Confess! Confess!

The one good thing about the Inquisition is its snapshot of gay sex

Long before the present day proliferation of gay pride, there was sex between men. Exactly how much of it was going on will probably be cloaked in mystery forever.

Luckily, brief glimpses of its past pop up every now and then. Unfortunately, these historical footnotes are often accompanied by dramatic visions of burning flesh, floggings and public humiliation.

Take, for example, the fascinating yet often overlooked history of 17th century Lisbon.

Many men of the time couldn’t write or read. And those who could, probably wouldn’t leave love letters to the local priest or barber lying around for anyone else to see. Men having sex with men were threatened with the possibility of exile or a painful death that ended with a public burning at the stake, along with other religious and political heretics.

So instead of a same-sex history framed in rhyming couplets, there are the files of the Portuguese Inquisition, which ran from 1536 to 1821. They are meticulous archives written by members of the clergy, telling of death, betrayal and abuse of power. And sex.

“For all their difficulties, the Inquisition records have more information than any other type of source,” says David Higgs, a University Of Toronto professor who edited the book Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600 and wrote a chapter on Lisbon.

As the records show, a valiant group of men swished their way through central Lisbon in the 17th century- making it known that they were available for sex, despite the serious repercussions.

According to Higgs, these men, known as “fanchonos,” are the closest thing to our modern day notions of gay.

“I don’t think that in the 17th century there was such a thing as gay life in the modern sense because the concept of gay is a 20th century kind of invention,” says Higgs. “At the same time, there’s absolutely no doubt that they [the fanchonos] talked to each other. They swish and they often give each other fem names.

“It’s that whole classic thing of a woman’s soul in a man’s body, and they camped up.”

They busied themselves with sodomy and other delicious same-sex practices. But they wouldn’t get it on with each other. It seems these “fairies” had their eyes set on more masculine men.

Within the files of the Portuguese Inquisition is the tragic story of one of Lisbon’s most notorious fanchonos, who might not find himself out of his league at a modern day drag show. Domingos Of The Dances was a mixed race dancer and the son of a black slave. According to some of those who testified at his Inquisition trial, he was worshipped.

His infamous dances, also called dances of the women, attracted spectators and perhaps the attention of the Inquisitors.


According to the files recounted in Higgs’s book, Domingo started having sex with men by the age of 15 and, for the most part, fit the 21st century definition of a bottom.

His sexual partners included married men, bachelors and a couple of priests. But these are only the men who testified against him. There may have been others, or those who testified against him could have been lying to save themselves. The Inquisition files can be seen as modern day police blotters. The history they recount is probably a bit off.

“This is not a sexology counselling session,” says Higgs. “What it is, is an interrogation.”

In the end, Domingos never confessed to the “nefando pecado” or “abominable” sin. But this didn’t save him. He was killed, burned in 1621 at the age of 26.

The fact that Domingos’s alleged sexual partners included a couple of priests is no historical anomaly. Priests of the day controlled the most convenient spaces for sex in what was a very public and close-quartered city. And clergy’s lofty position in society made them beyond reproach and gave them reason for having numerous gentlemen callers.

One 17th century man of the cloth took full advantage of this was Sanches de Almeida, chaplain of the royal chapel of Santa Barbara. He ran what we might be tempted to call a hustler bar.

Sanches de Almeida housed 15- to 20-year-olds who had nowhere to go. In return, he’d ask for sexual favours.

“He was an old priest who had run a drop-in centre for teenage runaways where he kept giving them blow jobs,” says Higgs. “He wanted oral sex with these boys.”

The priest also made their services available to other men. But the boys were also having sex with each other while residing in the priest’s queer household. According to the Inquisition files, a search party, on the look out for a runaway fem slave, made a surprise visit to the chaplain’s digs.

After passing by the priest and another young man who were making dinner, they broke through a bedroom door. Inside they found two half-dressed youths. The members of the search party concluded that they shared a bed.

Sanches de Almeida was eventually tried in a case that echoes the presidential sex scandal played out recently south of the border.

It seems oral sex was quite a rare fish in 17th century Lisbon and Inquisitors had a hard time ruling if it fell under the heading of sodomy – and was thus worthy of death (the ejaculation of semen for anything other than procreation wasn’t taken lightly back in those days).

“There is a very elaborate discussion in the Inquisitors whether you can accuse someone of sodomy for sucking people off,” says Higgs. “In the end they say, yes they can.”

The priest was put to death in 1645 and burned; making him one of the 30 killed for the abominable sin during the Portuguese Inquisition.

The death sentence for a priest was not very common, as the Catholic church tried desperately to cover up any hint of hypocrisy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sinister case of Father Machado.

It was 1698 and Machado was spilling the beans to the Inquisitors. He had ridden a donkey 135 kilometers from his Lisbon home to do the ratting – giving little chance for his former sex partners to get any advance warning. Machado denounced 13 guys he had fucked up the butt for the previous 10 years. At the time of his confession he was 43. The average age of his partners was 16 (women, especially the aristocracy of this time, married as early as 14).

“Father Machado usually starts his boys by making them jerk him off or touching them up or give them sweets… then he graduates to sodomy,” says professor Higgs.

Despite the fact that Father Machado was in a relative position of power and was the seducer, he was not punished.

Of the 13, 11 were exiled (the punishment for sodomy had slackened by this time) and one couldn’t be found. The remaining man, from the higher echelons of society, pled innocent and his fate was not made public.

Before the 11 were exiled they went through the very public and very humiliating Auto da Fe (Acts of Faith), a ceremony that was part of the punishment.

It was a big public event held outside the Church of St Dominic, where your crime, including whether you were receptive or insertive, was read aloud. After the ceremony (if you were allowed to live), your best bet was to get out of town – and fast.

Why would the priest have denounced the same fellows he had sex with?

“This is where you get to the beauties of the 17th century religious mind, and the idea that this is wickedness that I wish to help get punished,” says Higgs.

And the Inquisitors were persistent and crafty interviewers who had the threat of the torture chamber on their side.

A total of about 166 sodomites, including one woman, were convicted during the 17th century in Lisbon. To the modern day reader, the Portuguese Inquisition files offer the only glimpse into what same-sex activity looked like centuries ago in Lisbon. The problem is, it could be like looking at late 20th century gay Toronto using the files from the bathhouse raids.

“The thing we have to be very conscious of in all of these trials is how much we’ll never be able to know,” says Higgs.

The archives of the Portuguese Inquisition are at the National Archives in Lisbon.

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