Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day
by Peter Ackroyd
Abrams Press. 257 pages, $26.
Eighteen years ago, Peter Ackroyd published London: The Biography, a massive, far-ranging tome that can probably stand with anything else written about the British capital. Sex and its varieties occupied only one short chapter; in this new volume, he’s written a concise history of “gay London” over two millennia. He begins with Londonium, the Roman city at the northern extreme of the Empire, and continues chronologically up to recent times. We learn, for example, that Chaucer included gay characters in Canterbury Tales in the 14th century, notably the Pardoner, who may also have been transgender. Actual historical figures named by Ackroyd include British monarchs such as Richard the Lionheart and Edward II, among others, as well as Elizabethan-era notables and 18th-century peers and entrepreneurs. He’s reticent about the Romantic poets and the Victorian era in general, until we get to the Cleveland Street rent boy scandal and the Oscar Wilde trials of the late 19th century.
Closer to our time, he writes: “it is arguable that in the first half of the 20th century, gays of both sexes were subjected to a level of prejudice and intolerance not seen before in Western history: entrapment, imprisonment and sudden police raids became familiar characteristics of London life.” That seems accurate but belies his book’s title. Was London ever really a “queer city”? That said, this is a good general introduction to homosexuality in England and itself a useful guide and resource for deeper investigation.