The themes of tolerance and acceptance of difference present in Billy Bragg’s 1991 hit song reflect very modern attitudes towards sexuality. Just a few years before it was released the passage of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, 1988, which outlawed the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools, and the setting up of Stonewall in 1989, brought the question of acceptance to the fore of public debate in Britain. The overturning of section 28 by the Labour government in 2003 (three years after it was repealed by the Scottish Parliament) was one of the major social reforms of the early 2000s and opened the way for significant changes in opportunities for gay people – notably the equal marriage act in 2013. It was not always this way, of course, for such is the journey of equal rights.
Historians have now begun to fill in what was once a considerable blank. Pioneering monographs such as Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London together with the work of Harry Cocks and Matt Cook have extended the sociological studies of Rhondda-born Jeffrey Weeks. I add Rhondda-born as a qualifier to the ‘godfather’ of queer studies in the UK because whereas we know considerable amounts about homosexual life in London and other large cities of the UK, there has been almost nothing (save moments in passing) written about experiences in Wales. This is partly a reflection of general neglect of Welsh matters by historians outside of Wales, but also the dominance of metropolitan studies in the (admittedly young) literature. The film Pride has, of course, ignited some interest in what was going on during the mid-1980s, albeit from a London-outwards point of view.
There are valuable reasons for studying Welsh attitudes to homosexuality in the modern period besides filling in the blank pages of the history books: for one thing, the Welsh courts were known to have been more tolerant than the English courts and magistrates in rural areas accepting of communal moral redress through “rough music” for much of the nineteenth century. Today’s blog offers some thoughts that have emerged from a developing piece of work piecing together this neglected history and ponders whether the acceptance of the miners, as shown in the film Pride, was really a break from the past or not.
But first, what might we mean by ‘tolerance’?
In its most straightforward, OED definition, tolerance is ‘the disposition to be patient with or indulgent to the opinions or practices of others’. But it has a political meaning too, that has changed considerably over time. as an idea in English political philosophy, toleration is intimately linked with John Locke whose Letter Concerning Toleration appeared in 1689 amidst rising fears that Catholicism was set to overturn the English reformation. For Locke, religious toleration was an obvious necessity. As he wrote, ‘the toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light’.
Locke was not the first to pursue tolerance of this kind, he was developing an older understanding. As István Bejczy has persuasively demonstrated, ‘tolerantia’ was already well developed in the late-middle ages and concerned with matters extending beyond religion as well. He continues:
Medieval tolerantia is a full-fledged example of what tolerance could be. It is an even more coherent and forceful concept than the rather loose notion of tolerance in modern political discourse, precisely because it has nothing to do with religious freedom or the plurality of truth.
In part, tolerance enabled medieval rulers to pick and choose what to focus their attentions on. Prostitutes, for instance, benefitted from tolerantia because it was believed they stood in the murky ground between a better society and one flooded with sodomy. Lepers, beggars, and the insane were also beneficiaries; as were Jews, except in England, that is, where they were expelled by an edict issued by Edward I in 1290. Heretics, homosexuals, and those who were accused of witchcraft, on the other hand, were excluded from tolerantia and were not permitted to live even on the margins of medieval life, certainly by the High Middle Ages onwards.
In many ways this ‘manipulation’ of tolerance to serve social purposes echoes contemporary critiques of post-Enlightenment thinking and the notions that we hold of our own societies today. Wendy Brown, for example, has argued in her work Regulating Aversion that toleration is not passive, but rather an active element of the governmentality of liberal democratic nation-states. She writes:
Tolerance discourse […] while posing as both a universal value and an impartial practice, designates certain beliefs and practices as civilized and others as barbaric, both at home and abroad; it operates from a conceit of neutrality that is actually thick with bourgeois Protestant norms.
This is a valuable insight into the operation of modern societies and forces us to think beyond the Whiggish notion of ever-increasing acceptance. In this line of thinking, toleration marks the boundary between the acceptable self and the unacceptable other; it is a marker of political subjectivity – the kind of thing omnipresent in contemporary ‘liberal’ democracy. We can begin to see the boundaries of contestation and the nature of the process.
Now, nineteenth-century Wales has long been considered ‘tolerant’ in the indifferent sense of the term. Certainly that was the case of those who lived there: as a rapidly industrialising nation largely constructed by immigrants, with hang-ups such as church disestablishment and a different language, how could it not be ‘tolerant’? With relatively few cases of major racial violence, and a nation that was itself at the forefront of campaigns for religious toleration, the people of Wales prided themselves on being a nation lacking in discrimination. Such Whiggishness, of course, errs and in more recent times, Wales’s sense of tolerance has come under considerable scrutiny. Historians have focused on a litany of ethnic violence as the clearest evidence: anti-Jewish riots, anti-Irish riots, anti-Chinese agitation on the eve of the First World War, anti-black riots in the aftermath of the First World War, and the continued existence of a colour bar into the 1940s, to bring the most obvious examples. Wider research also shows the complexity of those expressing intolerant attitudes: a Welsh-speaking nonconformist minister, for example, might well vote for the Liberal Party and aim at overthrowing the yolk of the established church, but they could be deeply xenophobic too. English speakers, those who practiced cultural forms ‘imported’ to Wales from the outside, those who took an active part in urbanisation and industrialisation, were all subjected to the intolerance of Welsh chapel culture.
The absent quality is sexuality.
Oscar Wilde – himself subject to the legal prohibition of homosexual activity – famously declared that homosexuality was the ‘love that dared not speak its name’. For gay men in the long decades of living beyond the margins of tolerance their desires came to be spoken and reported in forms of code. In public discourse – in the newspapers for example – there were particular constructions and innuendos which enabled contemporaries to understand without being told the fullest details, and which provide historians with a guide to matters otherwise kept hidden. ‘Unnatural crimes’, for instance, covered a multitude of sins that newspaper journalists refused (or were otherwise unable) to write openly about, amongst them bestiality and homosexuality. In the early 1840s, for example, John Hughes from Holywell in Flintshire was, in the guarded words of the Denbigh Herald, ‘charged with an unnatural crime, the particulars of which are totally unfit for publication’. We are often left to make an educated guess as to what went on. At other times there is more detail provided. When William Hood was caught having sex with another man at the Black Horse Inn in Haverfordwest, he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour – twice the length of sentence, it’s worth pointing out, than someone at the same session of the court received for stealing £3 at the same inn, on the same evening. And then there was David Jones, a thirty-six year old miner from Tylorstown, a brief stay in gaol was perhaps the most fortunate outcome for him after his male partner had left him lying drunk in a pigsty.
Reading homosexuality as a crime – irrespective of the legal position in the nineteenth century – is inherently problematic. Indeed, the number of people prosecuted annually for crimes described as ‘unnatural’ was quite small. Between 1870 and 1872, for instance, just one person in Cardiff was so convicted; although it’s highly unlikely that just one person in the town was gay. By contrast, the number of persons arrested by the police for prostitution in the same period was nearly 600. In parts of Wales – notably Anglesey, Merioneth, and Cardiganshire, decades went by with no arrests or summons for ‘unnatural crimes’ – a striking statistic. It will certainly have been the case that homosexuality was more carefully hidden than sex work undertaken by heterosexuals, but absence is noticeable.
Now, attitudes to sexuality in Wales are difficult to assess. They could, for instance, be remarkably liberal. ‘The bastardy laws of this country are as scandalous as any laws could be’, declared the Cambrian News encouragingly in 1893, ‘and impose disabilities upon innocent children […] why should a child suffer [? …] There is no reason except to protect the property of unmarried fathers’. Sex toys were being sold in Swansea as early as 1820, and, as Russell Davies has shown, female genital wigs were widely available to cover up the ravages of venereal disease. As he suggests, then, ‘the Welsh were either, like Queen Victoria, blissfully ignorant of such activities, or had a surprisingly modern tolerance of sexual differences’. I don’t think it was the former, but was it the latter or somewhere in between?
Reading the newspapers for the nineteenth century, together with police records, you can be forgiven for thinking that ‘unnatural crime’ was something that happened ‘over there’, except, that is, in major urban centres and port towns such as the Rhondda, Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, and Barry. This ought not to be a surprise, since the cosmopolitanism to be found in larger, more anonymous districts made it easier to be free – this was (in the words of Matt Cook) ‘where “homosexual” men congregated, it was also where the individual met a subculture and a subculture met society most intensely’. Newspapers instinctively spoke in terms of moral outrage. But reporting did not necessarily harmonise with more broadly held attitudes – the press sought to guide, not follow. This distinction is most easily observed where matters escalated to the assize courts and a jury became involved, since it’s since it’s possible to see the boundaries of tolerance. Take this case of two men arrested for having sex on the mountain side in Tylorstown in the Rhondda (or trying to, at least):
David Thomas, 23, collier, and James Davies, 35, labourer, were indicted with having attempted to commit an act of gross indecency on the mountain side at Tylorstown on January 2. […] The prisoners denied upon oath the charge, and after a hearing lasting over four hours the jury returned the verdict of “not guilty” and the prisoners were discharged.
In 1867, a nineteen-year old miner was similarly found not guilty by the jury at the Monmouthshire assizes despite the ‘most revolting’ evidence put forward by the main witness for the prosecution. As the correspondent of the Cardiff Times recorded despairingly, ‘many circumstances at these assizes tend to show that civilisation is in comparatively a backward condition among certain of the people of the country’. His reference was not, it seems, with regard to the defendant. The more conservative magistrates benches may well have found the opposing verdict in both these cases (rarely did a magistrate return anything other than guilty). Compare the outcome of the case in Tylorstown with a similar example from Maesteg:
Jeremiah Sullivan and Isaac Jones, of Maesteg, pleaded not guilty to a charge of committing gross indecency with each other on 5th July at Maesteg. […] In defence Sullivan pleaded that he was mistaken as to Jones’s sex and was drunk […] Prisoners were found guilty, and the learned commissioner, in passing sentence upon them of 18 calendar months each, said the case was about as nauseous and disgusting as could well be imagined.
The difference in attitude is striking (as well as a useful vindication of the jury system). Is it possible to read tolerance into the relative absence of conviction for the ‘crime’ of homosexual activity in nineteenth century Wales? This proves troublesome, to be sure, but the pattern of low reporting and low prosecution was a marked trend across much of Wales through the period and indicative of a willingness to ‘ignore’ matters that would otherwise be classed as criminal. As David Jones noted, ‘when sea captains, commercial travellers and “persons moving in respectable spheres” were robbed by prostitutes, the men were […] as deeply interested in keeping the circumstance a profound secret as [were] the thieves themselves’. Crime was otherwise dealt with through alternative means, in the manner of a social contract that existed between employer and employee, or between members of the same chapels, societies and clubs: to be sanctioned by the deacons of the chapel was much worse than being subject to the penalties of the law. Whilst prosecution rates did increase sharply in the wake of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, particularly with regards criminalised sexual activity, Wales remained somewhat attached to alternative forms of popular justice – notably the Ceffyl Pren.
The Ceffyl Pren (or wooden horse) was the manner of moral redress most familiar to eighteenth-century Wales; it invoked terror amongst those visited by it. Similar to the Skimmington tradition common to the West Country, the Ceffyl Pren was used as a means of reasserting the morality of a community for a variety of trespasses – infidelity, gross indecency, and later informing on illegal activity such as poaching. One magistrate from Cardigan described how:
A figure of a horse is carried at night in the midst of a mob with their faces blackened and torches in their hands, to the door of any person whose domestic conduct may have exposed him to the censure of his neighbours, or who may have rendered himself unpopular, by informing against another, and by contributing to enforce the law.
Instructively, he concluded that the Ceffyl Pren ‘contains the germ of resistance to legal order’. Most published examples of the Ceffyl Pren point to marital problems and infidelity, rather than other forms of sexual behaviour, but since rather more cases of the Ceffyl Pren occurred than were ever reported, it is entirely feasible that this form of punishment was used in cases where punishment was considered necessary. Most of the time, I suspect, society looked the other way – as it did with bestiality.
There is no better (available) guide to attitudes in the mining areas of South Wales at the turn of the century than Rhys Davies, the Rhondda-born novelist. In recent years his life and work have come under renewed investigation with a number of scholars drawing out his homosexual sensitivities from the deliberate obfuscation that Davies employed. For Davies, the hyper-masculine world of the coalfield was ill-fitting for his sensibilities and he yearned to leave the Rhondda as soon as he could. When he was able to leave the valley, his return journeys were often mired in depression at the thought of once again sliding (in modern terms, I suppose) back into the ‘closet’: his engagement with the work of Oscar Wilde, which he read as a teenager, provided one of the few opportunities to engage, albeit in sub-textual terms, with his own burgeoning sexual awareness. But how typical was Rhys Davies, really? The son of a grocer, he was certainly part of his community, but one step removed at the same time. Shopkeepers, grocers and pawnbrokers in particular, had a bad reputation in the coalfield of the early twentieth century and there is little doubt that Davies’s views about the miners he lived amongst were shaped by those tensions.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the development of gay organisations and support groups in South Wales in the 1970s and early 1980s, so I shalln’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that on the eve of the strike, the one obvious gap in coverage lay in the South Wales Valleys. We should be very wary in seeing this as evidence of near-universal hostility, since when LGSM members arrived in the Dulais Valley in October 1984, it was (to quote one of them) ‘the women and the older miners for the most part who really did sort of welcome us’. This is key. The reason lies behind the decline of the power of the NUM in communities by the time of the strike, both in South Wales and elsewhere in the country: the relative intolerance of younger miners tended to be because they had not previously been active in union politics and not been exposed to wider thought processes within the labour movement. Nevertheless, by the end of the strike, the remarkable engagement between the miners of the Dulais Valley and LGSM resulted in changed attitudes. As Mark Ashton, the charismatic leader of LGSM, reflected in an interview in 1985: ‘we’ve taken miners to gay bars and we’ve gone down to Wales. Lesbians and gay men have danced in a miners’ welfare hall, which was outrageous’. It may not quite have been the same as Dominic West’s moves as shown in Pride, but the effect was just as potent.
1985 saw the first gay pride march in Wales – albeit 14 years after the first march undertaken by the Cardiff branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality on the question of unemployment. After a year of considerable turbulence, when Welsh miners had been supported by tens of thousands of pounds by gays and lesbians from London, Southampton, and elsewhere, and when the South Wales NUM helped bring about Labour’s commitment to equality for LGBT people in Britain – although this was somewhat marred by one (non NUM) activist from Ogmore CLP who denounced homosexuality as a disease – that milestone was significant.
And so to conclude: there can be little doubt that tolerance of homosexuality has increased considerably in Wales since the nineteenth century, and that the roots of tolerance were present all along. This should not blind us to the continuing challenges for gay men and women. In an interview with the Western Mail, the radio broadcaster Chris Needs expressed considerable dislike of the homophobia and prejudice he continues to encounter. ‘Why do people love you being gay on stage or on air’, he wondered, ‘but they don’t like it in real life? Try living with that situation – it’s a hard thing to cope with’. Likewise, when Welsh rugby captain Gareth Thomas chose to reveal his sexuality in the press, it opened up a second life of considerable sadness. ‘Externally I may look like a tough fucker’, he explained to the press, ‘but emotionally I’m soft as’. His journey was similar to that of Nigel Owens, a world-class referee. Both have described contemplating suicide as a release. Their comments were echoed in research undertaken by Stonewall Cymru which noted that some fifty-five percent of gay people had suffered bullying in school (down from nearly two-thirds in the 2007 report conducted across Britain). This ran alongside the every-day use of homophobic language and the continued higher than average rates of suicide and self-harm.
On the other hand, social attitudes surveys conducted in the course of the 2000s and 2010s have demonstrated a considerable rise in those who believe that prejudice against gay people exists as a social phenomenon and should be tackled. In 2007, for example, this stood at 67 percent in Wales, by 2012 it had risen to 87 percent. The long journey towards acceptance (rather than mere tolerance) has forced a shift in attitudes amongst the people of Wales, as much as the people of the United Kingdom and across the world. This is a sure sign of it.