was a case of rape, and, so I like to think of them as being two young lovers who were caught trying to express their love for one another.  Of course, they may well just have been two aroused young lads who’d never met each other in their lives before and just happened to pick the wrong London alleyway for a spot of fun, and, in a way, it doesn’t matter – young lovers must have existed and, if their names weren’t Martin and James, it’s not really important.
So why am I yapping on about Martin and James and their “sodomitical practices”?  And what does it have to do with a documentary about the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco?  Well, they are two things that have offered me an amazing insight this week into the lives of gay men in the past, both a distant past and a past that I can remember, sort of.  One is an enormous happening that everyone knows about and the other an area of gay history that I don’t hear mentioned very often, but both involve real people engaging in real life, and that’s what’s fascinating and important.  For me, at least.  We Were Here showed me the pain, heartache and fear felt by San Franciscans at a difficult and scary time, as well as the compassion, humanity and love.  And the Old Bailey records, which are full of men begging not to be taken to the constable as it will “ruin” them and desperately trying to convince judges that they were only getting up close and personal with a certain gentleman because he had asked them to check his “fundament” for venereal disease, give me an insight into the hardship and terror of living in a world in which any kind of gay contact was punishable by death.  
This is the kind of gay history I want to know: the experiences of the men and women who have come before me, how they lived and loved, and how I can learn from what they did.  The date of the Stonewall riots and the ins and outs of Section 28 are important, without a shadow of a doubt, but I still haven’t taken the time to Google them or sign up to a gay history course to find out more.  But what I have taken the time to do is to learn a little bit about the people who lived and died through significant times and events in gay history and, in so doing, have, in my own way, honoured their memories.  And that’s worth a million memorised dates to me.
Postscript: For the record, a little digging on the t’internet reveals that Martin and James’s death sentences were commuted and, instead of being executed, they were transported to Australia, arriving in 1829, on the same ship.  If they were star-crossed lovers, I hope they found some happiness amidst the heartache.