How to look for records of... Sexuality and gender identity history

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you find records relating to sexuality and gender identity history.

Researching this subject can be time-consuming and difficult, as this area of study is still in its infancy and many sources are not immediately obvious.

This guide suggests potentially useful documents and search terms, but is not exhaustive. If you come across other useful sources during the course of your research, we would be keen to hear about them. Please email us.

This guide previously offered guidance on researching gay, lesbian and bisexual histories, but following consultation with LGBTQ+ history researchers, we have included information about researching transgender and gender identity history. In the past, the state often conflated gender identity and sexuality which means that records are often found in the same record series.

An image of a Metropolitan Police map of Hyde Park, London, showing the location of urinals where arrests were made for importuning and gross indecency during 1953 (catalogue reference: HO 345/7)

An image of a Metropolitan Police map of Hyde Park, London, showing the location of urinals where arrests were made for importuning and gross indecency during 1953 (catalogue reference: HO 345/7)

2. Essential information

The National Archives’ records give a valuable insight into how government interacted with and viewed LGBTQ+ communities in the past. The state’s attempts to suppress and regulate sexuality and gender has paradoxically left us with many potential sources for the experiences of LGBTQ+ people.

Our collection reflects many of the significant moments and milestones in LGBTQ+ history through police, criminal, policy and legislation records.

Many twentieth century criminal records are listed in Discovery, our catalogue, but remain closed under the Data Protection Act. If you come across a closed record like this, there will be an option to request a Freedom of Information review to see if it can be opened.

Descriptive terms relating to sexuality and gender identity have changed over time. For example the term homosexuality was not used with its contemporary meaning until the end of the nineteenth century, and many terms used in historical records are considered offensive today. To get the best results from searching Discovery you will often need to use the language of the time.

3. What can I see online?

Although no major LGBTQ+ archive collections have been digitised, we have found some online material that we hope might be of interest to researchers in this area:

  • Old Bailey Online – search proceedings from 19,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court 1674-1913. Section 5 explains why criminal records can be useful in this research
  • Cabinet papers – search these records for Cabinet discussions of policies relating to sexuality and gender identity
  • UK Government web archive – search or browse government videos, tweets, and websites dating from 1996 to the present for information, reports and advice published online by government bodies
  • Gender Recognition Act – read the full text of the 2004 Act
  • Studies in Scarlett – search this collection of narratives of trials from the US and the UK focusing on marriage and sexuality from 1815-1914. They include the sodomy trial of Oscar Wilde and other trials where relationships did not conform to accepted social standards
  • Rewind Fast Forward – view this British Film Institute archive of filmmaker Sandi Hughes who preserved images of black and gay life in and around Liverpool in the 1970s

4. Searching our catalogue

4.1 About the catalogue

Discovery, our catalogue, incorporates the catalogues of over 2500 archives across the UK and some abroad. This means that when you search Discovery your results can include records held at many different archives. For more information about effective searching and understanding your search results use the Disovery help pages.

The records we have at The National Archives are listed in Discovery with descriptions of their content that have varying levels of detail. Identifying records relating to LGBTQ+ history is particularly difficult as the descriptions do not always make it clear that they contain relevant material.

The Your Archives online list of themed documents is a good starting point and will identify documents relevant to a number of the sections that follow.

4.2 Key departments to search within

Records from particular government departments have references that begin with a specific letter code. If you know this letter code you can use it in the Advanced search option of Discovery to search for records from that particular department.

Some of the key departments and their letter codes are shown below:

  • RG General Register Office
  • HO Home Office
  • BN Department of Health and Social Security
  • MEPO Metropolitan Police
  • DPP Director of Public Prosecutions
  • PCOM Prison Commission and Home Office Prison Department
  • C Chancery, Wardrobe, Royal Household, Exchequer and various commissions
  • J Supreme Court of Judicature (within this department the most relevant record series is J 77  which contains divorce files)
  • PIN Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance

Try searching Discovery within these department codes (enter the code in the ‘search for or within references’ box in Advanced search). You can try using current terminology such as LGBT or transgender; but note that searching with historical terms will be more successful in many cases (see section 4.3)

Image of a plan of ‘Billie’s Club’, London, used as an exhibit in a prosecution for conspiracy to corrupt morals (catalogue reference: DPP 2/355)

Image of a plan of ‘Billie’s Club’, London, used as an exhibit in a prosecution for conspiracy to corrupt morals (catalogue reference: DPP 2/355)

4.3 Historical terms

When you consult original records it is useful to be aware of different terms that have been used for sexuality and gender identity, and for the offences people were often charged with.

Similarly, when you search catalogue descriptions of historical records in any archive you will need to use the language of the time and not expect to find everything catalogued under modern day terms.

Some terms you might come across when consulting records are shown below. Try using these terms when you search for records as well.

Historical terms relating to sexuality:

  • character defect
  • deviant
  • immoral
  • invert
  • pervert
  • queer
  • sapphism
  • sodomite
  • tribade

Historical terms relating to gender identity:

  • hermaphrodite (for those born intersex)
  • masquerading
  • males in female attire
  • females in male attire
  • female husband
  • cross-dressing
  • sex-change or sex change
  • change of sex
  • transvestite
  • gender
  • gender recognition
  • transsexuals

Historical terms for relevant criminal offences:

  • buggery
  • disorderly house
  • gross indecency
  • importuning
  • indecency
  • obscenity
  • sexual offences
  • sodomy
  • soliciting
  • street offences
  • unnatural offences
  • unnatural act

4.4 Tagging and taxonomy

You can search for all files currently tagged as ‘LGBT’ in the ‘tags’ section of Discovery. If you find relevant files that haven’t been tagged you can add an ‘LGBT’ tag to help future researchers.

Another technique is to search within the taxonomy subject ‘sex and gender’. To do this, use the Advanced search option in Discovery and

  • in the ‘Find words’ section enter a search term; or an asterisk* if you want to see everything under the ‘sex and gender’ taxonomy subject
  • in the ‘Date’ section enter a single year or range of years if appropriate
  • in the ‘Held by’ section select ‘Search The National Archives’ – this will open up new sections including Taxonomy subjects
  • in the Taxonomy subjects section select ‘sex and gender’ and click search

5.1 Records of crimes and criminals

Because male homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967 there are plenty of criminal records to use in researching this subject. Female homosexuality was not officially criminalised so records weren’t created in the same way.

Similarly, the state never directly criminalised individuals questioning or changing their gender identity or expression, but certain associated characteristics were criminalised by the state. For example, cross-dressing and effeminacy in men were often deemed to be signs of homosexuality.

Read our guide on crime and punishment to learn about what records survive and how to search them. Use the search boxes within the guide as a quick way to search our catalogue for relevant records.

Alternatively, you can carry out your own search in Discovery using keywords such as a person’s name or a type of crime.

Court records can include:

  • indictments that simply list a person’s name and offence
  • depositions of the evidence taken by the court
  • transcripts of the trial proceedings (less common)

It might be worth browsing Discovery to see if anything looks interesting. Start by looking within:

  • court records with the department codes ASSI and CRIM
  • appeal records in J81-82
  • Metropolitan police correspondence in MEPO 2-4
  • public prosecution cases in DPP files – in particular, DPP 1 for papers relating to Oscar Wilde and the ‘Cleveland Street Scandal’

Section 164 of the Policing and Crime Act 2017 gave posthumous pardons for convictions of certain abolished offences, including those under certain sections of the Sexual Offences Act 1956. These include convictions recorded in a number of records held at The National Archives series, such as those detailed in this guide.

Other court records are available in local archives and on the Old Bailey Online website.

A photograph of the interior of the Caravan Club, a venue surveilled by police in the 1930s (catalogue reference: MEPO 3/758)

A photograph of the interior of the Caravan Club, a venue surveilled by police in the 1930s (catalogue reference: MEPO 3/758)

5.2 1950s and 1960s criminal law discussions

Read our guidance on Political history in the 20th century for some general background to researching in this area.

Search the online Cabinet papers for discussions of policies relating to sexuality and gender identity.

Correspondence and papers from the Prime Minister’s office contain records of policy and legislation discussions. The period of the Wolfenden Committee is covered in PREM 11 and PREM 13.

5.3. Divorce records

Records of divorce cases can be useful in researching LGBTQ+ history. Sexuality and gender identity have often been cited as causes for divorce; and divorce cases have sometimes been the catalyst for establishing legal rights for the LGBTQ+ community.

Read our guide on divorces to learn about what records survive and how to search them. Use the search boxes within the guide as a quick way to search our catalogue for relevant records.

Debates over divorce law reform in the early 20th century repeatedly raised the question of whether homosexuality should be grounds for divorce. Search Discovery for relevant records from the Prime Minister’s Office (PREM) and the Lord Chancellor’s Office (LCO).

6. Home Office records

Home Office files contain discussions of individual cases, considerations of appeals, and debates around the operations of the law. Key Home Office records include:

HO 17 and HO 18 – petitions for the revocation or reduction of sentences
HO 19 – indexes to the files in HO 7 and HO 18
HO 345 and HO 291 – papers from the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (Wolfenden Committee, 1954-1957)

Read our guidance on Home Office correspondence 1839-1959 to find out more about how to use Home Office records in your research.

7. Civil service and armed forces employees

7.1 Civil service

The civil service considered the potential blackmail of LGBTQ+ employees a risk to state security. This concern was strongest during the Cold War and employment policies discriminated against LGBTQ+ applicants and employees.

In 1967 homosexuality in the UK was partially decriminalised and the civil service was put under pressure to change its attitude. Cabinet papers and Civil Service management files for the following years reflect this pressure.

7.2 Armed forces

Since the year 2000, LGBTQ+ personnel have been able to serve openly in the British military forces. Prior to this, service personnel were regularly prosecuted, court-martialled or discharged for sexual offences.

Use the advanced search option in our catalogue to look for relevant files. Use keywords such as ‘homosexual’ and search within the department codes ADM, WO, AIR and DEFE to restrict your search to military records.

8. Politics of sexuality and gender identity

Political organisations such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality were involved in the fight to improve the rights of gay people.

The activities of these organisations and the political debates they generated are reflected in government records – particularly those from the Home Office (HO), Cabinet Office (CAB) and Prime Minister’s Office (PREM).

Search Discovery using the names of the organisations or other keywords to identify relevant documents.

The files of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (Wolfenden Committee) are a rich source of evidence about gay men’s lives, and medical, legal and official understandings of homosexuality in the mid-twentieth century.

Because the records held at The National Archives are usually at least 20 years old, you are less likely to come across mention of gender identity protest and pressure groups. However, as time moves on, these records, where they are selected for permanent preservation, will be transferred from various government departments into The National Archives.

Local and newspaper archives might be useful sources for researching more recent history. See section 11 for some specific archives that will be useful in this area of research.

9. Further key areas of research

9.1 Censorship

Issues surrounding the portrayal of gay men and lesbians in art, literature and the media were discussed within government. For example, the 1928 novel ‘The Well of Loneliness’ was the subject of an obscene publications trial, and records of this case can be found at The National Archives.

Search our catalogue using keywords for records relating to censorship and prosecution under obscenity laws.

To focus your results use ‘advanced search’ and look for records from the following departments:

  • Home Office (HO)
  • Lord Chancellor’s Office (LCO)
  • Central Criminal Court (CRIM)
  • Metropolitan Police (MEPO)
  • Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP)

9.2 Fraud, defamation, slander and libel

Search our catalogue for records relating to defamation, slander, libel and blackmail (or demanding money with menaces) which often involved allegations of sexual immorality.

To focus your results, use the filter options on the left of the results screen to select results from the Central Criminal Court (CRIM) and the Metropolitan Police (MEPO).

9.3 Public health, medicine and the welfare state

UK official bodies often perceived homosexuals as ‘ill’ or ‘diseased’, and consequently a potential source of danger to public health. This was evident as recently as the 1980s with the Government’s reaction to HIV and AIDS, as detailed in The National Archives blog The AIDS health campaign, but official concern dates back at least to the 19th century.

It is logical to assume there will be similar records relating to gender identity; although we have not found any at the time of writing this guide.

Particularly since the 1920s, the state has tried to deal with its concerns by incarcerating, ‘treating’ and ‘curing’ gay and lesbian individuals.

Search our catalogue for relevant records using keywords. To focus your results try searching for records from the following departments:

  • Welsh Office (BD)
  • Ministry of Health (MH)
  • Home Office (HO)
  • Prison Commission (PCOM)
  • Medical Research Council (FD)
  • Cabinet Office (CAB)

9.4 Education and single sex institutions

From the 1930s onwards, gay men in prison were increasingly referred to prison medical officers for diagnosis and ‘treatment’. Search our catalogue using keywords such as ‘prison’ and ‘medical’ (together) for relevant records from the Home Office (HO) and the Prison Commission (PCOM).

Single sex institutions also attracted the attention of the authorities in relation to gender identity; such as where decisions had to be made about whether individuals should be placed in a male or female prison.

Many authorities wanted children to grow up to conform to heterosexuality and the gender they were assigned at birth; and those with responsibility for education and young offender institutions were wary of permitting LGBTQ+ teachers to influence children.

Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 stated that a local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’. Section 28 was also known as Clause 28.

Search our catalogue for records from the Education Department (ED) which regulated borstals and reform schools as well as mainstream schools. Local archives may also have relevant records (see section 10).

10. Background information

We have drawn together a list of some key events in the history of sexuality and gender identity which might help you to make choices about where and how to search for records at The National Archives and elsewhere.

  • 1553 Although already proscribed under Canon Law, ‘buggery’ was first made a criminal offence
  • 1861 King Louis XV France orders the Chelalier d’Eon Baumont to dress permanently as a woman
  • 1861  The Offences Against the Person Act consolidated this provision, together with the further offence of ‘indecent assault’, which had emerged within common law during the 18th century
  • 1865 James Barry, army surgeon, dies and is allegedly found to have been a woman
  • 1885 The Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed making any act of ‘gross indecency’ between men a criminal offence, whether it occurred in public or in private
  • 1898 ‘Cruising’ streets, parks or urinals was criminalised as the offence of ‘importuning’ through the Vagrancy Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1912)
  • 1921 The House of Lords rejected a proposed new offence of acts of gross indecency between women under the Criminal Law Amendment Bill
  • 1932 Valerie Barker was indicted for bankruptcy and discovered to be a woman when imprisoned
  • 1946 Harold Gillies and a colleague carried out one of the first sex reassignment surgeries from female to male on Michael Dillon
  • 1957 The Wolfenden Committee recommended that private homosexual acts between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offence
  • 1967 Following campaigns from gay political organisations the Wolfenden recommendations were enacted into law
  • 1969 First International Symposium on Gender Identity, London
  • 2001 The age of consent was lowered to 16 in England, Wales and Scotland for gay men and became equal for all
  • 2004 Gender Recognition Act allowed for people having gender dysphoria to change their legal gender
  • 2009 The age of consent for gay men in Northern Ireland was lowered from 17 to 16

11. Records in other archives

There are many records relating to LGBTQ+ history in other archives across the UK.

To find other collections in local archives, search Discovery using relevant keywords, and refine your results using the filters.Find contact details for archives elsewhere using Find an archive.

12. Further reading, websites and podcasts

Visit The National Archives’ bookshop for a range of publications on sexual and gender identity history. See also our recommended list of publications held at The National Archives Library. You may also be able to find these books in a local library.

See also:

Rebecca Jennings, Lesbian history of Britain: love and sex between women since 1500 (Greenwood World Publishing 2007)

Alison Oram & Annmarie Turnbull, The lesbian history sourcebook: love and sex between women in Britain from 1780-1970 (Routledge 2001)

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history in The National Archives: identified documents by theme, Your Archives, (retrieved 28 November 2012)

Historic England – England’s LGBTQ Heritage

Go to our podcasts page to listen to a series of talks highlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender histories found in government records.

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 116