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Eighteenth-century gay rights text revealed

Eighteenth-century gay rights text revealed

Excerpts from a 258-year-old book written by the Englishman thought to be the first advocate for gay rights have been discovered by a University of Manchester academic.

Hal Gladfelder from the School of Arts, Histories, and Cultures learned of the previously unnoticed tract while doing research at the British National Archive in Kew, outside London.

The 3- by 5-foot scroll is a handwritten court indictment of the printer of a book titled Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplified.

Written by Thomas Cannon in 1749 and suppressed immediately after publication, the book is an anthology of stories and philosophical texts in defense of male homosexuality.

One story deals with cross-dressing, and others are translations of Greek and Latin homoerotic texts. It includes the passage "Unnatural desire is a contradiction in terms; downright nonsense. Desire is an amatory impulse of the inmost human parts."

Gladfelder said, "This must be the first substantial treatment of homosexuality ever in English. The only other discussions of homosexuality were contained in violently moralistic and homophobic attacks or in trial reports for the crime of sodomy up to and beyond 1750."

He came across the scroll in a box of uncatalogued legal documents from 1750. No copies of the book itself are known, but the indictment scroll contained long extracts.

"So the 18th-century courts--who were trying to suppress this--unwittingly helped publicize it 258 years later," Gladfelder said. "I think what happened to Cannon paved the way for 200 years of homophobic repression."

Sodomy was a capital crime in the United Kingdom until 1861; it was not decriminalized until 1967.

"We know very little about Cannon," Gladfelder said. "But we do know he had to leave the country for Europe to avoid indictment. Interestingly, his father was Dean of Lincoln Cathedral, and his grandfather was Bishop of Norwich and Ely. He was also a sometime friend--and rival--of John Cleland, author of the erotic classic Fanny Hill, or, the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in 1748. Cleland was author of the only other text of the period containing an explicit scene of male homosexuality.

"It's a fair assumption that Cannon was writing for a gay subculture at the time, which has largely remained hidden. Though he lived in anonymity, possibly because of the notoriety of his pamphlet, I certainly regard him as a martyr. His life has many parallels with Oscar Wilde, who was persecuted by the law, forced into exile, and effectively silenced for being an apologist and advocate of same-sex love. But in Cannon's case the silencing was more successful: Virtually all traces of his life and work disappeared for 250 years." (

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