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200-year-old diary sheds new light on what ordinary people thought of homosexuality

200 year-old diary sheds new light on what ordinary people thought of homosexuality.
Photo credit:
BBC

At first it doesn't seem that an everyday farmer's diary from 1810 could possibly hold any insight into homosexuality and tolerance, but researchers from Oxford University studying one such book have discovered some people were making a case that being gay is a natural human trait. 

The diarist, Matthew Tomlinson, from Yorkshire England wrote about tolerance toward homosexuality at a time when being gay was a death sentence. 

Tomlinson, according to BBC, wrote open-minded views in his journal which includes opinions that same-sex attraction is normal.

Of course in modern times evidence shows that homosexuality is not a mental illness or character flaw, but 200 years ago both scientists and religious leaders felt differently. 

The diary which had been stored in Wakefield Library since the 1950s, disputes whether or not gay people should be punished harshly for their sexual orientation. 

"In this exciting new discovery, we see a Yorkshire farmer arguing that homosexuality is innate and something that shouldn't be punished by death," says Oxford researcher Eamonn O'Keeffe.

The writings in the book span thousands of pages and also document the author's accounts of Yorkshire elections and the Luddites, a secret oath-based organization of radicals who would destroy textile machinery in protest against technology. 

In his research O'Keeffe stumbled upon challenges against the discrimination of homosexuals. This was a significant discovery because such documented objections in the era of George III are extremely rare.

Tomlinson's text about the subject was inspired by a huge sex scandal of the time wherein a naval surgeon was put on trial for engaging in an "unnatural act" with another man. 

The court ordered the surgeon to be put to death, but Tomlinson questioned whether that was the right punishment and if homosexuality was in fact "unnatural." 

Religious beliefs were, and still are, the basis for discrimination, but Tomlison argued that an all-perfect God would not create a flawed person because that would mean He was faulty. 

"It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty should 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 whom he had formed, should at any time follow the dictates of that Nature, with which he was formed, he should be punished with death," he wrote on January 14, 1810.

He goes even further to say that if sexual orientation is established at an early age, then "it must then be considered as natural, otherwise as a defect in nature - and if natural, or a defect in nature; it seems cruel to punish that defect with death."

Tomlinson apparently had conversations with others hypothesizing that homosexuality might be apparent from an early age, implying that he had these conversations with his peers on a subject they knew nothing about.

Noted West Yorkshire diarist Anne Lister was writing her own coded diary at the time in which she documented her own life as a lesbian. 

Tomlinson's diary sheds alternative light on a subject that is usually written in history books based on the ideals of the rich and powerful.

Although not a wealthy man, Tomlinson was of "middling" class and in his 40s when he wrote his journal.

Academia is extremely excited about this diary because it is a rare, fly on the wall insight into what an ordinary farmer and his associates thought about gay people in a time where homosexuality was punishable by death.