‘That which never can be suppressed’: LGBTQ+ history in the RCP collections

‘That which never can be suppressed’: LGBTQ+ history in the RCP collections

February every year is LGBTQ+ history month, and on Thursday 17th February 2022 we held our first ever event as part of it.

In ‘That which never can be suppressed’ we discussed documents, books and objects from the RCP collections that relate to the history of LGBTQ+ people from the 1990s back to the 1650s. As you can imagine, some of the stories were those of discrimination, prejudice and repression, and were upsetting to research, present and hear about. But others were tales of the resilience, adaptability and imagination of the human spirit, showing that LGBTQ+ people have always been around and have – despite what society has thrown at them – often found ways to live their lives happily.

If you missed the talk you can catch up with it online via YouTube.

We were delighted to be joined by an enthusiastic audience, who raised lots of interesting questions in the event chat and in the Q&A session after the talk. We’ve summarised some of those, with links to useful resources and reading, in this blog post.

 

Does the Royal College of Physicians have an LGBT network?

At present we don’t have a network for LGBT physicians (or any other specialist networks for Black or disabled physicians, for example). However, we are exploring what support networks might be established as a result of our recent EDI review.

The RCP ‘This Doctor Can’ campaign celebrates and showcases physicians from a broad range of backgrounds with a range of identities, and has included LGBTQ+ physicians.

 

Were there any particular stories that resonated personally and/or that you felt you had to include?

Katie: Diana Kimber and Louise Darche were a very late addition to the talk, because I couldn’t resist once I’d found out about them.  I love stories of women who lived together as ‘very good friends’, completely flying under the radar and getting on with their lives. I love the chutzpah with which people got on and did that. But also the fact that we don’t need to be prurient about it and go digging for evidence of what (if anything) two women were getting up to in bed together, because whatever they were doing sexually, they were still queering the norm. They weren’t marrying men and having children with them, they were having careers and committing to another woman for their whole lives, and just getting on despite what anyone might have thought. 

Felix: I love John Finch and Thomas Baines, and there were some last-minute findings, like the quote from Heneage Dering, who knew Finch well. It’s a document in our archive written by Dering in his own handwriting, and he was only 17 when he was at the funeral of this family friend, John Finch. His acceptance of this same-sex relationship in the 1600s is just really lovely. With so much of this topic, you find that on an individual level people were really kind and accepting, and it’s at a social, administrative and legislative levels that there’s resistance.

Do you think the RCP has managed to shed its small-c conservative past? [Some of the documents discussed in the talk show the RCP’s historic slowness to embrace change.]

This is a really hard question to answer! Processes of reform are never complete: any organisation with a formalised constitution will always be a product of a particular time and that time’s standards, and will need to continually review that to keep up-to-date. And most organisations don’t find it easy to do that! However, it’s heartening that the RCP has been deliberately and publicly working on equality, diversity and inclusion over the last few years.

Do we know anything about the history of gay doctors? To follow up to the question about gay doctors, is there anything about lesbian doctors?

We’ve run across more accounts of women physicians living as loving couples than we have of men. There are Dorothy Hare and Elizabeth Lepper mentioned in the talk, and Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson are another comparatively well-known pair. Murray and Garrett Anderson established the Endell Street hospital for injured servicemen in the First World War, as well as being a devoted couple. They were buried together with their headstone reading ‘We have been gloriously happy’.

Murray and Garrett Anderson, and many of the staff, of the Endell Street hospital were active participants in women’s fight for suffrage. A few years ago, the National Archives hosted ‘Outing the Past’ – a day of talks about LGBTQ+ history – including a talk by Hilary McCollum, who presented her research into the roles lesbian women played in the suffragette movement. You can hear her talk online.

The way women in same-sex relationships have been written about in the past and, indeed, also today, is often shrouded in the euphemism of ‘just good friends’ living together as spinsters. This language has been used to make lesbian relationships seem safe and acceptable to an audience that might not otherwise accept them. There’s possibly been a tendency in historical writing not to want to acknowledge the lesbian relationships intertwined with the stories of pioneering women in the professions and the suffrage movement, because of not wanting to be feeding the fire of the typical insults these women faced in their own time and subsequently: that of being man-haters, of being masculine themselves, of throwing their femininity away. All, essentially coded ways of saying ‘oh no! Lesbians!’. Of course, that stops being a problem if you don’t think being gay is a bad thing.

We’re unaware of any research specifically into the history of gay male physicians (and would be delighted to hear of any – do get in touch!). It seems that medicine was for a very long time a very hostile place for gay doctors, although there are some counter-examples. We included David Robert Harvey in a previous blog post about LGBTQ+ history. He was co-chair of the group then known as the Gay and Lesbian Association of Doctors and Dentists (Now known as GLADD, The Association of LGBTQ+ Doctors and Dentists) in the 1990s, and was notable for being open about his sexuality.  GLADD likely have material relating to the issues faced in the medical world of the 1980s onwards, which might be a good place to start a research project. And over at the Royal College of Surgeons, Sarah Gillam recently blogged about Patrick Trevor-Roper, a gay surgeon who was one of the witnesses who appeared before the Wolfenden Committee in 1955.

 

Would the RCP be interesting in taking materials on gay doctors?

Yes! We collect materials that tell the stories of RCP doctors and their patients, so if anyone has papers, objects or books that relate to the stories of LGBTQ+ doctors or patients they would be willing to donate, please let us know

We’d also like to interview LGBTQ+ physicians for our ongoing oral history project. Please get in touch with Sarah Lowry, our oral history project office, if you’d be interested in participating and to find out more about what’s involved.

 

Generally from the presentation it appeared like there was more work discussing sexuality rather then diversity in gender (or from the bits seen that gender diversity was generally a part of identifying difference in sexuality). Is this fair to say?

In a word: yes. Today LGBTQ+ people view gender identity as distinct from sexual orientation: people of all genders might be attracted to people of any other gender(s) or none, regardless of whether they’re cis or trans. A straight trans woman isn’t a confused gay man, for example. This distinction isn’t necessarily always understood across wider society, sadly.

Early sexological works such as Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia sexualis conflate gender identity and sexual orientation, describing how men who are attracted to men can become effeminised over time:

If in cases of contrary sexual instinct ... no restoration occurs, then deep and lasting transformation of the psychical personality may occur. The process completing itself in this way may be briefly designated eviration. The patient undergoes a deep change of character, particularly in his feelings and inclinations, which become those of a female.

These opinions are quite hard to understand and untangle from a modern perspective, and they often include offensive presumptions about what it means to be male or female. Following the excerpt quoted above, Krafft-Ebing goes on to equate being a woman with ‘desire only for passive sexual indulgence’, and even with prostitution.

A similar thing is seen in the Dr Lavies’ notes about an intersex patient discussed in the talk. Lavies is very keen to know what sort of sexual attraction the patient experiences, in order to try and work out from that what their gender is. Presuming that someone attracted to women must be a man, or someone attracted to men must be a woman.

Is there something about how this was documented that may make it difficult to find the history around trans people from the RCP records or is it just that there wasn't much recorded?

It seems there wasn’t much recorded: we certainly haven’t (so far) found any documents relating to trans people in our archives. And unless a trans person came to the attention of medical or other authorities, we might never know that they were living as a different gender to that ascribed to them at birth.

For example, there’s the case of James Barry (1789–1865), a military surgeon with the British Army, who was raised as a girl, but took great pains to conceal this in later life and lived his whole adult life as a man. We have a copy of his medical dissertation from Edinburgh University in the library, signed by him as a gift to physician Matthew Baillie. Without Barry’s trans identity having been exposed against his wishes after his death, we wouldn’t know that there was anything particularly interesting about the man who wrote this inscription.

 

Handwritten inscription.
Inscription by James Barry in his medical dissertation De merocele, vel hernia crurali (1812)

 

The Museum of Transology is a great project documenting the lives and thoughts of trans people today, and preserving them for the future. There’s the Digital Transgender Archive, too, which includes a recording of the first International Symposium on Gender Identity, held in London in 1969.

 

Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian

Felix Lancashire, assistant archivist

 

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Katie Birkwood ,
Rare books and special collections librarian
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Felix Lancashire ,
Assistant archivist

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