5 images of Victorian England that will make you rethink LGBTQ history.

Officially, there were no homosexual men in Victorian England.

But that's just because the word "homosexual" didn't enter the language until the mid-to-late 1890s. ("Transsexual" and "transgender" would catch on even later.)

There were, however, men who engaged in sexual and/or romantic relationships with each other. They just didn't identify with the same words we use today; in fact, many of them used a special cant-like, crypto-language called Polari in order to communicate without exposing themselves in public. While the rest of society was struggling to define and understand them, they went about with their usual business, living their lives regardless of words.


Consider the case of Frederick William Park and Thomas Ernest Boulton — also known as Fanny and Stella, respectively.

Photo via Frederick Spalding/Wikimedia Commons.

The duo met while working as actors around London, where there was a longstanding tradition in the theater of men cross-dressing to perform as women. Fanny and Stella appeared onstage as sisters, but Park and Boulton carried these identities offstage as well, cavorting at parties and in public.

Boulton, whose affinity for women's clothing and dreams of femme stardom stretched back to childhood, had a live-in relationship with Lord Arthur Clinton, a naval officer and the son of the 5th duke of Newcastle. Park, on the other hand, was the son of a judge. While it's not clear whether he was involved sexually with either Boulton or Clinton, he was known to have a written correspondence with Clinton in character as Fanny.

Clinton, Boulton, and Park. Photo via Frederick Spalding/Wikimedia Commons.

Things started to get messy when Fanny and Stella were arrested outside of London's Royal Strand Theatre on April 28, 1870.

Their alleged crime? "Conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offense" with the other men they were accompanying. Lord Clinton was also indicted in the scandal but tragically died before it went to trial, possibly by suicide.

When the case reached the court, the prosecution faced a difficult challenge. There was nothing technically illegal about a man wearing a dress in public, and it was impossible to prove someone guilty of "being gay or transgender" when the words didn't yet exist. Thus, the only potentially punishable offense for which Fanny and Stella could be tried was sodomy.

Fanny and Stella stood before a judge in their best evening gowns while doctors presented physical evidence of sodomy. Even the public at the time thought the spectacle was ridiculous, and the two were ultimately acquitted by a jury.

Image via The Illustrated Police News/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1880, Victorian values were once again scandalized by the "disgraceful proceedings" of a so-called "drag ball" in Manchester.

The private event on Sept. 24, 1880, at the city's Temperance Hall was organized by a group calling themselves the Pawnbrokers' Assistants' Association. They took numerous precautions to protect the guests' identities, including a bouncer at the door dressed as a nun, black paper on the windows, and a blind accordion player to provide the party's music with plausible deniability.

Somehow, Detective Jerome Caminada, who's believed to be the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, caught wind of the occasion. The sneaky sleuth reportedly observed "men dressed in the most fantastic fashion, and eight of them in the garb of women."

The police waited until the early hours of the morning to raid the party and ended up arresting nearly 50 people for the crime of "having solicited and incited each other to commit an unnameable offense" — again, because there was nothing explicitly illegal about "being queer and dancing the can-can."

In the end, most of the defendants were forced to pay a bond in a promise to the court for 12 months of "good behavior."

Five years later, the U.K. passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which made "gross indecency" punishable by prison time.

Member of Parliament Henry Labouchère realized that if they were ever going to bring charges against queer men, trying to legally prove they engaged in sodomy wasn't the answer.

Labouchère came up with the vaguely defined term gross indecency, which basically meant any kind of physical sexual contact between two people with penises that the court deemed "gross." (There was no comparable law against queer women.) The new law was tacked onto an amendment about the age of consent.

Perhaps the most famous charge of gross indecency was against Oscar Wilde, who served two years hard labor in Reading prison, from which he never quite recovered. The British codebreaker and computer science progenitor Alan Turing was also charged with gross indecency in 1952. As punishment, he was chemically castrated; 50 years later, the British government acknowledged the action was grossly inhumane.

(Left) The Alan Turing memorial in Sackville Park, Manchester, and the Oscar Wilde memorial in Merrion Square, Dublin. Photos via Lmno/Wikimedia Commons and Sandro Schachner/Wikimedia Commons.

Sex between two consenting British males was finally decriminalized in 1967 — but anti-gay laws stayed on the books in Scotland and Northern Ireland until the 1980s.

It still took until 2010 for the U.K. to secure most other rights for LGBTQ people, including adoption, marriage, and protection from discrimination.

The fight for sexual and gender equality has been long and arduous, but one thing is certain: Queer people have always been here, regardless of what they were called at various times in history.

Naming things is how we give them power. The words we use today make it easier for us to see and to accept identities that have always been present for what they truly are: essential parts of the human experience.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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