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  • Writer's pictureThe Publishing Post

Pre-Stonewall LGBTQIA+ History Reads

By Rhys Wright, Becca Binnie, Shan Heyworth and Rosie Green


While the modern LGBTQIA+ rights movement may have begun with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, it’s important not to overlook the many influential LGBTQIA+ people and communities that have existed throughout history. To celebrate Pride Month and the generations who came before us, we’d like to recommend some non-fiction history books that shine a light on just a few LGBTQIA+ stories throughout history.


James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder by Chris Bryant

In 1835, John Smith and James Pratt were the last men ever to be hanged in the UK because of their sexuality. Out of seventy-five people sentenced to death at the Old Bailey that year, they were the only two never given a reprieve.


Convicted of “an unnatural crime”, nothing but the bare details of the trial—the offence, the sentence, the verdict—were included in the court records and their voices were lost to history. Chris Bryant’s latest non-fiction book sifts through public records and produces an account of what James and John’s lives might have looked like. It’s enriched by a detailed social history that gives a vivid impression of working-class gay life in nineteenth-century London.


The scant details of their lives that Bryant has gleaned from public records and his vibrant reconstructions of the world they lived in allow their memory to become more than just names and statistics. It helps us imagine the people they knew, the places they lived, the things they did, and restores fragments of their lives to the historical record.


Exposing the hypocrisy of 19th century political figures who campaigned for universal liberty while condemning homosexuality, James and John shows the underside of an era hailed by popular history for its progress and reform. It’s also a compelling work of legal history, delving into the history of homophobia in the British legal system. An unflinching account of prejudice and injustice, James and John is an invaluable slice of LGBTQIA+ history that makes for an insightful read.

Unsuitable: A History of Lesbian Fashion by Eleanor Medhurst

Hot off the press comes blogger and historian Eleanor Medhurst’s debut book Unsuitable: A History of Lesbian Fashion. Published by C Hurst this Pride Month, Medhurst restores the history of dazzling and diverse lesbian fashion, from Sappho and Suffragettes to t-shirts and TikTok.


Fashion is an artistic form of self-expression. It can help form identity, or hide it, it can build a community and make a statement. The striking scope of this book covers centuries and countries, from 19th century ‘Gentleman Jack’, to Paris modernism, genderqueer Berlin and  Queen Christina of 17th century Sweden. Lesbian history is too often under-represented, this inspiring book offers an essential insight into the lives and status of queer women through the ages.


From top hats to tiaras, this educational and well-researched hidden account celebrates the rich history of lesbian expression and brings to light the importance of gender nonconformity. To find out more about this book and Eleanor Medhurst’s work, check out her blog Dressing Dykes!


Before We Were Trans by Kit Heyam

What counts as transgender history? Kit Heyam tackles this all-too-common question in their broad and diverse account of transgressive expressions and experiences of gender across the world.

The stories of transgender history we encounter frequently tend to be limited to a few, white examples that follow similar trajectories. Heyam attempts to counter this by introducing stories of gender-nonconforming individuals and communities across place and time: in courts from West Africa to Europe, on the battlefield, in internment camps, on stage, or at home. These well-researched accounts are analysed thoroughly and captivatingly, emphasising the complexity of these people as well as their expressions of gender. Heyam engages with theory while recounting these fascinating tales, highlighting how colonial and patriarchal systems have influenced expressions and definitions of gender.

Not only does Heyam look to the past, they also examine our present understanding of gender - in opening up the category of transgender history to a wider range of gender expressions and transgressions, they encourage a less binary conception of gender. Before We Were Trans is an eye-opening read and a great choice for anyone looking to learn more about transgender history.


Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity by Robert Beachy


In Gay Berlin, Robert Beachy traces the inception of queer identity and community in Germany, following the factors that facilitated Berlin’s development into the heart of queer culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Spanning cultural, legal and medical histories, he explains how a unique combination of police tolerance, a relatively liberal press, and an open collaboration between scientists and queer individuals allowed for a queer identity and community to flourish in Berlin.


Under the threat of Paragraph 175 - prohibiting sex between men - an unprecedented movement grew, promoting different theories of sexuality, advocating that same-sex love was as innate and natural as heterosexuality and therefore should not be punished, and building a community in bars and societies and journals.


From Karl Ulrichs, the first gay man to speak publicly in defence of queerness, to Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the first official gay rights group and the Institute for Sexual Science - which performed some of the first gender-affirming surgeries - Beachy highlights the remarkable individuals pioneering the gay rights movement long before Stonewall.


Through an in-depth study of individuals, society and culture in Berlin, Beachy tells an emotional story about the birthplace of an identity, a community, and a movement that has shaped queer history.



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