Molly houses: England’s 19th century gay sex clubs

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Thanks to shows like Queen Charlotte and the regular trickle of Austen adaptations, most of us are familiar with the Regency period, the decade between 1811 and 1820. It was a world of hot goss, fresh threads (silk and tulle, in this case), and manners so refined they could almost hide the hierarchical tensions that simmer beneath the banter.

If that setup sounds familiar, it should. Joel Kim Booster knew what he was doing when he set his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice on Fire Island: subtlety ruled the Regency’s social world, and a meaningful glance or an arched eyebrow could wreak absolute emotional devastation. Compare your average West Village brunch conversation to an after-dinner gathering in an Austen book, and you’ll hear the same codes of indirect meaning and implication.

Yet in most of the modern stories set in the Regency, we see hardly any gay characters at the balls and tea parties. It makes you wonder: in the actual Regency era, where did all the gay men go? History’s got an answer: they went to the molly house!

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The history of the singlet: Hated by wrestlers & loved by gays

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The New York Times once called it the “most mocked athletic uniform in existence.” High school coaches wail about how its presence drives kids away and negatively impacts the sport. Nevertheless, the singlet persists.

Despite a relatively new NCAA rule that permits wrestlers to wear two-piece uniforms, singlets remain ubiquitous, both on the mat and in pockets of the gay community. Unsurprisingly, all the complaints about singlets–they’re often derided as too tight and revealing–are exactly why the gays love them.

But first: the wrestlers: While singlets are synonymous with wrestling today, they’re a new phenomenon. Throughout the early 20th century, wrestlers competed in a variety of different outfits, most of which involved trunks and tights. And to be honest, it’s hard to see how wrestling trunks, which resemble bikinis, are any less gay than singlets.

But trunks are a mainstay in popular culture, probably due to their widespread use in pro wrestling. Many of the industry’s biggest stars–Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and The Rock, just to name three–have pranced around in those little things in front of millions of people.

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The first gay movie on US TV

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Starring a young Martin Sheen and developed by the guys who created Columbo just a few years earlier, the TV movie That Certain Summer was a groundbreaking project that many thought could never be made. Before it was even filmed, the movie caused an uproar behind the scenes and in public.

On one side were those who felt that it should be banned from the airwaves … and on the other, a handful of brave writers, actors, and producers who fought to smash a television taboo.

And when the dust settled, this broadcast helped bring about a TV revolution, and had an impact that even its creators couldn’t have anticipated. This is the story of That Certain Summer — one of the most important TV movies ever made.

Oscar Wilde on trial

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At a time when male homosexuality was illegal in Britain, celebrated playwright Oscar Wilde became embroiled in a scandal that ultimately saw him put on trial for “gross indecency”. As Professor Joseph Bristow tells Lauren Good, it’s a story of danger and betrayal, which not only tells us about the writer’s life, but also about the prejudices of society at the time.

Which LGBTQ+ histories get told – and which get overlooked?

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Uncovering and telling the stories of LGBTQ+ people in history can be rewarding, important work, but it’s also often challenging and complex. How far is it possible to understand the sexualities of people in the past from our 21st-century vantage point? And which stories do we forget about? To mark LGBT+ History Month in the UK, Matt Elton hosts a panel of experts – Florence Scott, Fleur MacInnes, Tim Wingard, Channing Joseph and Anthony Delaney – to discuss issues of representation in the past.

The Warren Cup

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2000 years old, worth £1.8 million, banned from the US, not publicly exhibited until 1999. Meet history’s most expensive piece of gay porn: The Warren Cup

One side depicts a man (the active participant or erastes) engaging in anal sex with a young man (the catamite, eromenos, or passive participant), who lowers himself onto the erastes using a rope or support from the ceiling in roughly the modern sexual position of reverse cowgirl. Meanwhile a boy, perhaps a slave, watches surreptitiously from behind a door — the inferior status of a slave in Roman eyes would make him suitable to this role of voyeur.

The other side depicts a young man and a boy making love. Both scenes also include draped textiles in the background, as well as a kithara (lyre) in the former scene and auloi (pipes) in the latter. These, along with the careful delineation of ages and status and the wreaths worn by the youths, all suggest a cultured, elite, Hellenised setting with music and entertainment.

If you’d like to learn more about the context, history and interesting journey of the cup, check out the Queer as Fact episode below or on Spotify.


The Chickens and the Bulls

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The history behind the rise and incredible fall of a vicious extortion ring that preyed on prominent gay men in the U.S. of the 1960s.

On a sleepy Sunday morning in late July 1965, Detective 3rd Grade James McDonnell received a call in the upstairs squad room of midtown Manhattan’s 17th Precinct. There was a man at the Western Union office in Grand Central Station who might be impersonating a police detective, he was told. The man was in the company of a 14-year-old runaway and had contacted the boy’s father in Texas to wire plane fare so the son could fly home.

The father had grown suspicious when the man had asked for $150—twice the needed amount. McDonnell quickly drove the 10 blocks to Grand Central, parking his unmarked black sedan on Lexington Avenue and hurrying down to the terminal’s lower level. Criminal impersonation of a police officer was an E felony—a “good collar,” as cops like to say, and if the perp had a gun, even better. There’d also been chatter on the detective grapevine about a number of recent cases of phony policemen, so McDonnell was eager to see what was up.

Inside the Western Union office, McDonnell saw a man who looked just like a New York detective—“calm, good looking, sharply dressed,” the now 89-year-old retired detective recalls. But when McDonnell flashed his gold shield to the “detective,” the man was slow to show his own, and was also reluctant to tell McDonnell what squad he was from, making McDonnell suspicious.

McDonnell asked the man if he had filled out an incident report, or a “5” as it was known in detective parlance. When the “detective” asked what a “5” was, McDonnell knew something wasn’t right. “I told the clerk to lock the door so we could sort everything out,” and handed the clerk a slip of paper with the precinct phone number on it so he could call for backup. Meanwhile, McDonnell kept his eyes on the bogus detective’s hands, just in case he tried to pull a gun. In a matter of minutes, four burly uniformed officers barged into the Western Union office, and McDonnell handcuffed the suspect without resistance.

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Queer or gay? LGBTQ+ people debate reclaiming former slur

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The word ‘queer’ is intrinsically linked to the LGBTQ+ community – it’s right there in the name. However, the way the word is used and received by some people is complicated.

While many of us are proud to be queer, and have reclaimed the slur, some people are staunch in their views that ‘queer’ is offensive and struggle, or refuse, to accept it.

Most recently, the debate was reignited on Sunday (8 January) after Owen Hurcum, the non-binary former mayor of Welsh city Bangor, tweeted in support of reclaiming the word – getting more than 15,000 likes and over 1200 retweets in just over a day. The day prior, another Twitter user had separately tweeted “quit calling gay people queer, we don’t like it”, which also gained a lot of online support – but many responses from people refuting the claim.

How did “queer” become a slur?

It’s thought ‘queer’ was first used in relation to identity during the trial of Irish writer Oscar Wilde, where he was jailed for homosexual acts. As explained in a blog by the UK National Archives, a letter from the Marquis of Queensberry, used in Wilde’s 1895 trial, detailed his disgust at Wilde’s relationship with his son.

He called Wilde and other homosexual men “Snob Queers”. It’s noted it was about another 20 years before ‘queer’ was used as a common derogatory word about homosexuals. As a slur, it became an umbrella term for the LGBTQ+ community, and it is one many people have had used as a word of abuse against them, and their identity.

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Queer Viking stories

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The Vikings: for most of us, they’re the peak of cis-het masculinity. But increasingly, research is showing that this simply wasn’t the case. I’m a Viking historian. I study queerness and gender in the Viking Age, and how those ideas have been weaponised by white supremacy in the last 200 years.

The Vikings were the people who lived in Scandinavia around 700-1100 AD. They’re most famous for raiding, trading, and exploring throughout Europe and beyond: as far east as Russia, as south as Turkey, as north as Iceland and as west as Newfoundland, Canada.

By the end of the Viking Age, the Vikings were converting to Christianity, but for the majority of the Viking Age, they believed in the Norse pantheon of gods, with Odin, Thor, and Loki as some of the most famous gods.

I research the myths and rituals around these gods. I’ve questioned how Odin has been presented in myths; I’ve explored Viking magic and the impact it had on gender; and I often give a lecture called “Why We Should Care About Queer Vikings” which traces how white supremacists have portrayed Vikings in ways that serve their political purposes.

Learning about our past doesn’t end when LGBTQ+ History Month does, so here are five queer Viking stories that you probably haven’t heard before.

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