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Apparently distinctive to eighteenth-century London, molly houses usually consisted of a large open room for music, dancing, and drinking, and several private rooms in the back where men could "get married" and have sex. These were energetic and animated clubs and the men who frequented them were often christened with female names, sometimes having to do with their physical features or professions. Cross-dressing was also a commonplace, as was the use of affected and effeminate language.
London's molly culture reached its peak in the first third of the century, according to the wave of prosecutions which allows us to view this world, to be replaced by a legal and cultural silence that is more difficult to interpret. London's eighteenth-century homosexual world, however, was not limited to molly houses.
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Extortion cases suggest that homosexual activity was widespread if not commonplace. The male-only institutions of the capital, its schools, workhouses, and army regiments, provided sites in which homosexual encounters were likely, while the capital's elite and frequently libertine culture, and the easy-going sexuality characteristic of plebeian culture in the second half of the eighteenth century, ensured that homosexual acts could be found in many contexts and take many forms.
The character of the nineteenth-century gay community is more difficult to assess.
In the absence of detailed trial accounts, we are left with few extended descriptions of gay life. The fraud and extortion cases which continued to be reported in the Proceedings tend to emphasise individual and private encounters at the expense more public venues where both the victim and blackmailer could be tarred with the same brush.
Nineteenth-Century Writings on Homosexuality
However, the details that emerged in following the Cleveland Street raid suggest a substantial degree of continuity in gay culture between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In contrast to the relatively full record of male homosexuality available from the Proceedings , lesbianism is not substantially recorded here. This is largely the result of the fact that sex between women was not illegal, and does not reflect a lack of sexual activity. There are a small number of cases in which women, cross-dressed as men, pursued sexual relationships with other women, but these are vanishingly rare.
Searches for phrases such as "dressed as a man" and "dressed as her master" will identify a hand full of cases of women cross dressing as men.
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