FRESH evidence suggesting a tolerance towards homosexuality in England more than 200 years ago has been found by an Oxford historian.

Eamonn O’Keeffe, 23, discovered a passage in ‘ordinary’ Yorkshire farmer Matthew Tomlinson’s diary where he argued against the death penalty for homosexuals – 157 years before it was decriminalised.

The new evidence revealed modern understandings of homosexuality were being discussed by ordinary people, earlier than is commonly thought.

In the passage, dated 14 January 1810, the farmer from Wakefield, West Yorkshire, argued that homosexuality was “natural” and shouldn’t be punishable by death in response to media reports of the execution of a naval surgeon for sodomy.

Mr Tomlinson, then aged 45, wrote: “It appears a paradox to me, how men, who are men, shou'd possess such a passion; and more particularly so, if it is their nature from childhood (as I am informed it is).

“If they feel such an inclination, and propensity, at that certain time of life when youth genders [i.e. develops] into manhood; it must then be considered as natural, otherwise, as a defect in nature.”

He added: “It seems cruel to punish that defect with death.”

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Oxford Mail:

Around the same time, and also in West Yorkshire, Anne Lister was writing a diary about her lesbian relationships as shown on the BBC's drama Gentleman Jack.

The discovery comes during LGBT history month, which runs in the UK throughout February, and is "historically significant" as it challenges preconceptions of what ordinary people thought about homosexuality, according to Mr O’Keeffe.

Mr O’Keeffe, from Oxford, said: “In this diary we see a Yorkshire farmer arguing that homosexuality is innate and something that should not be punished by death.

“While Tomlinson’s writings reflect the opinions of only one man, his phrasing - ‘as I am informed it is’ - implies that his comments were informed by the views of others.

“This exciting discovery complicates and enriches our understanding of Georgian attitudes towards sexuality, suggesting that the revolutionary conception of same-sex attraction as a natural human tendency, discernible from adolescence, was mooted within the social circles of an ordinary Yorkshire farmer.”

The historian had been examining the handwritten diaries, which have been stored in Wakefield Library since the 1950s, while researching British military musicians.

But Mr O’Keeffe was taken aback after “mistakenly” coming across a startling set of arguments about same-sex relationships that were presumed to be ahead of their time.

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Mr O’Keeffe, who is originally from Canada, said: “Contemporary media reporting on sodomy cases, often couched in the language of moral panic, both reflected and reinforced social stigma against same-sex intimacy.

“But Tomlinson’s writings suggest that not all readers uncritically accepted the homophobic assumptions they encountered in the press.

“Some of Tomlinson’s reflections were still the product of their time, however.

"Although the diarist seriously considered the proposition that sexual orientation was innate, he nonetheless allowed for the possibility that homosexuality might be a choice.”

The discovery has excited international experts in the field, as it offers insight regarding ordinary people that is typically difficult to find.

Dr Rictor Norton, an expert on the history of homosexuality in this period, said: “The view that homosexuality was a natural inclination was rarely so clearly expressed.

“It is extraordinary to find an ordinary, casual observer in 1810 seriously considering the possibility that sexuality is innate and making arguments for decriminalisation.

“Tomlinson's diary reflections on homosexuality are unique for their time.”

The death penalty was abolished for acts of sodomy in 1861, when they were then made punishable by a minimum of 10 years in prison.

More than 20 years later, in 1885 all male homosexual acts were declared illegal and were decriminalised in 1967.