Nonfiction: In One City, 2,000 Years of Gay History

Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day
By Peter Ackroyd
262 pp. Abrams Press. $26.


The first generation of lesbian and gay scholars after Stonewall compiled tomes of evidence proving that men had gone to bed with men, and women with women, early in history and often. Because the social stigma against homosexuality was still potent in the academy in their day, these writers armored their books against condescension, brandishing complex theories about representation and identity, and thorning their texts with source notes. Despite the care the authors took to be sophisticated, however, they offered a rollicking thrill that depended in large part on an intellectual tool that was quite simple: the list.

That thrill is reprised in Peter Ackroyd’s “Queer City,” which inventories two millenniums of lesbians, gays, trans people and other queers who have lived in London. Ackroyd starts with a list of words for nonheterosexuals, including “catamite,” “sapphist,” “ingle,” “pathic,” “mollie,” “jemmy,” “tribade,” “tommy,” “indorser,” “fribble” and “madge,” and quickly moves on to names, famous and forgotten, like George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, addressed by his king, James I, as “my sweet child and wife,” and Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse, a cross-dresser, fortuneteller and pimp so hard to pin down that contemporaries described her as slipping “from one company to another like a fat eel between a Dutchman’s fingers.” Unlike his predecessors, Ackroyd doesn’t knot up his lists with philosophical puzzles about the nature of sexuality, or its lack of a nature, and he dispenses with source notes. Queer history apparently no longer has anything to prove.

Ackroyd, unburdened, is free to be droll. “Who would want to be called an ‘urning’?” he complains, for example, of a term invented by a 19th-century sexologist. “It sounds like some sort of gnome.” The breeziness does have a cost. Google searches quickly unearth sources for many tidbits in the book but not all of them. Where is the reader to turn for more information about the travesty birth, staged in a public house in 1810, in which, with the assistance of a pair of bellows, a man was delivered of a Cheshire cheese? Which “contemporary” wrote the description, quoted by Ackroyd, of the public urinals of early-20th-century London as “the most important places for homosexuals of all and every kind”?

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