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For men who love men

Edward Carpenter

British Father of Reclaiming Gay Consciousness - by Damien Rowse

This short biographical essay of Edward Carpenter was written by Damien Rowse during the Covid lockdown. It's aimed at a New Zealand audience, but he thought others might be interested to learn more about the man who inspired us all.

Damien has been a member of ECC since 2019 when he attended the High Close week. He helps to offer a daily gay community meal in Auckland, New Zealand.

George and Edward
George Merrill and Edward Carpenter at Millthorpe

Englishman Edward Carpenter was a leader in helping men who love men to restore knowledge of their nature, gifts and potential. Born in 1844 as one of ten children to upper middle-class parents from Brighton, Sussex on the south-east coast of England, he grew up feeling stifled by the conservative family and schooling. Edward’s parents instilled in him a strong sense of duty; working for the common good came first while listening to the needs of the body was a secondary consideration. Attending a private boys’ school in Brighton and the then all-male University of Cambridge, he was partially able to fit in by hiding his true nature.

After germinating for years inside him, a powerful desire took root inside Edward: to go back to nature and build a community of men who love men from all walks of life. Exposure to the poetry of Walt Whitman proved to be transformative for Edward. The Englishman would later travel to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States to meet with the American poet who had created soaring visions of a mystical band of brothers living far from civilisation, loving one another as comrades.

The death of his parents left a sizeable inheritance for Edward that allowed him to live comfortably without ever again having to work for a living. Relocating to the county of Derbyshire in the north of England he bought seven acres of land near a tiny village called Millthorpe, built a two-storey house and named his new home Millthorpe also. From the time Edward began living there in 1883, this sanctuary would become a beacon to gay men of the United Kingdom and Europe for the next forty years.

As an adult Edward became vegetarian and during the years at Millthorpe was able to experiment with growing his own fruits and vegetables, as well as selling some of this produce at the local market. He created a pair of open-toed sandals for himself and took to wearing these for the rest of his life, thus feeling more connected to the earth he walked upon. Millthorpe was also a site where Edward and his friends could explore being naked outdoors at times. Edward called it The Simple Life, to explain his desire to slow down and build community close to nature.

In 1891 the love of his life appeared in the seemingly unlikely form of George Merrill, a man twenty-three years Edward’s junior with no formal education and raised in a slum from the nearby city of Sheffield. They would remain devoted to one another for over thirty years until Merrill’s passing. The relationship was complex. Although George was able to sometimes earn his own income outside of Millthorpe, Edward undoubtedly supported him financially and Merrill was legally registered as a household servant to protect them both from police enquiries. Both explored love and sex with other men during their decades together. On the one hand Edward was kind and generous to young George, introducing him to some of the leading thinkers of the time who visited Millthorpe and lifting him out of a life of hardship. On the other hand a cynic might say that George was in part treated like a servant, responsible for much of the meal preparation and housework. Meanwhile Edward retreated to a hut in the garden each morning to write his books.

Edward contributed to a fuller understanding of the spiritual nature and origins of males with our nature. First he took a cue from nineteenth-century German gay advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who had termed males of our kind “Uranian”, meaning ‘heavenly’. Edward’s understanding was that we possess elements of male spirit as well as aspects of the female polarity. For this reason he also called us Intermediate types, standing between the world of men and the world of women. For Edward a second meaning of the word Intermediate was that we stand at the gateway between the world of people and the world of Spirit, our sexual union not producing a child but instead being an energetic nourishment for spiritual experience.

He researched the origins of Uranian males in early pagan culture, discovering that we had often been the sages, witches and druids for the people of Britain once called the Isle of Albion. His studies into indigenous cultures revealed that we had held similar positions as spiritual gatekeepers from Africa to Asia and the Americas. This information would be a catalyst for future gay men researchers like Harry Hay and Arthur Evans in America, telling them that men of our kind had once had a place to stand.

In 1890 Edward also fulfilled a long-held aspiration to directly experience the deeper nature of consciousness when he studied meditation with a teacher in Sri Lanka and India.

Health difficulties later in life revealed that Edward and George were human beings not two princes in a fairy-tale. George’s drinking would worsen as the years passed and at the age of sixty he died of symptoms arising from alcoholism in 1928. Edward’s own health declined with worsening pain and stiffness in the body. Just months after Merrill’s death he experienced a stroke and died the next year in 1929.

Through collaboration, self-education and determination, Edward managed to live the simple life with his lover close to nature, at a time in England when theirs was a love that dared not speak its name. The Edward Carpenter Community (ECC) was formed in the early 1980s and now counts over 500 gay men among its membership, offering several week-long rural retreat events around Britain each year. The ECC continues to read aloud passages from the books of Edward Carpenter and build brotherhood for gay men inspired by his example. Almost a century since his passing, Edward’s message is still a beacon of hope to the next generation of gay men in Britain and around the world.

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