Professor Charles Upchurch on “Military Masculinity and Same-Sex Desire in Early Nineteenth Century Britain”

I am thrilled once again to be a part of LGBT History Month, and to have this venue to present the latest aspect of my research into same-sex desire and early nineteenth-century Britain. This year’s project centers on same-sex desire and the British military in the early nineteenth century, and builds a social history based on dozens of examples of military men and the men that they were emotionally, sexually, and at times financially attracted to.

My findings confirm that when sex between men occurred within the context of the military hierarchy it was ruthlessly policed and suppressed, but it has also found that when those sexual acts did not impinge on military disciple or the chain of command they faced less draconian sanctions. Evidence survives, often around the edges of traditional sources, for the ways in which soldiers engaged in sex with other men without facing the prescribed punishments, both at the level of the common soldier and the officer. Among other evidence, my talk will highlight one officer’s plea, made repeatedly to the British government in the early nineteenth century, for a relaxation of the laws against sex between men. Soldiers, both officers and enlisted, were, after all, some of the most well-traveled and cosmopolitan members of British society, exposed to a wide range of differing cultures and value systems. The British prohibition on sex between men was perhaps the most rigid in the world in the early nineteenth-century, so that encounters with other cultures necessarily exposed Britons overseas to a range of more tolerant attitudes towards male same-sex desire. Spanning the British military hierarchy from the common soldier to the Duke of Wellington, my talk in Manchester will discuss, through specific documented examples, a variety of ways in which same-sex desire was experienced and encountered in the early nineteenth-century British military. I am especially gratified to be able to share this work first at a venue where the audience will include soldiers, the public at large, and academics, and look forward to learning from the range of reactions I hope this work will inspire.

“Military Masculinity and Same-Sex Desire in Early Nineteenth Century Britain” will be presented at The Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, UK, Thursday 25 February 2016
as part of the UK National Festival of LGBT History Academic Conference Events. For the full programme, click here.


Charles Upchurch is an Associate Professor of British history at Florida State University. He received his Ph.D. in modern British history from Rutgers University in 2003, and his research focuses on nineteenth-century British gender and social history. His book, Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform was published in 2009 by the University of California Press, and explores the ways in which family and class influenced the interpretation of same-sex desire in the period between 1820 and 1870. His work has been published in Gender and History, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, and the Journal of Social History. His current book project investigates a group of men in the British Parliament who were working to reduce the penalties for homosexual acts in the early nineteenth century. Chuck tweets from @cupchurch2