Ethics and Practicalities
Many of the problems with reconstructing the lives of men who had sex with men come from the fact that the concept of ‘homosexual’ as an identity category did not exist for much of our period of interest. This term and its application to men whose same-sex desire was seen as a fundamental aspect of their identity did not become widespread until into the twentieth century and even then developed more slowly in certain areas of the country and among certain groups.
For this reason, the Broken Futures project has adopted an ‘acts-based’ approach, highlighting the same-sex sex that the individuals in our study engaged in but not making any claims as to identity categories in the majority of cases. For instance, although one of our individuals, Arthur, has multiple convictions for same-sex sex throughout his life, we have chosen not to attach the term ‘homosexual’ to him. People who view our exhibitions may choose to see Arthur as a homosexual, however, and the majority of this will be down to the personal thoughts and feelings of each viewer.
Because our project has been broadly focused on the records of Berkshire’s criminal justice system, we are necessarily skewed in our reconstruction of sex between men during the period. We’ve only focused on the sex that was detected by the authorities, but this cannot ever give us a full picture.
Despite these issues, we are aware of the importance of providing a sense of ‘belonging’ for those people today who see the individuals in our studies as being members of their own identity group. Although we must be wary of adopting views that aren’t backed up by evidence, it is completely valid for people to see parallels between themselves and historical subjects.
Our reliance on records of the criminal justice system means that our research is skewed to cisgender male experiences. This is because sex between women was not prosecuted and there is no explicit evidence of transgender identities among the individuals in our research (and all of these individuals were deemed to be men by the state for the purpose of the charges brought). However, we must be aware of historical ways of conceptualising same-sex desire that are linked to gender – especially that which links same-sex desire to effeminacy. It is entirely possible that some of the individuals in our study did not conceive of themselves as wholly occupying a male and masculine gender category. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and this is even more the case for the historical study of marginalised communities.
When publishing our research, we have had to consider the fact that many of the individuals in our study would have felt a sense of shame in relation to their encounter with the criminal justice system. There is a danger of ‘outing’ grandparents and great-uncles, and we do not want to cause distress to those who are still living. We have decided to exclude surnames present in our research (they are represented by use of the symbol †). Although we were reluctant to remove the names of individuals as we seek to reconstruct their lives, the team felt this was the best way to navigate this ethical conundrum.
The most pressing consideration we have encountered is whether it is useful to use the records of the criminal justice system to reconstruct sex between men in the past. Their encounter with the criminal justice system must have been a low-point in the lives of the individuals in our study, and there are some who believe that these low-points should not be dwelled upon.
This is a particularly poignant issue for the project because of the centrality of HM Prison Reading. Over the course of a number of years, efforts have been made to preserve this space for the community and for the LGBT+ community in particular. The recent publicity surrounding Banksy’s new addition to the prison walls serves to highlight the strength of feeling in this regard. There is, however, a group of people who do not see the preservation of Reading Prison as a positive thing, owing to its connection to the persecution of men who had sex with men.
In summary, this research is not uncontentious. It is so important to many individuals today for them to be represented in history and archival collections, but this desire to represent and commemorate must be balanced with a grasp of the ethical and methodological implications inherent within this research.