This week’s literary location is Nottingham’s oldest gay bar, the New Foresters, off Glasshouse Street, a “community centre with a liquor licence”. New Foresters boasts a LGBTQIA-friendly environment that allows people from all walks of life to integrate. Formerly The Foresters Arms, the pub has been gay-friendly since the 1950s. Debbie Law has run the award-winning venue for two decades and every year she hosts the Bold Strokes Festival’s meet and greet. Usually held at Nottingham’s Waterstones, ‘Bold Strokes Festival’ is the longest running LGBTQ book festival in the UK, and this year it’s brought live to your living room via Zoom on June 6th-7th.

Nottingham’s Victoria Villasenor is the consulting editor and UK Rep for Bold Strokes Books, the largest LGBTQ publishing house, and she organises the annual festival. She tells us, “It’s so incredibly gratifying to have such a big turnout year after year that brings people back as well as welcomes new people in; all who want to be part of the LGBTQ book world.”

Preceding the festival is ‘Queer the Shelves’ (5th June), a day of LGBTQ fiction and poetry plus a panel, with Nottingham writers well represented.

For centuries Nottingham’s writers have been rebelling from the margins, bursting into the mainstream to profoundly impact on literature of all kinds. Through their words, our writers have responded to challenges and fostered positive change, building a better world. Nottingham’s LGBT writers (and writing) have often been at the forefront of this progress. Without them, Nottingham would not be a UNESCO City of Literature – and there may not even be a legend of Robin Hood.

It’s widely thought that the story of Robin Hood, as we know it, comes from the ballad ‘A Geste of Robyn Hode’ which, according to local historian Tony Scupham-Bilton, was written by Sir John Clanvowe, a knight who was ‘as good as married’ to Sir William Neville the Constable of Nottingham Castle from 1381, a connection that Scupham-Bilton says, “formed all the background to Robin Hood.”

Accomplished poet Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William had their close relationship recognised in a church ceremony and their tombstone displays their coats of arms as if they were married. Scupham-Bilton suggests that Sir John wove new characters and plots into the existing Robin Hood stories, creating the legends from his partner’s family connections such as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Little John and Guy of Gisborne, bringing the folk hero closer to Nottingham.

In 1994 Professor Stephen Knight wrote that Robin Hood himself was gay. In his paper, written for Nottingham’s Robin Hood conference, the professor suggested that Robin Hood’s rebellious nature was in opposition to authority’s view of homosexuality. Professor Knight also cited the relationship between Robin and his Merry Men and the stories’ suggestive imagery.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s writing challenged attitudes towards women. She married the British ambassador to Turkey having previously had a relationship with his sister Anne. In one collection of letters to an unnamed woman, Lady Mary describes sensual encounters with Turkish women. Born in 1689 at Holme Pierrepont Hall, Lady Mary gained much of her early education from the library at Thoresby Hall, her family home. She often referred to herself as a poet and became a famed travel writer. Lady Mary is also known for advocating the use of smallpox inoculation which she introduced to Britain after returning from Turkey.

The trial of the writer Captain Robert Jones brought the subject of homosexuality to national attention in 1772 when he was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to be hanged. In this same year his ‘A Treatise on Skating’ was published, a book that popularised Ice Skating in Britain. It is thanks to his book’s many reprints, and his innovative design of skates, that the sport was introduced to the wider masses. Without Captain Jones’ book John Curry wouldn’t have got his bronze statue at our National Ice Centre and Torvill and Dean would never have been Olympic Champions. Press coverage of the trial sparked much public debate before the Captain was pardoned by King George III.

In Lord Byron’s day homosexuality remained a serious offence and it was the poet’s fear of prosecution for sodomy that drove him to flee England forever in 1816, suggested the late Fiona MacCarthy in her 2003 biography ‘Byron: Life and Legend’. Most of Byron’s biographers acknowledge that he had many male lovers. Mythology and Victorian cover ups may have clouded the facts – not helped by the removal of ‘controversial’ passages from Byron’s diaries and letters – but his bisexuality is now well-known, as it was in his time, both within his own close circle and “on the street”.

Byron had had many gay friends in England, the most notable being Charles Skinner Matthews at Cambridge. They belonged to a gay circle of friends that spoke and wrote in the coded gay slang of the age; sensitive words replaced with euphemisms (e.g. ‘Methodist’ or ‘Man of Methode’ meaning ‘gay man’). In Byron’s letter to Mathews, written about sailor boys he’d seen in Falmouth, he uses the word ‘Hyacinth’, slang for a younger man you fancied. The use of encrypted messages was not new to Byron who had exchanged such messages with the young chorister John Edleston.

‘Don Juan’ is filled with references that hint at male love. Here Byron discloses that he is writing for the ‘initiated’, a word used in Byron’s time (including by Shelley) as code for gay:

The grand Arcanum’s not for men to see all;

My Music hath some mystic diapasons,

And there is much which could not be appreciated

In any manner by the uninitiated.

(Don Juan XIV, 22, 5-8)

Byron’s popular ‘Oriental’ poems were coded gay love stories, according to Peter Cochran, who shows that the poems’ ‘female’ lovers are really male, something only gay readers would have understood. Cochran’s book ‘Byron and Orientalism’ (2008) was based on a conference held in 2005 at Nottingham Trent University.

The necessary gay subterfuge was not required in Greece where Byron definitely had at least two male lovers: Eustathios Georgiou in 1810 and Lukas Chalandritsanos in 1824. Ralph Lloyd-Jones tells us, “In Greece, the problem was that you should do your duty and liberate the country before enjoying its pleasures!”

In ‘The Intersexes’ (1909) Xavier Mayne states that Byron was “Greek in his intellectual and sexual nature” and he argues that in the poem ‘Manfred’, the “burden on the conscience” the “unspeakable sin”, is not incest but a hidden male relationship.

It’s thanks to Byron’s perceived ‘immorality’ that he was buried in Hucknall otherwise his remains would have gone to Westminster Abbey. In 2019 a rainbow flag was raised at his ancestral home Newstead Abbey by Johnny Victory AKA Lord Byron.

Louis Crompton’s ‘Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England’ (1992) addresses the role and significance of homosexuality in Byron’s life and work. The book shows Byron as being on the side of all rebels and, like D.H. Lawrence and Samuel Butler, having attitudes that were way ahead of his time.

Langar’s Samuel Butler, whose books include ‘Erewhon’ (1872) and ‘The Way of All Flesh’ (1903), escaped the institutions of religion and family when he sailed off to New Zealand and became a sheep farmer. Butler, who had relationships with men and women, returned to England with his lover Charles Pauli, an Oxford educated accountant. Butler provided Pauli with a regular allowance for 34 years.

In 1885 the Labouchère Amendment made all homosexual acts of ‘gross indecency’ illegal. Ten years later Oscar Wilde became the law’s most prominent victim and he spent two years in prison at hard labour. The amendment was used to perpetrate fear and hatred of male homosexuality for more than 80 years. Nottingham’s National Justice Museum held a 2008 exhibition called ‘Prisoner C.3.3: Oscar Wilde’ (‘The Downfall of Oscar Wilde’) commemorating his imprisonment. Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, author of ‘The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde’ (2003), recreated the trial in the museum’s old court where 23 men had been prosecuted for homosexuality in 1961.

Oscar Wilde had a relationship with the son of the rector of Bingham. George Francis “Frank” Miles, a colour-blind portrait painter who met Wilde at Oxford in the mid-1870s. They lived together for a few years. It was our Miles that introduced Wilde to Lillie Langtry and Lord Ronald Charles Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, the latter being the likely inspiration for the hedonistic aristocrat Lord Henry Wotton in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890). Miles reluctantly ended the affair after his father had read Wilde’s poetry and threatened to cut off his allowance.

“I myself never considered Plato very wrong, or Oscar Wilde,” wrote D.H. Lawrence, see ‘Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Vol. 2: 1913-16’ (1981), which also includes a letter to a friend, stating: “I should like to know why nearly every man that approaches greatness tends to homosexuality, whether he admits it or not.”

D.H. Lawrence depicts same-sex desire and intimacy in his novels ‘The White Peacock’ (1911), ‘The Rainbow’ (1915) and ‘Women in Love’ (1920). All these characters – Rupert and Gerald, who naked-wrestle in ‘Women in Love’, George and Cyril, who give each other a rubdown in ‘The White Peacock’, and Ursula, who has a same-sex relationship with her teacher in ‘The Rainbow’ – also desire members of the opposite sex. ‘The Rainbow’ was banned by court order two months after it had been published, partly due to Lawrence’s brief depiction of the affair.

‘Gross indecency’ between females almost became illegal in 1921 after an act modelled on the Labouchère amendment was introduced by the Conservative MP Frederick Macquisten. Thankfully the section, whilst passed in the House of Commons, was defeated in the House of Lords.

By the end of Lawrence’s ‘The Rainbow’, Rupert tells Ursula, “I wanted eternal union with a man too: another kind of love.”

She says, “You can’t have it, because it’s wrong, impossible.”

“I don’t believe that,” he answers.

Many scholars and writers have suggested that Lawrence had homosexual desires and he was certainly interested in the full range of human sexual experience. He once said, “the nearest thing I’ve come to perfect love was with a coal-miner when I was 16”, and he’s known to have had an intimate relationship with a Cornish farmer by the name William Henry Hocking, a relationship that was not likely to have been sexual according to the biographers Mark Kinkead-Weekes (1996) and John Worthen (2005).

Lawrence was involved with homosexual men including John Maynard KeynesMaurice Magnus and E.M. Forster. Incidentally, E.M. Forster later defended ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ at the Chatterley Trial of 1960, and his own book ‘Maurice’ (1971) was labelled a ‘Gay Lady Chatterley’ as it contained an aristocratic desire being met by a game-keeper.

During the Second World War homosexuality had been off the moral agenda but the twenty years that followed was “one of the worst times in recent history to be gay if you were British,” wrote Paul Baker in ‘Fabulosa!’ (2019). Even drag shows were banned in the 1950s and anyone out in drag was likely to be arrested for soliciting. By the ‘60s the police were arresting gay and bisexual men in record numbers. They were an easy target, often cooperating rather than face publicity and its many consequences.

By the mid-1960s Polari was being spoken in Nottingham as a way that one gay man could identify another without their sexuality being made public. Polari derives from various sources and slang. The use of unfamiliar words and switching pronouns (he/omee to she/palone) all helped to create this secret ‘gay’ language. The key to Polari, according to Baker (2019), was to sound like you’re having a good time and to use lots of exaggerations, drama and gossip. Polari lost its ‘secret’ status after it entered the mainstream with BBC Radio’s ‘Round the Horne’ (1964-68), “Duckie” being a favoured term. Paul Baker gave a talk on Polari at the annual Lavender Languages and Linguistics conference when it was held in Nottingham in 2017. This was the first time the conference, dedicated to language and sexuality research, was held in the UK.

In 1965, 19-year old John Clarkson was investigated by the police for shoplifting. On discovering that he lived with a man, the police searched Clarkson’s house before interviewing both him and his partner, bullying them into confessing that they had slept together. A court trial (at what’s now the National Justice Museum) revealed how the police had humiliated the men, with their bed sheets held aloft and a jar of lubricant passed around the jury to the words “notice the pubic hair”. Reporting on the case was Ray Gosling who later re-interviewed John Clarkson about the case in 1987 for the TV documentary ‘Socially Unacceptable’. Clarkson had been sent to prison for two years, his partner Billy for three.

Ray Gosling had arrived in Nottingham in 1962 and his second memoir, ‘Personal Copy’ (1980), captures Nottingham at that time. Gosling was a campaigning man of the people who wrote and presented several hundred television and radio documentaries and regional programmes. His later documentaries focused on his personal life and emergence as a gay activist. The Ray Gosling archives are stored at Nottingham Trent University’s Clifton campus.

In the same year John Clarkson was arrested, Nottingham-born Cecil Roberts became the first author to be named an honorary Freemen of the City of Nottingham. From working-class origins he had become a successful journalist and, from 1920, edited the Nottingham Journal for five years, going on to write over thirty novels, as well as poetry, travel writing, biography, and autobiography. According to the novelist and literary critic Francis King, in his autobiography ‘Yesterday Came Suddenly’ (1993), Cecil Roberts boasted in private of having various famous lovers including Laurence Olivier, Ivor Novello, Baron Gottfried von Cramm (a tennis player), Somerset Maugham, and the Duke of Kent. “For Cecil, snob that he was, the last of these represented the highest achievement,” wrote King.

The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 made gay sex “no longer unlawful” which meant part-decriminalisation. The Act’s definition of ‘private’ excluded hotels, communal accommodation or a third person staying in a separate room. A 1955 Act remained law, meaning that two men flirting or chatting each other up was still illegal, classed as soliciting for immoral purposes. Police harassment towards lesbians and gay men continued for many years after 1967, and up to 20,000 gay and bisexual men were convicted in the decades that followed as the police actively enforced these remaining laws. 1967 was still a turning point and on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, the National Justice Museum hosted an exhibition devoted to Joe Orton.

The late Ike Cowen started the Nottingham Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) group in 1971 and people soon travelled here from surrounding towns and cities, to attend meetings in Nottingham at the Friends Meeting House or Albert Hall. Among those involved with CHE was Ray Gosling. CHE became a mass movement supporting gay men who had been discriminated against whilst also seeking reform and an assimilation into mainstream society.

Also emerging in the early 1970s was the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Christopher Pious Mary “Kris” Kirk was in Nottingham at the time studying American Literature at the University of Nottingham. He came out as openly gay and founded the University’s first Gay Liberation Society. Kirk was also part of Nottingham’s Gay Street Theatre produced by GLF and CHE. He played Maid Marian in “Robina Hood and her Gay Folk”, performed on the steps of the Council House in ’75 before being moved on by the police. Kris Kirk went on to work in television and had a successful career as a journalist writing pioneering articles about homosexuality for ‘Gay News’ and ‘Gay Times’ including a ground-breaking interview with Boy George. He became an acclaimed music journalist for magazines such as ‘Melody Maker’.

Along with Ed Heath, Kris Kirk wrote the book ‘Men In Frocks’ (1984), an illustrated history of British crossdressing from the war to the 1980s. Kirk isn’t the only Notts writer to have written on this subject, there’s also the Edwinstowe-born Roger Baker’s ‘Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts’ (1995).

Sherwood born Douglas Byng AKA “The Queen of Pantomime Dames” was an openly gay and camp drag artiste. Back in the 1940s, one of the musical halls star’s sayings – “tits like coconuts” – got him banned by the BBC. A Brighton bus is named after him.

Post-1967 Nottingham witnessed increasing opportunities for socialising, with more groups and ‘legitimate’ gay-friendly pubs springing up. In need of a listings magazine Nottingham GLF and CHE produced their own newsletter, ‘Chimaera’, which ran for 10 years from 1972. Its big brother was ‘Gay News’, a ‘real newspaper’ that WH Smith’s refused to stock. ‘Chimaera’ was surreptitiously printed at The Manning Girls’ School.

Addressing a need to provide support and information in the form of a helpline, Nottingham Gay and Lesbian Switchboard – now the Notts LGBT+ Network – developed out of CHE in the mid-‘70s. Founding member David Edgley, who has been a leading voice and active member of LGBT+ groups across Nottingham over the last fifty years, wrote ‘A History of a lesbian and gay telephone helpline’ (2000) chronicling the charity’s struggles and achievements.

For the next forty years many institutions would remain purveyors of homophobia. Discover how Nottingham’s writing community responded to new challenges such as Section 28 as we entered the new millennium, in Part Two (of 3) – Next Time.

Read Part Two

Read Part Three