Legal Records Reveal Industrial Glasgow's Queer Secrets
Mapping the gay history of Glasgow is an intriguing venture that aims to discover not only where queer men sought sexual relief but what type of men used the public spaces of Scotland’s largest city for unconventional purposes. ‘Cruising’, ‘cottaging’, ‘trolling’ and other terms used to describe tactics for locating men of a similar proclivity may be seen to be largely twentieth-century inventions but their derivation can be traced back much further.
Between 1851 and 1921 Glasgow’s population had risen from 177,000 to just over 1, 000, 000 and around 40% of Glasgow’s population were engaged in working-class occupations. The social structure of Glasgow is an important part of the city’s queer history as the vast majority of men who frequented the public parks, toilets and waste grounds of the city looking for like-minded souls were from the working classes. By analysing legal records related to the commission of ‘homosexual acts' we are able to understand how gay male Glaswegians sought others.
The location that figures most often in legal cases relating to homosexual acts was Nelson’s Monument in Glasgow Green. The area surrounding the monument offered some protection from prying eyes as there was an area of dense shrubbery which acted as a natural barrier. The men that trolled Glasgow Green chose to do so under the cover of darkness and the use of Glasgow’s most central public park appeared to hit a peak in the 1920s. By this time regular police patrols were mounted in the evenings as the authorities had become increasingly aware of the park’s use for ‘subversive’ or ‘immoral’ purposes. Indeed, police patrols were increased at this time and legal records suggest that the use of surveillance in the park was relatively organised. Another popular location for sexual adventure within Glasgow Green was behind the club house of Clyde Amateur Rowing Club which again afforded men some level of privacy. Around ten or so cases of sodomy or attempted sodomy were prosecuted at High Court level during the 1920s, and found guilty of these charges the victims faced an average sentence of 2 years’ imprisonment. Many others faced reduced charges relating to gross indecency and ended up before the Sheriff Court.
Glasgow’s public lavatories were also being utilised by gay men, both as meeting points and as the location for passionate encounters. In one case in January 1927 two men were arrested after being spotted acting suspiciously at a public convenience in Dalhousie Street. It is interesting to note that the police appeared to be aware that this particular WC was being used for ‘immoral’ purposes. It would be unrealistic to assume that this was a one-off event and that the police officers just happened to be passing at this precise moment. Very few cases that involved ‘cottaging’ went to High Court level, most ended up facing a charge of gross indecency at Sheriff Court level.
A far more organised network existed within Glasgow during the late 1920s and 1930s and once again this was well known by the police. Indeed, plain-clothes detectives were engaged in surveillance during this period and in one case they uncovered a homosexual house of ‘ill-repute’ operating on Glasgow’s Broomielaw, at 6 McAlpine Street. The premises doubled as a coterie/brothel and as a restaurant and in September 1928 the premises and one of its ‘staff’ were put under surveillance. The police knew of the existence of male prostitutes in Glasgow during this period and anyone suspected of being involved in this sex industry was treated with barely disguised scorn and repulsion by the authorities.
The great fear for the city’s authorities at this time was that legitimate forms and locations for social interaction were being corrupted by sexual ‘perverts’. Indeed, Glasgow’s Model Lodging Houses built to provide travelling workers with temporary, clean accommodation were also regularly used by gay men for stolen moments. A lodging house, again in McAlpine Street, was raided by police in 1930 after a complaint was made by the manager about men using the cubicles for ‘immoral purposes’.
Legal records offer the historian much more than just stale case histories. The queer men that faced the courts tell a rich history not just of personal experience but of the networks, meeting places and personalities that existed within the industrial heartland that was Glasgow in the early part of the twentieth century.
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