A 200 year old diary written by a Yorkshire farmer has been surprising historians with its take on homosexuality.
The diary is being heralded as important evidence showing tolerance of homosexuality in Britain far earlier than ever thought before.
Oxford University historians have been taken surprised to discover that Matthew Tomlinson’s diary, written in 1810, contains open-minded views about same-sex attraction being “natural”. The diary shows there was debate at the time about discrimination towards same-sex relationships.
Oxford researcher Eamonn O’Keeffe said: “In this exciting new discovery, we see a Yorkshire farmer arguing that homosexuality is innate and something that shouldn’t be punished by death.”
The handwritten diaries have been stored in Wakefield Library since the 1950s and thousands of pages of the private journals had never been transcribed. The diaries had previously been used by researchers interested in Tomlinson’s eye-witness accounts of elections in Yorkshire and the Luddites.
Historian O’Keeffe had been fascinated to discover a refreshing perspective, for the era of King George III, about same-sex relationships. Tomlinson had been prompted by a big sex scandal of the day in which a well-known naval surgeon had been discovered to be engaging in homosexuality.
Academics were excited to see thoughts and opinions of an ordinary person of the time, especially one unexpectedly open-minded.
A court martial had ordered the accused man to be hanged prompting Tomlinson to write in his diary how he was unconvinced by the decision. He questioned whether what the papers called an “unnatural act” was really that unnatural.
Tomlinson mentioned how punishing someone for how they were created by god was actually an insult to god:
“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 14th, 1810.
Within the diary Tomlinson also mentioned having discussions with his peers about how homosexuality can show up at an early age. He argued that if there was indeed an “inclination and propensity” for someone to be homosexual from an early age, he wrote, “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”.
“What’s striking is that he’s an ordinary guy, he’s not a member of the bohemian circles or an intellectual. It shows opinions of people in the past were not as monolithic as we might think,” says O’Keeffe.
“Even though this was a time of persecution and intolerance towards same-sex relationships, here’s an ordinary person who is swimming against the current and sees what he reads in the paper and questions those assumptions.”