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Friday 09 February 2018

What a forgotten gay activist tells us about LGBTQ life in 19th century Sheffield

Reading time: 4 minutes

A pioneer of gay rights lived in Sheffield. This LGBT History Month is the perfect time to examine Edward Carpenter’s life, ideas and legacy.

Edward Carpenter

When it comes to pioneering gay Brits, you’ve probably heard of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing. But do you know about Sheffield-based Edward Carpenter – known to some as the godfather of gay rights?

He was an influential socialist thinker, and a gay man who openly proclaimed same-sex passion as perfectly natural – seventy years before it was legal.

Carpenter and his wider circle of friends and lovers make us think hard about our current understanding of sexual identity, and how it’s changed since the 19th century.

Close up of two people hugging

A different outlook

At the end of the 19th century, sexologists (as they were known) argued that homosexuality stemmed from things like embryo or hormone irregularities.

Prior to then, people were not ascribed a sexual identity. Instead, it was sexual acts themselves that were important. There were acceptable sexual acts – those that led to procreation – and unacceptable acts such as sodomy or adultery. These had no Christian context, and were therefore punishable by law.

Sexology shifted the focus onto people instead. Heterosexuality and homosexuality were from then on considered to be personal traits. While most sexologists saw homosexuality as natural but deviant, Carpenter rejected the negative focus. For him, it was "as deeply stirring and ennobling" as any kind of love.

This shift in focus corresponded with a clampdown on famous LGBTQ figures – Oscar Wilde would be imprisoned in 1895.

Victorian attitudes to sex

In Sheffield, Edward Carpenter’s relationship with George Hukin sheds light on working-class attitudes to sex, and sexuality, in the same era.

Carpenter and Hukin were sexually and romantically involved in 1886–7 after meeting at the Sheffield Socialist Society. But the following year, to Carpenter's distress, Hukin announced his intention to marry a young woman in his acquaintance.

In a letter to Carpenter, Hukin wrote:

"I often think how nice it would be if we three could only love each other so that we might sleep together sometimes, without feeling that there was anything at all wrong in doing so."

Historian Dr Helen Smith has argued that men like Hukin were not necessarily bisexual; no notion of bisexuality existed in the late 19th century. Rather, they were part of a sexual culture in which same-sex erotic expression was a feature of male friendship.

Smith argues that in working-class, Victorian Sheffield, male intimacy, which included physical and emotional affection – and often sex – was just one part of a wider sexual repertoire.

It was "something they did alongside all the other romantic and sexual elements in their life, including heterosexual marriage."

A group of people at an LGBT celebration

Carpenter’s legacy

The post-Edwardian intellectual atmosphere had little time for Carpenter’s dual focus on LGBTQ rights and socialism – and attempts to erect a memorial in Sheffield were blocked. Nonetheless, Carpenter retains a small but significant following.

Carpenter's writing on sexuality, especially his 1909 book The Intermediate Sex, was important in affirming individual lives, as attested by letters from Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon.

But Carpenter is important not only for his positive interventions in the debates about same-sex desire, but also because his archive draws attention to differences between 19th century attitudes to sexuality and those of today.

Carpenter’s archive provides fascinating documents of his lifestyle, activism, relationships and writing. The Friends of Edward Carpenter host regular meetings and events, commemorating this lesser-known, but hugely influential Sheffield figure.

Edward Carpenter is deserving of recognition both for his writing and his wider experience as a gay man. Both provide valuable insight into gay life of which we may otherwise have been unaware.

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