Why you have to know about the 1533 Buggery Act

It may sound like just another dull law from history, but The Buggery Act wrought international persecution of the LGBTQ+ community for centuries!

OK I know what you’re thinking. Why is the 1533 Buggery Act such a big deal! After all, it’s a piece of Tudor law:

A) that sounds dry AF

B) has nothing to do with me!

Well, if you care about LGBTQ+ rights (or let’s be blunt, basic human rights) than this is a piece of Tudor law that you have to know about!

The 1533 Buggery Act wove a tangled web that stretches throughout history. Beyond those who were caught up in its immediate wake, It’s threads lead us to Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, Alan Turing’s conviction and the abysmal pit where fundamental rights should be, that the LGBTQ+ community and their allies are still fighting against.

So if that still sounds dry AF, then strap in Donald, because you’re about to get your mind blown.

mind blown gif
Seriously we’re getting into world view changing stuff!

The Buggery Act was the brainchild of Henry VIII who had a fun habit of lumbering the UK with laws that came out of him wanting to make a point during a hissy fit…yet inexplicably stuck around for hundreds of years at a major human cost (e.g that time he made it legal to execute someone with severe mental health issues) The 1533 Buggery Act was no exception!

But lets take it back to pre-Henry for a second. Prior to 1533 there were no set laws to persecute homosexuality in England. That’s not to say it wasn’t. In the 13th century two legal codes called for men caught having same sex relationships to be buried alive or burnt, which is horrific!

However, these were suggestions, not actual laws and there is no evidence that these punishments were ever carried out. For the most part, the then frowned upon act was dealt with in the ecclesiastic courts (so basically it was left with god and his earthly servants to deal with either after death or in the realm of the church)

As such, the sudden decision to make homosexuality criminal was a big deal. In fact it was such a big deal that this sharp turn to criminalisation actually had to be addressed in the original statues outlining the 1533 act. Which says that the law was in part created to make homosexuality clearly punishable, saying:

“For as moche as there is not yet sufficient & condigne punishment appointed & limitted by the due course of the lawes of this realme for the detestable & abominable vice of buggeri committed with mankind or beest.”

It goes on to explain the possible punishments for those caught committing ‘buggery’:

“And that the offenders being herof convict by verdicte, confession, or outlaurie, shall suffer suche peynes of dethe, and losses, and penalties of their goodes, cattals, dettes, londes, tenements, and heredytamentes, as felons benne accustomed to do accordynge to the order of the common lawes of this realme. And that no person offendynge in any suche offence, shalbe admitted to his clergye”

Obviously the clear biggy here is ‘pain of death’, but right at the bottom of this portion of transcript there’s the sentence:

‘And that no person offending in such offence shall be admitted to his clergy’ that right there is the crux of this whole piece of legislation.

Because why create The Buggery Act and criminalise same sex relationships at this particular moment in time?

To persecute the Catholic Church of course!

If you’re thinking , ‘that makes little to no sense’, gold star! It doesn’t… well at least until you break down what was going down in 1533.

You see, until the 1530’s England had been part of the Catholic Church. But, Henry VIII was desperate to break away from the church as it wouldn’t grant him a divorce so he could marry his side chick, Anne Boleyn. So Henry decided to create a new church for England, one that he’d be the head of (and wouldn’t you know it, the head of this new church just happened to be A-ok with divorce).

Sadly creating your own church doesn’t magically erase your countries already existing, centuries old religion overnight. So Henry worked with his right hand man, Thomas Cromwell, to loosen the tight hold Catholicism had on England and for a double win, also siphon it’s money to Henry.

The 1533 Buggery Act was just part of this plan. It was solely designed to take away a little bit of the power away from The Catholic Church, not to actually persecute homosexuality.

And yet this law was about to take its first victim.

By 1540 the Buggery Act had done its job. The Catholic Churches hold on England had been loosened, Henry had married Anne Boleyn (and then had her executed), married again (this time she’d died in childbirth) and was onto marriage number four. Thomas Cromwell had played Cupid for these nuptials, hooking Henry up with his new wife, Anne of Cleves. Sadly Henry wasn’t a fan of his new bride and this was such a big no no that it led to Thomas Cromwell’s death.

But as is probably clear by now, Henry was a petty bitch, and so he made sure that when Thomas went down, he wasn’t going alone.

On the 29 June 1540 Thomas Cromwell was beheaded for treason and his mate, Walter Hungerford, became the first person to be executed under The Buggery Act (among other allegations).

A bloody punishment, with the Buggery Act added as an extra dollop of humiliation for Hungerford and as an additional middle finger to Cromwell who’d helped create the act.*

*side note: before we start feeling really sorry for Walter Hungerford, he was an abusive man who imprisoned his wife to the extent she had to drink her own urine to survive. So you know. Maybe hold the sympathy cards.

Ok, that was A LOT to take in. So let’s pause and take a quick moment to  look at where we are:

  • We have a law that was created to criminalise homosexuality BUT was actually used to screw over the Catholic Church
  • We have a first victim of the law…BUT he was most likely executed not because of the law itself but as an F U to his mate who created the law.

So, we can all agree that thus far, The Buggery Act is a very bloody farce. But that does that mean it’s done?


Though the law was repealed by Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Mary I in 1553 (who wanted power over this to go back to the Catholic Church and it’s ecclesiastic courts), once she died, her successor and sister, Queen Elizabeth I made the Buggery Act law once more.

And from there it started to truly transform into a law for persecution.

latrice gif.gif
Using a Latrice Royale gif to cut the tension, but just a warning: It’s about to get really dark for a bit.

For much of the 15th and 16th centuries arrests and executions under the Buggery Act were few and far between. However, that didn’t happen stop this horrifying law from spreading.

One of the huge issues of The Buggery Act being a law, was that Britons leaving the country took it with them. Take for example those plucky puritans who set sail for the brave new world of America – alongside terrible hats and a smattering of racism, they made sure to also pack legal persecution!

And so the legal execution of people for homosexuality began in a new country. In 1624, Virginia hung Richard Cornish, a ships captain, for ‘forcible sodomy’ of his ships 29 year old cabin boy.

Two years later, Massachusetts hung William Plain on allegations of sodomy that took place in England (so before he even moved to America!).

That same year, the countries New Netherlands colony successfully managed to achieve the discrimination trifecta when they used the Buggery Act to strangle and ‘burn to ashes’, Jan Creoli, a poor black gay man.

If you thought things were bad, they are about to get even worse.

Back in Britain, a more vocal queer community was starting to appear, thanks to the underground popularity of Molly Houses (places where queer men could be free to openly show their sexuality, kind of the great great great grandfather of the small town gay bar). But this emerging light in the dark attracted the worst kind of people and they dedicated themselves to eradicating what they saw as the gay scourge.

One such group was the catchily named, The Society For The Reformation of Manners. Determined to rid London of its LGBT subculture, they worked undercover to infiltrate Molly Houses, gather evidence against its users and then together with the police, raid them.

One such raid was that of Mother Claps house in 1726. Dozens of men were rounded up and arrested, with several fined and pilloried. But that’s not the worst of it. 

The Society For The Reformation of Manners successfully helped to leverage the Buggery Act to hang three of the arrested men for the crime of having sex, or as one witness spat out during the trial:

‘Making love to one another as they call’d it’

example of tyburn execution from the era
Example of an execution, like that of the Mother Clap House victims. from the era

During the 1800’s the executions continued. Trials for men accused under The Buggery Act sprung up across England. Some of those found guilty had the relative luck (though the chance of survival still wasn’t great) at instead being transported to Australia, but others weren’t so lucky.

The last men executed under The Buggery Act were James Pratt and John Smith, in 1835.

A husband and father, James Pratt, met with John Smith in August 1935, at an ale house in London for a drink. The pair then got chatting with an older man, William Bonill and went back to his rooms.

William Bonill soon left to get another drink at the pub, leaving James and John alone. It was after this that Bonill’s landlord reported finding the pair having sex.

Neither James Pratt or John Smith stood a chance in court. If you are in any doubt on that front, just read the opening transcript from John Smith’s prosecutor.

‘feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, had a venereal affair with one James Pratt, and did then and there, feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and agains the order of nature, carnally know the said James Pratt, and with him the said James Pratt did then and there feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, commit and perpetrate the detestale, horrid, and abominable crime (among Christians not to be named) called buggery, to the great displeasure of Almighty God, to the great scandal of all human kind’

Charles Dickens actually attended Newgate jail, when the men were awaiting sentencing and recalled:

‘Their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world.’

He was, of course, right. Of seventeen others sentenced to death at the same time as John and James (for crimes including attempted murder) all had their sentences commuted to transportation to Australia. All expect John Smith and James Pratt.

A huge crowd gathered outside Newgate Jail to watch their deaths.

Watching his (possible) partner, John Smith, being blindfolded and his noose put on, caused James Pratt an understandable level of anguish. He reportedly went physically weak, needing help just to stand and calling out:

‘Oh God, this is horrible. This is indeed horrible.’ 

Though we don’t have clean cut evidence that the two were in a relationship, it’s hard to read this as anything other than love and the devastation of James knowing what his partner was about to go through.

Which I think summarises the pointlessness and brutality the Buggery Act had on all those who feel under its wake. Of it’s last two victims; two men who just wanted a private moment to be together and died because of that.

James Pratt and John Smith
Newspaper from the hanging of James Pratt and John Smith

The Buggery Act remained in place in one form or another until 1861 when the Offences Against The Person Act replaced it.

The new law abolished the death sentence for ‘buggery’, instead punishing those convicted with a prison sentence of up to life. In 1967 the laws around homosexuality as an illegal act were dropped.

All of this, because in 1533 a pissed of King set up a law that he hoped would bring down a religion – the persecution of thousands if not millions, was just secondary. 

If you want to read up more on this and other areas of LGBT+ history (and please do!) some great sources are below:

  • Rictor Norton, for a treasure trove of articles and essays on the history of LGBTQ+ history in England dating back to the medieval era. 
  • The Peter Tatchall Foundation, a human rights charity with an amazing section of history of laws that sought to persecute 
  • The British Library, where you can look at so many of the original documents I mention in this, digitally wherever you are in the world!

What were Molly Houses? – The LGBTQ+ history you have to know!

Want to bone up on your LGBTQ+ history? It’s time to take it back to the 1700’s and discover one of histories most important safe havens

Now if you’re anything like me and you hear the term, molly house, you immediately think of The Burrow (or is that just me…) but as great as the Weasley matriarch is, molly houses are so much more important than any kind of wizarding world fantasy. They were a real word queer safe house, in a time when to be gay was one of the worst things you could possibly be.

Molly houses saw early sparks of a burgeoning queer culture, drag and even marriage. But those that went there were also hunted down, subject to horrifying persecution.

So if you want to bone up on your LGBTQ+ history, it’s time to take it way back. Past Stonewall, past the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, all the way to the 1700’s.

Welcome to the Molly House!

Depiction of a molly house from the BBC programme, Taboo

In the 1700’s it was illegal to be gay. In-fact it wasn’t just illegal, homosexuality was punishable by death (thanks to 1533 law passed by that world renowned nice guy, Henry VIII)

But molly houses provided a much needed beacon of light in the dark. Spread across London, in houses, taverns and inns, they were places that queer culture was celebrated. Where men would gather and live and love without judgement.

Though they were named after the demeaning slang for homosexuality -being a ‘molly’- molly houses were primarily a place for queer men to meet and enjoy their sexuality openly. In fact they are actually one of the first historic sources we have that allows us to delve into queer subculture.

Now quick caveat – I am not saying that before the molly house there was no queer subculture. There was. But it lay far far under the surface. Essentially, something you only knew about if you were in it. But molly houses allowed queer subculture to start to bubble to the surface. No longer completely underground and secret, the molly houses we’re an early step in queer culture permeating the modern western public consciousness.

That’s not to say that was a good thing for the men of the molly house. Because, they were not welcomed.

After all, these men were living in a straight patriarchal society that didn’t just see them as inherently ‘wrong’, but would have no problem seeing them strung up! Just to get an idea of how the men of the molly house were were viewed, look no further than writer Ned Ward, who in 1709 described them as:

‘A particular gang of Sodomitical Wretches’

Yeah. It wasn’t a great time to be gay. But, the Molly House men confronted this stigma head on, with both a knowing wink and a proud middle finger.

On entering a molly house you’d often find everything from stagings of faux weddings to elaborately over the top birthing scenes.

As time went on, these small recreations of lives they were not allowed to lead became so much more. No longer acted out scenes, they took on the identity of a burgeoning community, with some houses setting aside rooms as designated chapels for marriages and couples ‘consummating’ their nuptials in cramped bedrooms.

Sometimes history books refer to the Molly House weddings as ‘mock marriages’ or ‘rituals’ but I don’t think they were. I think those weddings, though entirely non legally binding, were what they’d be called for any other group, ceremonies.

A morning frolic, 1780, after a work by John Collet
A Morning Frolic, 1870, after a work by John Collet

There were also early elements of drag in molly houses. In her book, European Sexualities 1400-1800, Katherine Crawford says that some men took on fantastically over the top female personas. And you best believe these guys give their female counter parts some cracking names!

  • Kitty Cambric was a coal merchant
  • The Duchess of Devonshire (named after the scandalous Georgina Cavendish) was a blacksmith
  • And the one named wonder, Harriet, (truly the Madonna of the molly houses) was a butcher
Hands up who else wants to see Ye Olde Drag Race

Around the same time of the Molly Houses boom, an all together different type of community was coming together. And this one was hell bent on ridding London of what they saw as it’s homosexual scourge.

Everyone stand up and get ready to boo, because the villains of this piece are well and truly here.

Set up in the 1690’s The Society For The Reformation Of Manners dedicated itself to purging London of ill moral and corruption. This male dominated group had members from all walks of life; bankers, gentlemen, shop keepers and labourers, all working together to eradicate sex work, ‘lewdness’ and homosexuality.

They raided brothels, published ‘blacklists’ of those they decided were ‘offenders’ and whispered damning information into judges ears; with these little nuggets of info often gained through underhanded methods.

Throughout the 1720’s and 1730’s there were multiple raids on Molly Houses, undertaken by The Society For The Reformation of Manners. With those men caught, arrested and put on trial. They then faced the minimum punishment of a large fine, or the maximum, death.

It was an incredibly broad spectrum of possible punishments. And as such these trials were often a terrifying experience. Even when a lesser punishment was ordered, death was still possible. One man who was sentenced to several hours in the pillory for sodomy, was beaten so badly he died shortly after being released.

And as Kristin Olson writes in her book, Daily Life in Eighteenth Century (2nd edition), the men faced such an extreme level of public shaming during and after their trial, that several committed suicide.

But the Society For The Reformation of Manners was undeterred, and in 1725 they undertook their most notorious work:

The raid of Mother Claps House

Map including Field Lane, the site of Mother Claps house

Run by Margaret Clap (AKA the titular Mother Clap) Mother Claps house in Holborn (an area in central London) had dozens of regular patrons. With forty or fifty men able to fit in its closely clustered rooms. There were bedrooms, a chapel, dancing and drinks – basically all the makings for a good time.

But Mother Clap’s was under close surveillance. Informants were in its ranks, whispering its secrets to the society for the reformation of manners.

This led to one Constable Samuel Stevens infiltrating Mother Claps. He pretended to be the partner of an informant and spent several Sunday nights (when the house was busiest) lurking in its corridors and corners. Noting down names, faces and matching them to illegal activity.

By February 1726, Stevens had everything he needed. He dutifully reported all he had seen back to The Society for the reformation of manners, and Mother Claps house was raided.

By the raids end, forty men had been arrested

Mother Clap and two of those arrested were scentenced to time in the pillories, with one given a year in prison and several more forced into hiding. These were cruel punishments, but not as cruel as what happened to three of the men arrested, Gabriel Lawrence, Thomas Wright and William Griffin, who were put on trial for their ‘crimes’.

During these trials, Samuel Stevens recounted the illegal activity he had seen at the house, saying:

‘I found near Men Fifty there, making Love to one another as they call’d it. Sometimes they’d sit in one anothers Laps, use their Hands indecently Dance and make Curtsies and mimick the Language of Women – O Sir! – Pray Sir! – Dear Sir! Lord how can ye serve me so! – Ah ye little dear Toad! Then they’d go by Couples, into a Room on the same Floor to be marry’d as they call’d it.’

43 year old milkman, Gabriel Lawrence was charged with having had sex with two of Samuel Stevens informants. he was found guilty on one count and sentenced to death. A 32 year old molly house owner, Thomas Wright was also found guilty of sodomy, after Stevens informants claimed to have had sex with him. As was, William Griffin, a 43 year old furniture upholsterer. Both men were sentenced to death.

In May the three men were hung at London’s Tyburn. A huge crowd flocked to see the molly’s hang, with the added bonus that they were to be executed alongside a famous murderess, Catherine Hayes (who was burnt at the stake for the murder of her husband). This truly was the 1700’s version of a new box set landing on Netflix.

In fact so many people came to witness the executions that one of the stands for the viewing public collapsed, killing several spectators.

Example of a public hanging from this era

The trials of Mother Clap, Griffin, Lawrence and Wright, resulted in mass public outcry over molly houses. Which forced the molly houses to go underground.

They didn’t stop or die out, but became incredibly hard to find if you weren’t already in the know. This not only meant that many men who were just starting to explore their sexuality, lost any chance at a community, but it also had a real impact on history remembering molly houses. With them being a footnote at most until very recently.

So lets take this opportunity to raise a glass, in celebration and remembrance of the molly house and all those who went through their doors.

If you’re interested to know more on molly houses and LGBTQ+ culture in London’s history in general, I’d suggest checking out Rictor Nortons writing and research (link here) it’s fascinating stuff!

More like this

Dr James Barry and the erasure of LGBTQ+ history

In 1865 Dr James Barry was stripped of his identity. A violation that’s still being exploited today. So who was Dr Barry and what does his story tell us about LGBTQ history?

Doctor James Barry was a well respected and hugely influential Army doctor. His work improved medical conditions for soldiers receiving medical care during warfare and his practices around cleanliness and sanitation made their way into hospitals back home too.

But that’s not why we’re talking about Dr Barry today.

Despite all his achievements, Dr Barry is mainly remembered because of rampant speculation about his gender.

After his death – despite his will and direct wishes – it was ‘exposed’ that James Barry had been assigned female at birth.

As a result of this, the good doctor has been claimed by some as a figure in women’s history. Several books about Barry include the word ‘woman’ in the title, with a new with a novel due out soon that presents Barry as a woman.

Still others argue that his identity is too complex to define… but is this the truth of it?

Dr James Barry in the 1840’s

But before we delve into the modern politics, let’s discover who this incredible man actually was.

Born in Cork, Ireland around 1795, James was an intelligent child who grew up with the aspiration to become a doctor and work for the army. In 1808 he put that plan in motion and set off to Edinburgh University to start his medical degree, receiving his medical doctorate in 1812, after which he moved to London and trained at the prestigious Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals. Shortly after this he passed his qualification under the Royal College of Surgeons.

As soon as he had this under his belt James up and joined the army, kicking off an illustrious and well respected career. Barry spent ten years in Cape Town, South Africa where he improved sanitation and water systems, which reduced deaths from infections.

He also set up a leper sanctuary while he was there and improved conditions for slaves, prisoners, the lower ranked soldiers and the mentally ill. This commitment to those in lower and more vulnerable classes was unheard of at the time and it meant he ruffled a few feathers. The fact he was also a bit of a belligerent ass also meant he was disliked by many of his peers.

He then had postings in Mauritius, Jamaica, the West Indies, Malta, Corfu and even found time to help with the Crimean War effort on his own time. Dr Barry was then posted to Canada, in all his posts he continued to fight for improved sanitation practices. His blunt and stern demenour got him repremanded by superiors many times, but the quality and skill of his work made him almost untouchable!

He had a famous run in with Florence Nightingale while they were both stationed as medical staff during the Crimean War. Nightingale described James as ‘the most hardened creature I ever met.’

In 1859 James was forcibly retired from the army due to his failing health and age. He passed away a few years later in London on July 25th 1865.

Dr Barry requested in his will that no autopsy be performed, his body not inspected in any way and it was to buried as he was found. Unfortunately he did not get his wish and the maid who prepared his body for burial exposed Barry’s previous identity.

She took this information to James’ physician, Dr R. McKinnon, who had signed him as male on the death certificate. Dr McKinnon refused to pay the maid when she tried to blackmail him and she retaliated by taking this story to the press.

Since this then there has been the rhetoric that Dr James Barry was just a woman disguising himself as a man to get by.

His story became sensationalised.

This kind of erasure of LGBTQ history and identity is something that’s prevalent among historians, history fans and in historical media today.

King James I was just good mates with George Villiers, despite love letters calling George his ‘wife’ and a passageway between their rooms being discovered. People still argue Anne Lister wasn’t a lesbian, despite the fact she wrote in her diaries that she loved ‘only the fairer sex’.

Transgender identities in history receive the most debate and outright aggressive erasure of the LGBTQ community.

The excuse used for this type of erasure is that none of these identities existed ‘in those days’. But here’s the thing- Not having the language to express an identity in a way that makes it palatable today doesn’t mean Trans people didn’t exist.

Are there are examples in history of women disguising themselves as men to get ahead in another profession? Yes. But these women still identified themselves as women (see Margaret King).

James was not a woman.

In all Dr Barry’s written discourse he referred to himself as male, he did not want his body examined after death. Dr James Barry was a Transgender man.

Portrait of Dr James Barry

There’s arguments for and against this statement, including the fact that Dr Barry was offered the chance to practice medicine in Venezuela, where women could practice as Doctors, but he turned it down.

Or the fact he maintained his identity as a man even when accusations of sodomy (illegal at the time) were counted against him.

The argument that Barry must have identified as a woman includes the fact that pictures of dresses were found in one of his trunks.

But all these arguments pale when we look at this one simple fact – Dr James Barry lived and died as a man. His correspondence was as a man and he wanted his identity protected after his death. Anything else is just projection.

Dr Barry is sensationalised in a heinous way that exploits and reduces trans identities down to sexual organs and ‘shock’ reveals.

Again I reiterate that he asked for his wishes to be respected after death, and he was violated in an unforgivable way.

And this violation continues today.

Dr James Barry had his identity stripped from him and we need to give it back. After years of arguments and misgendering we at least owe him that.

That was interesting, how can I find out more? Well I highly recommend the following articles by Jack Doyle and E E Ottoman for further reading.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

Pride: Get to Grips With Some Bona Gay Slang

It’s the third and final article on our Pride series (don’t worry there’ll still be plenty more on LGBTQ history to come!!!!)

Now being gay used to be illegal so a secret language developed that helped all the queers identify each other in a public space without fear of being arrested or having the shite beaten out of you by police.

That secret language was called Polari….lets dive straight in

Get excited bitches! Via Giphy

Polaris origins are a mish mash of Italian, Cockney rhyming slang, Romany and Yiddish. It started developed within the fairground, seafaring and theatrical communities in the 30s and 40s before being adopted by gay men in the 50s and 60s as a way of socially identifying each other.

If you saw a sexy geezer in your local drinking hole all you had to do was slide over to him and drop a bit of Polari to see if he was also a ‘friend of Dorothy’ For example:

‘Ello dish, nice basket you’ve got for me.’

This translates as: ‘Hello sexy, I like the bulge in your trousers!’

She knows… Via Giphy

If he was into it he’d probably ask if you were looking for trade… ie THE SEX!

It sounds gloriously camp and theatrical (because it was) and was very much a part of the working class gay haunts in London.

Gay men embraced and played up to the theatricality of the language, both protecting themselves and expressing themselves with a way of communicating that was just for them.

It was popularised in mainstream culture by two comic characters Julian And Sandy in the popular radio sketch show Round The Horne.

Played by Kenneth Williams (him off all the Carry Ons) on and Hugh Paddick. They’d revel in salacious gossiping with the straight man host Kenneth Horne.

SANDY: “Don’t mention Málaga to Julian, he got very badly stung.”

HORNE: “Portuguese man o’ war?”

JULIAN: “Well I never saw him in uniform…”

Ba-dum tish! Via Giphy

It died out in the 70’s after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Also gay men had to remind everyone else that not all of them were theatrical and camp queens. It is not ONE SIZE FITS ALL or rather one stereotype fits all, so Polari fell out of favour.

So many gay slang terms still used (not always in a good way) come from Polari, like camp, mince, drag, butch (applied to masculine lesbians) and cottaging.

Yes we are!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Via Giphy

Want to have a go? Here’s some choice words for you to try out. Give us your best Polari!

Basket – The bulge in a dudes trousers.

Bold – Daring

Bona – Good

Buns – Bum

Butch – masculine

Camp – Effeminate

Chicken – A Young Man

Dolly – Pretty

Dish – A sexy man

Eek – Face

Fantabulosa – Wonderful

Fruit – An older gay gentleman

Naff – Not available for fucking

Omi – Man

Omipolone – A camp gay man

Polone – a lady

Riah – Hair

Slap – Makeup

Trade – SEX

Troll – Walking

Vada – To look at

So to use a classic Julian & Sandy line:

‘How nice to vada your dolly old eek’

would basically be ‘Nice to see your pretty face!’

🏳️‍🌈 Via Giphy

This was interesting, where can I find out more? 

This brilliant short film, set in the 1960’s shows us two men having a conversation in Polari https://youtu.be/Y8yEH8TZUsk

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The Baddest Bitch of Stonewall

Marsha P Johnson was a fucking badass. A badass with a big heart, a creative sense of style and a fearless attitude. She was a veteran of the Stonewall riots in the late 60’s, she campaigned for Queer rights and set up a charity to help disadvantaged Queer youth.

The influence Marsha and other trans women of colour had on bringing Queer rights into the mainstream as well as the creation of Pride, protests and change in laws is often ignored or whitewashed by mainstream culture.

Marsha never missed a protest 💪🏿

Marsha was a child of poverty, she grew up in a rough neighbourhood and moved to New York City from New Jersey when she was 18. Once in New York she legally changed her name to Marsha and started getting the reputation as being the Queen with a big heart.

She was often homeless, hustled to make money (as many trans women had to) and was always getting picked up by police.

The thing I love most about Marsha is her creativity. She was a street queen who could turn any junk into treasure, she was known to put christmas tree lights in her hair and use bits and pieces she found in the trash to make her outfits.

If someone complimented her outfit she was inclined to give it to them. That’s just how she was.

Our babe Marsha 🙌🏿 Via Giphy

Marsha was at the Stonewall Inn Celebrating her birthday with friends when police raided the bar at 1.40am. The police treated the Queer community like shit and were constantly raiding and arresting people in some of the only available safe spaces they had. So tensions were already high.

Marsha fought back against the police that night and threw a shot glass into a mirror stating she knew her rights thus instigating the riots and protests against their treatment by police that lasted THREE FUCKING DAYS! This became known as the:

‘Shotglass heard around the world’

You don’t come to fuck up Marsha’s party and leave without an ass kicking.

Damn right bitch! Via Giphy

After the riots Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera (another trans activist) founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and they used every penny they had to set up a halfway house for runaway LGBT youth.

Seriously EVERYTHING they made went on clothing and food for the ‘children’ they supported. They were utterly selfless.

They were still often homeless and went without themselves to help their kids. Marsha became known as the ‘Queen Mother’ of the house.

My kinda Queen Mother 👑

Marsha and Sylvia are heroes and should be lauded as such right? But during one of the first gay pride marches in New York, Sylvia took to the stage to make a speech AND THE AUDIENCE TRIED TO BOO HER OFF THE STAGE!

No, I don’t see the logic her either… but Sylvia wasn’t going to just walk off stage. Bitch turned that crowd around and by the end was leading a mammoth chant of


Marsha was also often dismissed by other gay rights activists at the time because of her appearance and ‘kooky’ demeanor. She struggled with mental health issues and was in and out of prisons and mental health facilities throughout her life.

Once when she was in court a judge asked her what the P stood for and she replied

‘Pay it no mind.’

Same. Via Giphy

LEGEND! The judge totally let her off.

Marsha had a varied and incredible life despite her shitty living conditions.

In 1975 Marsha was photographed by Andy Warhol for his Ladies and Gentlemen series. He painted a beautiful picture of Marsha that captured her essence perfectly, our girl looks fucking radiant!

Marsha and her Warhol portrait.

As if that wasn’t cool enough she started performing in the mid 70’s with Hot Peaches an experimental queer cabaret group.

She was super popular with the audiences and loved being on the stage. She played up to being tone deaf so screamed rather than sang her numbers, AND EVERYONE LOVED IT!

Marsha scream/singing. Via Giphy

Now, guys I’m really sorry but… Marsha’s story has a really shitty ending.

She was found dead in the Hudson River not long after the 1992 New York Pride march. The death was dismissed as a suicide by the police, but her friends were adamant that there had been foul play.

There’d been sightings of Marsha being harassed in the street the night she went missing. But hey, she was black, gay and trans so they didn’t give a toss.

Marsha’s case was finally reopened in 2012 which was 20 WHOLE YEARS after her death thanks to a campaign by transgender activist Mariah Lopez (another total badass, who opened the first transgender housing unit for Rikers Island, the largest American Prison in 2014.)

Marsha’s funeral had hundreds of mourners and they threw her ashes in the river along with bunches of bright flowers. She was known for having flowers in her hair, so this gesture gets us right in the feels.

😭 Via Giphy

Her friend Sylvia was bereft without Marsha, but this bitch was tough. She carried on campaigning and helping disadvantaged LGBT youth until her death from liver cancer in 2002.

We love Marsha, she was an incredible woman who was full of life and love for everyone. We could all do with being a bit more like her tbh.

Beautiful Marsha. Via Giphy

This was really interesting! Where can I find out more? The documentary Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P Johnson is on Youtube and it is much watch stuff!!

But please, we beg you… DO NOT USE THE HOLLYWOOD FILM, AS A REFERENCE! The film, Stonewall, is a whitewashed steaming turd of a mess (obvs our opinion, but…)

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The Baddest Queer Bitches in History

It’s Pride Season and we’ve already started planning our outfit for London & Brighton Pride (hint… RAINBOW-LEOPARD PRINT-GLITTER) SO lets celebrate everything LGBTQ+! To kick things off here are some of our favourite queer ladies.


Sappho with Erena – Simeon Solomon

You cannot start a list about history’s greatest queers without mentioning Sappho. She was a Greek poet who lived on the Island of Lesbos (sign me up) around 615 B.C. Sappho wrote about her love for many a woman and was one of the highest regarded poets of her lifetime.

Sorry,…Mrs Fancy Pants         Via Giphy

Plato called her ‘The Tenth Muse’ which was a massive compliment at the time. The other nine muses were the Greek Goddesses of Art & Science; so he thought Sappho was a pretty big deal.

There’s an argument between historian’s as to if Sappho did have relationships with women or if her poetry was just about her dearest ‘gal pals’. Only fragments of her poems survive and since she lived a really fecking long time ago we can’t ask her.

Personally I think her poems evoke a deep sense of love and sexual longing for her female subjects that goes way beyond the ‘female admiration’ lots of male historians like to think Sappho had for platonic pals.

Presented without comment… Via Giphy

See what you think for yourself. Here’s an extract from Sappho 94 translated by Julia Dubnoff:

“For by my side you put on

many wreaths of roses

and garlands of flowers

around your soft neck.

And with precious and royal perfume

you anointed yourself.

On soft beds you satisfied your passion.”


So so so gay.

Later history mocked and destroyed her work. It was denounced by the church and was ridiculed by poets and playwrights who wrote her off as a sexual deviant or a tragic character. But finally our girl is getting her rep back!

Sappho is the mother of lesbians and her influence cannot be argued with.

Mabel Hampton


Mabel was a staunch activist and LGBT+ historian, she was instrumental in recording and preserving queer history, especially the experience of living as a gay, black woman in America during periods of huge upheaval.

Hell… Mabel IS the reason we know so much now. The Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York are full to the brim thanks to Mabel. She was a bit of a hoarder.

Yikes! Via Giphy

She had a pretty tragic upbringing, her Mum died not long after giving birth to her and her Grandmother followed a few years later. She was raised by an abusive Aunt & Uncle before deciding ‘Fuck this, I’ve had enough’

She moved to Harlem and worked as a dancer during the Harlem Renaissance (see our blog post on this INCREDIBLE movement.) And she was a regular at Harlem drag balls; an early celebration of queer black identities during the roaring 20’s.

She left showbiz and started work as a cleaning lady. When asked why she left behind the glitz and glamour she famously answered

‘Because I like to eat.’

I have never related to a statement this hard.

Fo realzies. Via Giphy

Mabel publicly declared herself as a lesbian during a time when being black alone made you heavily persecuted, but gay too?! THE LADY WAS BRAVE!

She met her partner Lillian Foster at a bus stop in 1932 describing her as: dressed like a duchess’. They were together until Foster’s death in 1978. Serious relationship goals.


Mabel and Lillian spent their lives documenting their experiences as a lesbian couple. They helped set up the Lesbian Herstory Archives and Mabel & Lillian donated hundreds of newspaper clippings, gay books, photographs and other paraphernalia to the archives.

Mabel gave a speech at the New York Pride Parade in 1984 stating to the crowds

‘I, Mabel Hampton, have been a lesbian all my life, for 82 years, and I am proud of my people. I would like all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my black people.’

She was incredible. We were lucky to have her.

Anne Lister


Possibly our fave on this list, Anne (born in 1791) was seriously rich…like MTV Cribs level minted. Her family owned a bunch of land in Halifax, West Yorkshire and they were desperate to marry her off to some rich oik to keep that money rolling in. ANNE WAS HAVING NONE OF IT!

She inherited fancy country house Shibden Hall from her uncle, immediately built herself a posh new library and decided to live openly with another super rich babe Ann Walker. She’s lucky Ann came along when she did because the money was running out at that point.

Via Giphy

She was known locally as ‘Gentleman Jack’ for the way she dressed in male clothing. She tended to wear sensible black jakets, with no frilly business. Our girl was a Georgian butch. She kept coded diaries which tell us pretty plainly that Anne was very definitely a lesbian.

‘I love & only love the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.’

Her diaries were coded, she thought we’d never crack it, but thank feck we did because these diaries are SO JUICY! Anne had mad game and went through a lot of high societies ladies.

Here are some of our fave snippets

‘But I mean to amend at five & thirty & retire with credit. I shall have a good fling before then. Four years. And in the meantime I shall make my avenae communes, my wild oats common. I shall domiciliate then.’

So she wanted life to be like a big gay 18-30 holiday. Can’t argue with that.

Same. Via Giphy

‘I begin to despair that M- & I will ever get together. Besides I sometimes fancy she will be worn out in the don’s service & perhaps I may do better.’

M was Mariana Lawton, who was the love of Anne’s life. She married a rich old dude, which devastated Anne as she wanted to live with M as her partner. Their affair carried on for a while after the marriage, but it fizzled out a few years later.

Much of the info we have on Anne’s diaries is from Helena Whitbread, another incredible woman working to preserve lesbian history. THANK YOU HELENA!

Marlene Dietrich


Marlene is one of my favourite old Hollywood starlets. This German had a mind like a razor and cheekbones to match, plus she looked fucking amazing in a suit.

She made androgynous dress sexy and alluring. Up till this time most women dressing as drag kings was done very much for laughs or in the sanctity of queer spaces underground. Marlene brought it to the mainstream.


Dietrich was a German silent film actor in the 20’s before moving into talkies and raking it in with her ‘exotic’ looks and fabulous accent. During this time period the gay scene in Berlin was happening, hip, where it’s at etc.

Marlene bloody loved a drag ball, as she was openly bisexual, and could frolic with all the young ladies she could get her hands on. At these parties she learnt how to rock the fuck out of a three piece suit.

In the late 20’s/early 30’s she got her big break in Hollywood films where she usually played a sexy cabaret singer of some kind. In one of her most famous films, Morocco, (where she plays a sexy cabaret singer) Marlene dresses in a fancy very masculine top hat and tails suit (PHWOR!) during one of her numbers and at the end sneaks in a kiss with a young lady! SCANDAL!

She kissed a girl AND she liked it. Via Giphy

She just about got away with it because American’s assume us Europeans are a passionate and sexually charged lot.

This theme of taking on masculine traits was something she embraced with gusto, training as a boxer in a sweaty gym in Berlin owned by a Turkish prizefighter. She enjoyed boxing and followed the sport throughout her life.

Marlene was known to have a network of Hollywood starlets she had affairs with, she referenced this overlapping group as Marlene’s Sewing Circle. I’m going to sew this onto my biker jacket right now.

Later in life she said some stupid shit (women’s lib was ‘penis envy’…) so she’s a pretty problematic favourite. But she was a real pioneer. Drag Kings and androgens owe her a debt of thanks.

Billie Holiday


The Lady of the Blues is one of the most recognisable voices in the world. Billie had a tragic and abusive upbringing after which she then spent most of her adult life battling a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Billie had relationships with many women but her most well known was with actress Tallulah Bankhead. It was a volatile relationship which was always on again, then off again, THEN ON. We’ve all been there.

PREACH! Via Giphy

While Tallulah was starring in Noel Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway Billie had a contract singing in New York’s Strand Theatre. Tallulah would sneak in and watch Billie performing after her show finished. That’s sweet innit?

However the breakup went bad. Billie was arrested for opium possession and Bankhurst bailed her out, then got her into therapy. They parted ways soon afterwards, but things did not stay civil.

Stay down bitch! Via Giphy

Billie was working on her memoirs, which included mentioning her friendship with Bankhead, but Talullah maintained she’d never even met Holiday (despite lots of evidence to the contrary) and she sent a letter to Billie’s publishers threatening to sue unless she was taken out of it.

Billie sent back an amazingly shitty letter to Bankhead reminding her that she had people around who could back up her story and she wrote-

‘And if you want to get shitty, we can make it a big shitty party. We can all get funky together!’

Mic drop. Holiday out.


So that’s some of our fave historical queer ladies.

We’ll be doing more posts on LGBTQ+ history during Pride season, we’ve got Marsha P Johnson & the Stonewall riots up next week!

Who do you want us to write about?!

Answers on a post card…or in the comments.

Alternatively gives us a shout on the F Yeah History Twitter and Facebook 

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

5 Drag Queens who changed herstory

Ru-Pauls Drag Race is taking over mainstream entertainment and drag is now hotter than ever. But before Ru there were these 5 Queens that changed herstory forever:

The library is open!
For knowledge…and maybe some reading

Empress Jose I

Jose Julio Sarria served in the military during the Second World. Though officially a too short to serve (standing at just five feet) Jose was desperate to sign up following Pearl Harbour; later claiming that the army overlooked his stature after he seduced a recruiting officer.

Jose Julio Sarria
To be fair, boy is a bae

Once home and discharged Jose started training to be a teacher; but as an out man in the 1950s this was -to be blunt- a fucking impossible profession to break into.

Still he persisted, earning tuition by waiting tables at San Franciscos Black Cat bar (described by Allen Ginsberg as the best gay club in the world-so you know it’s good) Jose caught the eye of authorities and in the mid 50’s was bought in on trumped up charges of solicitation. Now essentially unemployable, his dreams of teaching were in tatters.

But instead of heading back into the closet, Jose turned to drag. Learning the art from some of the Black Cats existing artists and rising to become The Black Cats headliner as Empress Jose l. He used his run in with the law as inspiration, performing his own take on the opera Carmen, which saw him run around the club fleeing the vice squad.

Don’t pretend you wouldn’t die to see that via giphy

But satire wasn’t enough for Jose. Just like Jose had been, gay men in San Francisco were frequently arrested for solitician, gay clubs were shaken down for cash and drag queens arrested and accused of ‘intent to deceive’.

So Jose took action, he helped support those arrested fight their cases in court, led The Black Cats patrons to the jail to serenade those locked within and came up with badges that said ‘I’m a boy’ to stop harassment of other drag artists.

But this still wasn’t enough. Jose knew that San Francisco didn’t grant his community the dignity they did other citizens, and he couldn’t let that lie. So in 1961 he borrowed a friends suit and ran for San Franciscos governing body. The first openly gay person anywhere in the world to run for elected office.

United We Stand, Divided They’ll Catch Us One by One

Under this slogan Jose bought together San Franciscos LGBTQ community, urging them to fight for their place in society.

Jose lost. But the message was clear; San Francusicos authorities could no longer ignore the LGBTQ community. They had stood up, been counted and shown how powerful they were.

Bert Savoy

Bert Savoy was the Godfather of camp. A Queen whose act played on sexuality and a healthy dose of innuendo, he wouldn’t be too out of place in today’s drag landscape.

Bert Savoy
He also looks like the most fun!

In the early 20th century female impersonation was part and parcel of the popular vaudeville scene. Drag acts such as Julian Eltinge wowed audience with acts that were elegant, fashionable and feminine. When drag was humorous it tended to be based around the premise of a man who had somehow been forced/ended up dressed as a woman (as you do).

But Bert Savoy was different; he walked on stage a drag queen without the need for plot or premise, performing bawdy, brash and colourful comedy routines. Bert Savoy 2

Soon Berts’ uniqueness (nerve and talent) got him to Broadway. In 1918 he appeared as part of the renowned Ziegfeld Follies, performing alongside straight man Jay Brennan. Bertie honed the art of high camp on stage as a redhead (sadly unnamed) Queen, shocking Brennan with stories of her debuchery sodden life.

That other infamous innuendo lover, Mae West, drew much of her inspiration from Bertie. With her iconic ‘come up and see me sometime’ drawn directly from Bertie’s catchphrase ‘you must come over’. 

Mae West.gif

Via Giphy

Sadly before Bert could bring his groundbreaking campery to the silver screen and film the Mae West Bert Savoy team up that would have completed all our lives – he came to a dramatic end. dun dun dun!.gif

In the summer of 1923 Bert took a walk along Long Beach with several other Vaudeville stars. A sudden storm rolled in and as rain started to pour Bert turned to the others, hand on hip he struck a pose and said:

Well, ain’t Miss God cuttin’ up somethin’ fierce?

Upon which he was immediately struck by lightening. And that was the end of Bert Savoy

Danny La Rue

Years after Bertie Savoy was bringing a new type of drag to the Broadway stage, in England & Ireland Danny La Rue was quite literally dragging the art out of pubs and clubs and into Londons West End as well as small screens across the country. Danny La Rue

The first drag artist to perform for the royal family, La Rue bought drag into mainstream British entertainment. Known for appearing on stage in high glamour before turning to the audience and letting out a gruff ‘wotcha mates’, he mixed glitz and comedy with winning charisma.

He elevated drag from something that was seen as a seedy music hall throwback to something everyone could enjoy. When Prince Philip (who else…) asked La Rue if he really dressed as a woman for money, La Rue shot back that getting paid was the fashion now.

La Rue in the title role of a production of Hello Dolly

A canny business man La Re had built an empire around himself before the end of the 1960s. With a string of smash hit West End shows, was a regular on TV and ran his own club in London where he infamously fought off a punter who got a bit to handsy with Barbara Windsor, saying ‘don’t let the wig fool ya’ before punching the scoundrel out.
-side note for my American readers: Barbara Windsor is a British national treasure, though I can’t really put my finger on why, so your just going to have trust me on this one’

La Rue performing
La Rue performing in his club

As well as serving as inspiration for the likes of Boy George and Lily Savage, La Rue was also one of the first out figures in the U.K. entertainment industry. Living with his partner of 40 years Jack Hanson – an ex marine turned La Rues manager – for decades before Hansons death.

La Rue then had several short affairs before his ‘companion’ Wayne King died of AIDS, an issue La Rue spoke out about; raising countless funds for aids charities and earning an OBE from the Queen (a huge fan, even if Prince Philip didn’t quite get it)


‘Cross-dresser walks along a street. Bends down, picks up freshly laid dog turd. Eats it.’

And enter Divine

Divine walking down the street.gif
Find me a better entrance, I dare you. via giphy

Having experienced years of bullying Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead) finally found a home with John Waters and his band of filmmaking misfits.

With the aim of shocking the love generation Divine and Waters teamed up to make some of the provocative and rebellious films of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, with works like Hairspray and Pink Flamingoes still standing up as must see classics (for reals though, if you haven’t seen a Divine film stop what your doing right now and go better yourself)Divine, Pink Flamingoes

An outcast even with the gay community, Harris channeled everything he experienced into Divine. Having grown up wanting to be a film star like Elizabeth Taylor, Harris flipped the Hollywood dream onto its head, creating the antsiphis of the beauty that graced film and drag stage alike and birthing something extreme, fun and troubling all at the same time.

how could anyone be filthier than Divine?.gif
via giphy

With comedic timing and slapstick skills for days Divine quickly became an icon on film. She broke every drag rule. Wearing figure hugging clothes at 300 pounds? Check. Wielding a chainsaw at punters? Check. Bending the rules of feminine make up? Check check check (her trademark eyebrows can still be seen in every drag club)

Divine created the cutting edge and made it clear that for a Queen to break the mainstream she needed to be her own firebrand.

Mother Flawless Sabrina

Born in south Philadelphia in 1940, Jack Doroshow would be arrested over 100 times for cross dressing and go onto become Andy Warhols’ muse, a film star and a pioneer for LGBTQ rights under the moniker of Mother Flaweless Sabrina, or simply, The Queen. Flawless Sabrina .jpg

In 1958 – before Drag was legal – Sabrina started a drag beauty pageant, The Nationals (I will add here that Sabrina was 19. thats right. 19. Please take a moment to remember what you were doing at 19…I’m guessing it wasn’t anything this badass.

Sabrina set up The National Academy, a traveling drag pageant offering many newbie queens (including Divine) a chance to step on stage for the first time. There were 46 shows across America each year between 1958-1969, with Sabrina managing a staff of over 100 to pull off such a huge undertaking (making Sabrina quite possibly the largest LGBTQ employer of the 60s) Mother Flawless Sabrina

The impact that the National Academy had cannot be understated, whilst drag had performance spaces, these were the first performances for Queens by Queens. Sabrina ensured that where possible proceeds from shows were donated into local LGBTQ communities. In 1968 the More than all of this though, Sabrina provided an environment for people to find their place within their community

“Kermit says it’s not easy being green. Well, being a queen is flawless.”

So those are just 5 of the Queens that changed herstory forever. The question now is, which Queen will be the next game changer?

Gentlemen, start your enginesstart your engines.gif

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