In September 1957, Sir John Wolfenden – a balding, bespectacled and eminently respectable university vice-chancellor – published a report on prostitution and homosexuality in the UK. He and his committee of establishment worthies had spent the previous three years combing through reams of evidence and listening to the opinions of more than 200 ‘expert’ witnesses. The committee’s remit was to consider whether British law – which allowed female prostitution but not solicitation, and which prohibited all sexual activity between males – should be changed.


The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (better known as the Wolfenden Report) concluded that it should: in the interests of public decorum, street prostitution should be penalised more heavily, but homosexuality between two men over the age of 21 in private should be decriminalised. After a decade’s delay, the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was passed. It followed Wolfenden’s recommendation on the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.

The publication of the Wolfenden Report is a prominent episode in gay liberation narratives that track progress in the UK from the dark days of faith-based persecution and pseudo-scientific stigmatisation all the way to gay marriage and full legislative equality. Other western countries have their own stories, but nearly all of them have ended up in pretty much the same place. And, the story continues, what the west has achieved can be replicated by an orchestrated campaign for gay and lesbian brethren in more benighted parts of the world where official homophobia remains rampant. All of this is compelling, to a degree – but the historical reality is more complicated. Wolfenden provides us with an entry point into an alternative – and much queerer – world of human sexuality.

The written submissions to and transcripts of interviews by the Wolfenden Committee are held in files at the National Archives at Kew, London, and are open for public consultation. Together they give by far the most detailed picture available of the range of understandings of homosexuality in mid-20th-century Britain. Reading them is a discombobulating experience: frankly homophobic and ill-informed sentiments jostle alongside surprisingly ‘modern’ analyses of sexuality. In contrast to the language of ‘sin’, ‘perversion’ and ‘sickness’ deployed by the enemies of reform, more progressive opinion drew on history, anthropology and biology to demonstrate that sexual identities – as they were perceived in the 20th-century western world – were not, in fact, universal and constant but really rather peculiar.

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Attentive observers recognised that, through the millennia of human history and in most non-western societies, the notion that the population was divided into heterosexuals and homosexuals, ‘straights’ and ‘gays’ – with gay people in a tiny, contained minority of sexual deviants – made absolutely no sense. These sexual binaries were of relatively recent origin; they were historically, culturally and geographically specific, and sexual fluidity was the norm.

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‘Arrested development’

In Vienna at the start of the century, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had already popularised the notion that same-sex attraction was well-nigh universal in adolescents – though he also claimed that youths who failed to progress beyond that phase towards a ‘normal’ heterosexual object-choice were the victims of ‘arrested development’. Later, in Bloomington, Indiana, biology professor Alfred Kinsey published his explosive studies of male (1948) and female (1953) sexual practices in the United States. These, too, challenged rigid gay/straight divisions, and suggested that human sexual experience could best be measured along a spectrum of tastes and desires. In proposing his famous seven-point scale, Kinsey influentially declared that: “The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats... It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories… The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.”

Alfred Kinsey's studies challenged rigid gay/straight divisions, and suggested that human sexual experience could best be measured along a spectrum of tastes and desires

Expert opinion was thus well attuned to explanations about different types and causes of homosexuality: why some men and women appeared to be gay or lesbian their entire lives, and others for only part of their lives; why some people were basically bisexual throughout; and why some had intercourse with their own sex only when they were in all-male or all-female institutions (boarding school, army, navy, prison) where members of the opposite sex were not available. But here it’s important to focus on two other key notions outlined by witnesses to the Wolfenden Committee, which testified to the world of sexual diversity – or, put differently, the sexually diverse world. The first was the fact that non-western cultures and societies think and act in non-western ways. The second was the realisation that, to quote the British novelist LP Hartley, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.

Let’s begin with the non-western world. Some of Wolfenden’s witnesses drew attention to anthropological data on 76 contemporary societies, recently compiled under the direction of Clellan S Ford at Yale University in America – and published in Patterns of Sexual Behavior (1951) – which demonstrated that the majority of these cultures condoned or even encouraged homosexuality. A memorandum submitted by the British Psychological Society, for example, described the Berber peoples living in Siwa Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, who expected homosexual as well as heterosexual behaviour of all men and boys, and who even celebrated ritualised forms of same-sex marriage. It also cited the Keraki and Kiwai peoples of New Guinea, who enforced passive homosexuality on all boys approaching puberty as a vital part of their development into manhood. And, finally, it discussed the Chukchi of eastern Siberia, who had developed an institutionalised role for certain men to dress and perform as women and to live as the partners of other men. In some tribes, such people were exalted as shamans possessing supernatural powers. Early European explorers had libelled these ‘two-spirit’ individuals as berdaches – catamites, or boy prostitutes – citing them as proof of how these ‘primitive’ peoples needed to be civilised by Christian morality.

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Olympian examples

Lest any reactionaries were minded to dismiss such widespread same-sex and gender-transgressing activities as the preserve of ‘backward’, pre-literate peoples, Wolfenden’s pro-reform witnesses (as did generations of campaigners for gay rights) relied heavily on the fact that an entire civilisation had accepted and, to some extent, even venerated homosexuality. In classical Greece, which had a profound impact on the development of western art, philosophy and politics, homosexual relations were institutionalised as both natural and normal. In Greek mythology, Zeus, king of the gods, took the form of an eagle to abduct Ganymede, “the loveliest born of the race of mortals” (as Homer put it in the Iliad). The boy was appointed as a wine-pourer in Olympus, “for the sake of his beauty, so he might be among the immortals”. Nearly all of the other Olympian gods, including Apollo and Poseidon, also took young men as lovers.

This mythology was cited in ancient Greece as justification for paiderastia (pederasty) – a practice that seems bizarre or suspect to 21st-century eyes, but was culturally acceptable in that culture. The basic premise of pederasty was that an older male (one who could grow a full beard), known as the erastes, played the active role in sex with a youth, the eromenos, who took the passive role. This type of sex, which was often not penetrative, was widely depicted in paintings, poetry and pottery. Neither partner would develop a ‘gay identity’. The older would marry a woman and have children, fulfilling his duties as a citizen. The younger, when old enough to grow a beard, would in turn take on the active role with a youth, and so the pattern continued.

Some philosophical reflections even idealised same-sex love. Notable examples can be found in the Symposium

This was a practical system in a male-dominated world in which female citizens were of inferior status, both largely kept out of the public sphere and off-limits before and outside marriage. It had its critics and satirists, but the working assumption in many Greek city states (and, later, the Roman empire) was that men would be attracted by both male and female beauty, and would act upon that attraction in a socially sanctioned manner.

Some philosophical reflections even idealised same-sex love. Notable examples can be found in the Symposium, the philosopher Plato’s description of an intellectually high-powered Athenian dinner party. One character, Phaedrus, extols the virtues of manly, same-sex love among warriors and legislators: “And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world.” This, allegedly, was the inspiration for the Sacred Band of Thebes, comprising 150 pairs of male lovers, which fought heroically at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC before succumbing to the overwhelming forces of Philip II of Macedon.

Rationalised love

Another dinner guest at Plato’s imagined symposium, Pausanias, contrasts “base” love (with women and boys) as merely for sexual gratification and therefore inferior, with “noble” love (with young men). The latter, he says, is “pure”, and about instilling guidance and wisdom in a pedagogical relationship rather than sex. This rationalisation of same-sex love, whether platonic or carnal, had an extraordinary resilience in western societies over the next couple of millennia and beyond. Take, for example, the famous defence by Oscar Wilde at his trial for homosexual offences in 1895: “The ‘love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare… It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.”

The nod to David and Jonathan is a reference to the Book of Samuel in the Bible, in which David says to the slain body of the youthful Jonathan: “Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women”. Wilde’s nod to Michelangelo and William Shakespeare is a reminder that many of the most significant artistic and literary figures in the Renaissance and beyond celebrated love between men – even though Biblical injunctions and Christian rulers prescribed the death penalty for sodomy.

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Female fluidity

Love between women received much less attention in such heavily patriarchal societies. Surviving fragments of the work of Sappho, a Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, acclaimed what came to be known as Sapphic or lesbian love, and there is no reason to believe that sexual fluidity was any less desired and practised among women than among men. But it is men who have left the strongest traces in the historical record, and the ubiquity of male love and sex is by no means just a European phenomenon.

Love between women received much less attention in such heavily patriarchal societies

The modern western notion of a distinctive sexual orientation claimed by or ascribed to each and every person would have appeared equally foreign in the Islamic world. Again, the pederastic tradition, with its prescriptions about age-structured active and passive roles, was strong, as a number of Wolfenden’s witnesses pointed out. Islamic scriptures contained ambiguous or muted condemnations of homosexuality, and religious scholars regarded sodomy as a sin. However, love between men was frequently celebrated, and love poetry exalting youthful male beauty was widespread in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu literature. “I die of love for him, perfect in every way,” wrote the great eighth-century Baghdad poet Abu Nuwas (who also penned rapturous poems about women): “My eyes are fixed upon his delightful body … How much time did your creation take, O angel?”.

Sleeve notes

References to homosexual love can also be found from imperial China. The most famous tale was ‘the passion of the cut sleeve’. Like many other emperors, Ai of Han (27–1 BC) took a male lover, an official at his court by the name of Dong Xian. The story goes that one afternoon, when they were in bed together, Ai needed to get up – and, rather than wake his dozing beloved, the emperor cut off his sleeve. Evidence from literature suggests that ‘passions of the cut sleeve’ were considered normal and even exemplary through many centuries of Chinese history. There were periods, such as during the medieval Tang Dynasty, when same-sex relations were viewed negatively, but it probably was not until recent centuries, when the Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China were heavily influenced by western beliefs, that intolerance of homosexuality became entrenched.

Examples such as these, drawn from ‘primitive’ societies and major historical civilisations alike, appeared to confirm (as the British Psychological Society memorandum put it) “that most normal individuals have potentialities for developing homo-sexual interests”. Thus, in celebrating the advances for sexual minorities in some countries and decrying persecution in others, it is useful not only to remember the history of sexual diversity across the planet but also to recognise that a culturally specific, one-size-fits-all model of gay identities derived from western experience is unlikely to resonate. The world and its history are much queerer than we imagine.

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The term ‘homosexuality’ was coined only in the late 19th century, yet same-sex relationships – some of which now seem very alien to modern sensibilities – have been accepted and celebrated by cultures worldwide for centuries 

Two-spirit, North America

Many Native American peoples recognised a special status for individuals who did not identify with their birth gender, or who were intersex or androgynous, feminine males or masculine females. Some of these would cross-dress and take on roles more commonly assumed by the opposite sex – men might gather plants and cook, rather than hunt and fight. Such people were often considered gifted with ‘two spirits’ – both male and female. The term ‘two-spirit’ is today widely used across Native American communities, though many have their own words describing such individuals, and perceptions vary across tribes. Early French explorers used the term berdache, which became a derogatory label for homosexual men, though not all two-spirit people engaged in same-sex acts. Historically, androgynous people in some Siberian cultures also enjoyed a special status – for example, koekchuch of the Siberian Kamchadal people, who did not identify with their birth gender.

Patlacheh, Latin America

In the Nahuatl language of Mexico, spoken by Aztecs and other cultures, the word Patlacheh described a woman who carried out men’s activities, including penetrative sex with other women. Knowledge of pre-Columbian attitudes to homosexual behaviour are limited, reported mostly through the prism of the Catholic norms of conquistadors and settlers. Though the Aztecs and Mexica were overtly intolerant of homosexuality, their god Xochipilli was patron of both homosexuals and male prostitutes. 

The Maya also had a tradition of male-male love: in 1542, Spanish historian and missionary Bartolomé de las Casas recorded that Mayan parents supplied their adolescent sons with boys to use for sexual pleasure before marriage. Ceramics from the Moche culture (AD 100–700) of northern Peru also depict male-male sex and, elsewhere in that country, 16th-century Viceroy Francisco de Toledo noted that homosexuality was accepted. 

Nanshoku, Japan

Pre-modern Japan had a long tradition of sexual tolerance. In male-only Buddhist monasteries homosexual relations were unsurprisingly common, codified in a practice known as nanshoku (‘male colours’). An older monk (nenja) would take on a pre-pubescent chigo acolyte in a nurturing bond that would remain sexual only until the younger partner reached adulthood. This kind of relationship became common among samurai, who also lived in male-dominated military units on campaign and then castle cities. Again, a prepubescent or adolescent boy, known as a wakashu, would be apprenticed to an older nenja warrior, who would teach the boy martial arts and other key skills as well as forming a sexual relationship. 

With the growth of the middle class around the turn of the 18th century, such relationships became widespread and commercialised, with male prostitutes proliferating. Homosexual acts were celebrated in written and artistic works for many centuries, and it was not considered as an exclusive alternative to heterosexual love. It was only with the opening of Japan to the west and the Meiji restoration in the mid-19th century that homosexuality began to be explicitly condemned, marginalised and criminalised.

Amrad, Middle East

Homosexual activity is condemned in traditional Islamic law. However, in many pre-modern Muslim societies, homosexual relationships – usually between an older man and a passive adolescent boy (amrad in Iran) – were widely tolerated. This is perhaps unsurprising in a patriarchal society in which women’s roles were largely limited to home-making and reproduction, and in which heterosexual romance was largely proscribed. 

Particularly from the eighth century, homoerotic writing flourished, notably in the works of famed poets Abu Nuwas (756–814) of Baghdad, and Vahshi Bafghi (1532–83) of Persia (now Iran), whose long poem Nazer and Manzur recounts a love story between the sons of a sultan and his grand vizier. Though largely undocumented and unstudied, it’s believed same-sex activity between women may have been common both in harems and in close relationships denoted by sigeh (sisterhood bonds). The Ottoman empire had a relatively permissive attitude towards sex, and in 1858 decriminalised homosexuality. In many Muslim states, notably Iran, homophobic sentiment was largely imported from the west from the 19th and early 20th century. 

Affrèrement, France

In late medieval and 16th-century France, a legal contract called affrèrement (‘enbrotherment’) was widely used. Two men entering such a contract were committing to live together, with joint ownership of property, belongings and resources; the new ‘brothers’ pledged to share “un pain, un vin, et une bourse” – one bread, one wine and one purse. The effect was threefold: their relationship would take on the legal status of a heterosexual marriage; it was pledged publicly before a notary and witnesses; and it had similar impacts on inheritance of property. 

This category was shaped by a need to legally formalise the status of brothers who jointly inherited a family home and continued to live in it together. It wasn’t designed as a ‘homosexual marriage’, and clearly many participants entered such an agreement for practical reasons or at most in recognition of deep friendship. However, as the scholar Allan Tulchin persuasively argued in 2007, affrèrement provided a means by which homosexual partners could normalise their relationship, noting also that they “frequently testified that they entered into the contract because of their affection for one another”. He also observed that, though sodomy was punishable by death in France at the time, prosecutions were extremely rare, suggesting that homosexual relations were largely tolerated. Certainly, same-sex households – a domestic situation that would have been almost unthinkable in much of the world for most of the 20th century – were not only accepted but legally recognised in medieval France.

Boston marriage, United States

In the 18th century, passionate friendships between high-status women became common and, indeed, fashionable in England. Many of them bore the hallmarks of romantic relationships, including profuse heartfelt written expressions of adoration. Since female sexual attraction was rarely considered, and indeed rarely documented historically, it’s impossible to know the exact nature of such relationships. 

Similarly, the domestic partnerships of many women in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the UK and, particularly, the United States are ambiguous. These ‘Boston marriages’ – a term probably derived from Henry James’s novel The Bostonians – between unmarried women who chose to live together were almost uniquely between women of independent means, since only those with professional careers or family wealth could afford to live without support from men. In some instances the arrangement was a practical way for women to live independently, or a step towards gender equality; indeed, many were involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. But others involved a lifelong commitment; notable partnerships included those between the Nobel Peace Prize-winning social activist Jane Addams and heiress Mary Rozet Smith, and between American writers Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields. Though many of these relationships were probably asexual, others were almost certainly not. Incidentally, in 2004 Massachusetts (of which Boston is the capital) became the first US state to legalise same-sex marriage.

Brian Lewis is professor of history at McGill University, Montreal, and author of Wolfenden’s Witnesses: Homosexuality in Postwar Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).


This article first appeared in issue 6 of BBC World Histories Magazine in October 2017