An anachronistic portrayal of attitudes towards homosexuality on Downton Abbey


There is one thing about Downton Abbey that has been troubling since season one – the anachronistic treatment of homosexuality. After watching the most recent episode that aired on PBS February 10, no longer should we keep silent.

My concern began when Mrs. O’Brien first discovered Thomas’ secret attraction to men. I found her to be surprisingly tolerant of his amorous proclivities in a way that would not have come so naturally to a woman of her class at that time. No one would mistake O’Brien for one of the “Bright Young Things,” that party-happy tribe of young, bohemian socialites of 1920s London.

Thomas is a bit too calm about the discovery of his true nature. Contrary to what would have probably happened – that O’Brien report him to the authorities or immediately blackmail him and that Thomas leave Downton in fear that his reputation and life were in danger of ruin – the two formed an amiable bond like a post-Edwardian Will and Grace. Highly improbable.

Fast forward almost a decade and O’Brien finds a chance to use the secret she had concealed for so long. Episode after episode, she encourages Thomas to pursue the very handsome, sexually ambiguous Jimmy. When his advances fail, Thomas is resigned to give up on pursuing the young footman. But after one final push from O’Brien, doubting Thomas musters the courage to enter Jimmy’s bedroom to steal a kiss and we suspect much more. When word gets out of what happens I found the reaction of the entire cast to be so enlightened on the topic of homosexuality that I needed to re-suspend my willing suspension of disbelief, making the episode quite difficult to stomach.

Mr. Carson, while admittedly repulsed, states he understood that Thomas was twisted by nature, implying that he was not at fault for his abhorrent behavior. It is more likely he would have reacted to this news by completely ostracizing him, much as he did with Ethel (the former Downton maid and unwed mother who became a sex worker) when she began working for Cousin Isobel. He mentions later in the episode that everyone had already suspected Thomas of being a homosexual. Doubtful, as at the time very few people recognized a “deviant” when they saw one and if they had they would have dealt with the matter much earlier.

Which brings us to Mrs. Hughes, who said it was not the first time she had encountered a person of that sort and preached leniency. Even if she had, unlike today, it is doubtful that knowing a man who had sex with other men would have led to greater understanding and tolerance. Even Lord Grantham nonchalantly dismissed the issue by revealing to his valet that he was apparently one hot ticket at Eton back in the day. I just don’t see that happening. The valet, Bates, then tops off the anachronisms by using the phrase “batting for the other team” as if that was in common use at the time, which I suspect was not. I bet the true Lord Grantham, who was preoccupied with an upcoming cricket match during the episode, would have responded by saying, “What? Thomas is planning to bat with the villagers and not the household! Dismiss him at once!”

And as for Thomas himself, he also seems to have been transported 70 years into the future. He clearly understands that he is gay by birth and a victim of an intolerant society that just doesn’t understand the plight of people like him. While interwar Britain was beginning to have discussions on the topic of homosexuality and drag balls in London were a common occurrence later in the period, there was still very little consciousness of what to be “gay” as we understand it today. Most men who were inclined to have sex with other men did not self-identify as gay. Most married and had children, much like Oscar Wilde, and perhaps had same-sex encounters on the side (something we continue to see even today). Many, except perhaps those in large urban areas like London, Berlin or New York, had no reason to suspect that other men weren’t leading lives as they were since such private behavior was not openly discussed.

It is more likely that if Thomas did understand that he could only love a man, he would consider himself immoral, depraved, and perhaps mentally ill. He, and certainly Mr. Carson, would not have understood that he was homosexual by nature. He would have more likely been full of self-loathing. Remember that it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association de-listed homosexuality as a disease and that sodomy laws were invalidated in the United States by the Supreme Court only in 2003. More recently, acceptance of homosexuality has caused a major rift in the Anglican church. The only characters that reacted appropriately for a series set in the 1920s were Alfred and Jimmy, and even they had to be coaxed into their aggressive stance on what to do about the Thomas problem. Them and, of course, the police, who showed up and interrupted a perfectly civil cricket match to arrest Thomas and haul his ass to prison.

If portraying the Crawley’s and their staff as uncommonly open-minded about homosexuality is an attempt by Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator and writer, to maintain a loyal gay audience, he would have done much better by not killing off Mr. Pamuk in a single episode. Of course this is just a modern-day soap opera that was created to appeal to modern-day, gay-friendly audience. The fact that there is a gay character at all is testament to this reality. I am simply disappointed that Fellowes did not use the outing of Thomas as a teaching moment to remind us all how much progress our community has made in the past 90 years.

However, I look forward to season 4 with full anticipation that Thomas will find a lover and that his gay relationship is welcomed with open arms by all at Downton.


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