An Oxford Researcher has discovered a 1810 diary which argues that homosexuality is natural.
In his 1810 diary, Yorkshire farmer Matthew Tomlinson questioned the death penalty’s application for homosexual activity and sodoomy – suggesting that homosexuality may be natural. The discovery of Tomlinson’s views was made by Eamonn O’Keeffe, an AHRC-funded doctoral student in the History Faculty at the University of Oxford, while undertaking his PhD research in Wakefield Library. Tomlinson’s journal reflects a potential difference in opinion of ordinary people on homosexuality than previously thought.
Responding to media coverage of the execution of a naval surgeon for sodomy, on 14 January 1810 Tomlinson 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 diary entry was in response to the execution of 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. Tomlinson’s musings suggest that not everyone took the decisions and criticism of homosexuality uncritically.
Tomlinson suggests that homosexuality may be natural, and thus should not be punished by death. He questions whether God would have created people to naturally have a defect which should be punished with death: “It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty shou’d make a being, with such a nature; or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whome he had formed, shou’d at any time follow the dictates of that Nature with which he was formed he shou’d be punished with death.”
On the discovery, O’Keeffe said: “In this diary we see a Yorkshire farmer arguing that homosexuality is innate and something that should not be punished by death. 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.
“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.”
Similar views were expressed at the time by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his unpublished works and by landowner Anne Lister. Bentham supported decriminalization of homosexuality in unpublished writings from the 1770s to 1820s. Anne Lister defended her own homosexual feelings as natural and instinctive in her 1823 diary.
O’Keefe elaborated on the recent findings: “While Tomlinson’s writings reflect the opinions of only one man, the phrasing implies that his comments were informed by the views of others. This exciting new evidence complicates and enriches our understanding of historical attitudes towards sexuality, suggesting that the revolutionary conception of same-sex attraction as a natural human tendency, discernible from adolescence and deserving of acceptance, was mooted within the social circles of a Yorkshire farmer during the reign of George III.”
Tomlinson’s views were not fully in disagreement with those of his time. He said that if homosexuality is a choice, then it should be punished – potentially grueseomely with castration.
Tomlinson was a farmer at the Dog House Farm, and his journals had previously been used to enlighten historians about the perspectives of ordinary people at this time. Claire Pickering, librarian at the Wakefield Library – where the diaries are being held, said: “I am delighted that this discovery has been made. It’s not the first time Tomlinson’s diaries have come to the attention of academia for their provincial non-conformist outlook and thoughtful self-expression, but I’m delighted that a new audience will be exposed to them with an interest in LBGTQ histories.”
O’Keeffe expresses excitement that his unexpected discovery could bring light to the history of perspectives on homosexuality throughout history during LGBTQ+ history month: “Tomlinson’s meditations thus prove ultimately inconclusive, but nonetheless provide rare and historically valuable insight into the efforts of an ordinary person of faith to grapple with questions of sexual ethics more than two centuries ago. His comments anticipate many of the arguments deployed successfully by the LGBT+ and marriage equality movements in recent decades to promote acceptance of sexual diversity. Tomlinson’s remarkable reflections suggest that recognizably modern conceptions of human sexuality were circulating in British society more widely – and at an earlier date – than commonly assumed.”