Words by Rhys Mather
“Gobaith fo’n meister: rhoed amser i ni’n was” / “Hope is our master: time was given to us as a servant”. – Waldo Williams
I was born and raised in a Welsh town called Neath (imagine Ned Flanders’ shoddily rebuilt house was a town), where attitudes weren’t exactly “progressive”, and I experienced a fair amount of abuse growing up bisexual. I know this was a common experience for my peers, in my school of 800 students, the number of openly queer pupils was single digit. It was a world of contradiction, Anti-LGBT+ sentiment was rife, but our national sport consists of huge sweaty men grappling each other in the dirt, we love to sing and are incredibly invested in the career of Shirley Bassey – Wales is GAY.
So do I have a concussion or does everyone else? How can Wales appear so camp on the surface yet all of my queer Welsh friends have experienced some kind of bigotry? One theory is that queer Welsh history is being erased. A common sentiment among people my grandparents age was “there are no gays in Wales” – by overlooking the huge number of queer figures in Welsh history you make queer people a modern phenomenon, an aberration, instead of the reality of our history, where LGBTQ+ people have always existed and helped build modern Wales. By challenging misconceptions about our past, we can be more understanding of the future.
In many ways, “queer history” is just “history”, LGBTQ+ people have been here for as long as Wales has been inhabited. This being said, one of the first mentions of queerness in Welsh history comes from ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (60-30 BC) who writes:
“although Celtic women were beautiful, their men preferred to sleep with each other”
Making further observations, Siculus paints a picture of pre-roman Celtic Britain where homosexuality, particularly between men, was widely accepted and practised openly without fear of persecution. When the Romans conquered Britain in the first century AD they radically altered the culture of Wales for over 400 years and this included their views on homosexuality. While relationships between men were permissible, Roman society was hyper-patriarchal and militaristic, so only the dominant man could retain their social-status and perceived masculinity. The Roman emperor Hadrian (of wall fame) was openly gay, and had a lover named Antinous who was declared a God by Hadrian upon his death and had a city built in his honour. Recent archaeological findings have also revealed the presence of a cult of Attis in Roman Wales. Attis is a Greco-Roman god who is referred to as both male and female in historical records and their priests were known to alternate between masculine and feminine dress.
Medieval Wales is where the rapid spread of Christianity and hegemonic power of the church allowed for Wales’s first anti-gay legislation to be ratified, with Saint Gildas outlawing sodomy in the 6th century. King Edward the 2nd, born in Caernarfon, is believed to have been gay. After being deposed by his wife in 1326 he fled to Hugh Despenser, Lord of Glamorgan, who historians believe was his lover. Despenser was later executed for treason and “interfering in the royal marriage”. Edward was not the only gay Welsh ruler, Geoffrey of Monmouth writes that Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd was “addicted to sodomy” – although this could simply be slander as The History of the Kings of Britain is generally considered unreliable.
Moving into the 18th century, the visibility of queer people in Britain was increasing, with philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham – the father of utilitarianism – advocating for the legalisation of homosexuality alongside equal rights for women and the abolition of slavery. Another example of Wales’ rich queer history from the 18th century are the Ladies of Llangollen. The ladies, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, were Irish aristocrats who lived in Wales together for over 50 years in order to escape unwanted marriages. They were described as eccentric, almost exclusively wearing riding gear and black top hats. Despite their eccentricities the ladies were eminent in Britain’s upper class, playing host to Lord Byron, William Wordsworth (who wrote a sonnet about them), and the first Duke of Wellington. There is obviously good reason to assume the Ladies of Llangollen were a couple, and their former home remains a popular tourist attraction for queer tourists.
In more recent history Jan Morris, a Welsh trans woman, was the first journalist to climb Mt Everest and reported Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historic summiting of Everest on Queen Elizabeth II coronation in 1953.
The 1980’s were turbulent times for Wales, Thatcher’s government had eviscerated the social support many working class communities relied on and closed the mines, leading to over 25,000 redundancies. Queer people in Wales and the rest of Britain also came directly under attack due to a moral panic surrounding HIV, which led to widespread villainization and condemnation from the government and the press – eventually leading to section 28 – a piece of legislation that outlawed “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” This means between 1988-2003 it was illegal to mention the existence of queer people in schools. Thatcher herself supported section 28 by giving a speech in which she infamously states “Children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay.”
The queer and mining communities of Wales had a common enemy, and they were determined to do something about it. Between 1984-1985 the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) went on a year-long strike. During the strike the government sequestered the union’s funds, meaning they had no money to fall back on. Instead, various activist groups were encouraged to pair with mining communities and collect donations in order to pay wages. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) was one of these groups and were paired with miners from the Neath, Swansea and Dulais valleys. They raised £22,500, approximately £100,000 in today’s money, and proved instrumental in supporting Welsh miners hold the strike. As a result Welsh miners unions began to openly support queer struggles and activists, such as leading marches in both Cardiff and London pride events in 1985. The story of one LGSM group in the village of Onllwyn was told in the 2014 film pride.
Stories like this uplift me, they show that while queer people have never had it easy, there are always helping hands and we can weather any storm, together. I find it a great comfort in times where anti-queer hysteria is on the rise, and reminds me that time is merely a servant – hope is our master.
Photo credit: Wiki Commons – pride cymru