200-year-old farmer’s diary entry on homosexual behaviour excites history experts

The discovery of a 19th century diary entry has historians excited because it’s shedding new light on people’s understanding and support of same-sex love, which was once assumed to be relatively modern.

A farmer’s diary entry from 1810 argues that people are born homosexual and should not have to be killed because of it. The entry, by Matthew Tomlinson from Yorkshire, was penned on 14 January 1810 and was in response to being devastated by reports of the court-martial and execution of a naval
surgeon, James Nehemiah Taylor, who was hanged from the yard-arm of HMS Jamaica on 26 December 1809 for committing sodomy with his young servant.

He wrote: “It appears a paradox to me, how men, who are men, shou’d possess such a passion; and more particularly so, if it is their nature from childhood (as I am informed it is) – If they feel such an inclination, and propensity, at that certain time of life when youth genders [i.e. develops] into manhood;
it must then be considered as natural, otherwise, as a defect in nature … it seems cruel to punish that defect with death”.

The excerpt was uncovered by Eamonn O’Keeffe, a doctoral student in the History Faculty at the University of Oxford, while undertaking his PhD research in Wakefield Library.

“In this diary we see a Yorkshire farmer arguing that homosexuality is innate and something that should not be punished by death,” explained O’Keeffe. “While Tomlinson’s writings reflect the opinions of only one man, his phrasing – ‘as I am informed it is’ – implies that his comments were informed by the views
of others”.

He added that, “This exciting discovery complicates and enriches our understanding of Georgian attitudes towards sexuality, suggesting that the revolutionary conception of same-sex attraction as a natural human tendency, discernible from adolescence, was mooted within the social circles of an
ordinary Yorkshire farmer”.

“This wonderful archival find by Eamonn O’Keeffe provides vivid proof that, even during times of severe persecution, historical attitudes to same-sex behaviour could be more sympathetic than is usually presumed,” commented Professor Fara Dabhoiwala, a historian at Princeton University with expertise in
the history of changing sexual attitudes and behaviour.

“Matthew Tomlinson’s diary illustrates that, by 1810, even an ordinary Yorkshire farmer could seriously entertain the idea that homosexuality was not a horrible perversion that deserved the death penalty, but simply a natural, divinely ordained human quality”.

Dr Rictor Norton, an expert on the history of homosexuality in this period, said “the view that homosexuality was a natural inclination was rarely so clearly expressed” as in Tomlinson’s writings. “It is extraordinary to find an ordinary, casual observer in 1810 seriously considering the possibility that
sexuality is innate and making arguments for decriminalisation,” he added.

“Tomlinson’s diary reflections on homosexuality are unique for their time”.