How to look for records of... Gay, lesbian and bisexual history

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1. Why use this guide?

This is a guide which will help you find records relating to gay, lesbian, and bisexual history.

Researching this subject can be time consuming and difficult, as this area of study is still in its infancy and many sources are not immediately obvious.

This guide suggests potentially useful documents and search terms, but is not exhaustive. If you come across other useful sources during the course of your research, we would be keen to hear about them. Please feel free to email us.

This guide doesn’t advise on ways to research transgender history but we are hoping to include this in the near future. We will be consulting with the LGBT research community to establish useful search techniques and sources both within our own collection and elsewhere.

2. Essential information

The state has played a major role in repressing, controlling and censoring the lives of gay and bisexual people whom it considered a threat to the ‘natural’ order of society. Evidence of this can be found in police and criminal records as well as policy and legislation records.

Many criminal files on individuals in the twentieth century are listed in our catalogue but actually remain closed under the Data Protection Act. If you come across a record description like this there will be an option to request a Freedom of Information review to see if the file can be opened.

It is worth remembering that descriptive terms for gay and lesbian people have changed over time.The term homosexuality was not used with its contemporary meaning until the end of the 19th century, and many terms used in historical records are considered offensive today.

3. Searching our catalogue

The records we have are listed in Discovery, our catalogue, with descriptions of their content with varying levels of detail. Identifying records relating to gay, lesbian and bisexual history is particularly difficult as the descriptions do not always make it clear that they contain relevant material.

Try searching the catalogue using alternative terms for gay and lesbian or the offences individuals were often charged with. Some historical terms are suggested below – they reflect the attitudes of the time rather than those of today.

Alternative search terms for gay or bisexual:

  • character defect
  • deviant
  • immoral
  • invert
  • pervert
  • queer
  • sapphism
  • sodomite
  • tribade

Alternative search terms for relevant criminal offences:

  • buggery
  • disorderly house
  • gross indecency
  • importuning
  • indecency
  • obscenity
  • sexual offences
  • sodomy
  • soliciting
  • street offences
  • unnatural offences
  • unnatural act

You can also carry out a search for all files currently tagged as ‘LGBT’ in the ‘tags’ section of Discovery. If you find relevant files that haven’t been tagged you can add an ‘LGBT’ tag to help future researchers.

The Your Archives online list of themed documents is another good starting point and will identify documents relevant to a number of the sections that follow.

4.1 Records of crimes and criminals

Because male homosexuality was illegal there are plenty of criminal records to use in researching this subject. This is not the case for female homosexuality which was not officially criminalised.

Read our guide on crime and punishment to learn about what records survive and how to search them. Use the search boxes within the guide as a quick way to search our catalogue for relevant records.

Alternatively, you can carry out your own search in our catalogue using keywords such as a person’s name or a type of crime.

Court records can include:

  • indictments that simply list an individual’s name and offence
  • depositions of the evidence taken by the court
  • transcripts of the trial proceedings (less common)

It might be worth browsing our catalogue to see if anything looks interesting. Start by looking within:

  • court records with the department codes ASSI and CRIM
  • appeal records in J81-82
  • Metropolitan police correspondence in MEPO 2-4
  • public prosecution cases in DPP files – in particular, DPP 1 for papers relating to Oscar Wilde and the ‘Cleveland Street Scandal’

Section 164 of the Policing and Crime Act 2017 gave posthumous pardons for convictions of certain abolished offences, including those under certain sections of the Sexual Offences Act 1956. These include convictions recorded in a number of records held at The National Archives series, such as those detailed in this guide.

4.2 1950s and 1960s criminal law discussions

Read our guidance on Political history in the 20th century for some general background to researching in this area.

Search the online Cabinet papers for discussions of policies relating to the gay, lesbian and bisexual community.

Correspondence and papers from the Prime Minister’s office contain records of policy and legislation discussions. The period of the Wolfenden Committee is covered in PREM 11 and PREM 13.

4.3. Divorce records

The homosexuality of one partner was sometimes cited in divorce proceedings. Read our guide on divorces to learn about what records survive and how to search them. Use the search boxes within the guide as a quick way to search our catalogue for relevant records.

Debates over divorce law reform in the early 20th century repeatedly raised the question of whether lesbianism should be grounds for divorce. Search our catalogue for relevant records from the Prime Minister’s Office (PREM) and the Lord Chancellor’s Office (LCO).

5. Home Office records

Home Office files contain discussions of individual cases, considerations of appeals, and debates around the operations of the law. Key Home Office records include:

HO 17 and HO 18 – petitions for the revocation or reduction of sentences
HO 19 – indexes to the files in HO 7 and HO 18
HO 345 and HO 291 – papers from the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (Wolfenden Committee, 1954-1957)

Read our guidance on Home Office correspondence 1839-1959 to find out more about how to use Home Office records in your research.

6. Civil service and armed forces employees

6.1 Civil service

The civil service considered the potential blackmail of homosexual employees a risk to state security. This concern was strongest during the Cold War and employment policies discriminated against gay applicants and employees.

In 1967 homosexuality was decriminalised and the civil service was put under pressure to change its attitude. Cabinet papers and Civil Service management files for the following years reflect this pressure.

6.2 Armed forces

The armed forces saw homosexuality as a threat to discipline and morale within its single sex environment, and service personnel were regularly prosecuted, court-martialled or discharged for sexual offences.

Use the advanced search option in our catalogue to look for relevant files. Use keywords such as ‘homosexual’ and search within the department codes ADM, WO, AIR and DEFE to restrict your search to military records.

7. Gay and lesbian politics

Political organisations such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality fought to improve the rights of gay people.

The activities of these organisations and the political debates they generated are reflected in government records – particularly those from the Home Office (HO), Cabinet Office (CAB) and Prime Minister’s Office (PREM).

Search our catalogue using the names of the organisations or other keywords to identify relevant documents.

The files of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (Wolfenden Committee) are a rich source of evidence about gay men’s lives, and medical, legal and official understandings of homosexuality in the mid-20th century.

8. Further key areas of research

8.1 Censorship

Issues surrounding the portrayal of gay men and lesbians in art, literature and the media were discussed within government. Search our catalogue using keywords for records relating to censorship and prosecution under obscenity laws.

To focus your results use ‘advanced search’ and look for records from the following departments:

  • Home Office (HO)
  • Lord Chancellor’s Office (LCO)
  • Central Criminal Court (CRIM)
  • Metropolitan Police (MEPO)
  • Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP)

8.2 Fraud, defamation, slander and libel

Search our catalogue for records relating to defamation, slander, libel and blackmail (or demanding money with menaces) which often involved allegations of sexual immorality.

To focus your results, use the filter options on the left of the results screen to select results from the Central Criminal Court (CRIM) and the Metropolitan Police (MEPO).

8.3 Public health, medicine and the welfare state

Gay men and lesbians were perceived as ‘ill’ or ‘diseased’, and consequently a potential source of danger to public health. This is particularly evident in reactions to HIV and AIDS from the 1980s, but official concern dates back at least to the 19th century.

Particularly since the 1920s, the state has tried to deal with its concerns by incarcerating, ‘treating’ and ‘curing’ gay and lesbian individuals.

Search our catalogue for relevant records using keywords. To focus your results try searching for records from the following departments:

  • Welsh Office (BD)
  • Ministry of Health (MH)
  • Home Office (HO)
  • Prison Commission (PCOM)
  • Medical Research Council (FD)

8.4 Education and single sex institutions

From the 1930s onwards, gay men in prison were increasingly referred to prison medical officers for diagnosis and ‘treatment’. Search our catalogue using keywords such as ‘prison’ and ‘medical’ (together) for relevant records from the Home Office (HO) and the Prison Commission (PCOM).

The authorities wanted children to grow up to conform to heterosexual norms of husbands, wives and parents; and those with responsibility for education and young offenders institutions were wary of permitting gay or lesbian teachers to influence children.

Search our catalogue for records from the Education Department (ED) which regulated borstals and reform schools as well as mainstream schools. Local archives may also have relevant records (see section 10).

9. Background information

  • 1553: Although already proscribed under Canon Law, ‘buggery’ was first made a criminal offence
  • 1861:  The Offences Against the Person Act consolidated this provision, together with the further offence of ‘indecent assault’, which had emerged within common law during the 18th century
  • 1885: The Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed making any act of ‘gross indecency’ between men a criminal offence, whether it occurred in public or in private
  • 1898: ‘Cruising’ streets, parks or urinals was criminalised as the offence of ‘importuning’ through the Vagrancy Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1912)
  • 1921: The House of Lords rejected a proposed new offence of acts of gross indecency between women under the Criminal Law Amendment Bill
  • 1957: The Wolfenden Committee recommended that private homosexual acts between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offence
  • 1967: Following campaigns from gay political organisations the Wolfenden recommendations were enacted into law
  • 2001: The age of consent was lowered to 16 in England, Wales and Scotland for gay men and became equal for all
  • 2009: The age of consent for gay men in Northern Ireland was lowered from 17 to 16

10. Records in other archives

There are many records relating to LGB history in other archives across the UK.

To see what is held in local archives, search our catalogue using keywords such as lesbian and gay, and refine your results using the filters.

Find contact details for archives elsewhere using Find an archive.

11. Further reading and podcasts

Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list.

The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.

Also see:

Rebecca Jennings, Lesbian history of Britain: love and sex between women since 1500 (Greenwood World Publishing 2007)

Alison Oram & Annmarie Turnbull, The lesbian history sourcebook: love and sex between women in Britain from 1780-1970 (Routledge 2001)

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history in The National Archives: identified documents by theme, Your Archives, (retrieved 28 November 2012)

Go to our podcasts page to listen to a series of talks highlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender histories found in government records.

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 116