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England Marks Half Century Decriminalizing Male Same-Sex Expression

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of adult same-sex sexual expression in England. This followed a long and tortuous history of royal decrees, legislative acts, religious dogma, and social attitudes related to sexuality and gender expression dating back centuries.

The English in 1431 CE, under King Henry VI, urged the Catholic church to condemn Joan of Arc for the “crime” of wearing “men’s” clothing. Henry argued:

“It is sufficiently notorious and well-known that for some time past, a woman calling herself Jeanne the Pucelle (the maid) leaving off the dress and clothing of the feminine sex, a thing contrary to divine law and abominable before God, and forbidden by all laws, wore clothing and armor such is worn by men.”

Joan asserted that her style of dress was her religious duty and higher than Church authority. She asserted:

“For nothing in the world will I swear not to arm myself and put on a man’s dress.”

Catholic Inquisitors accused her of practicing paganism and condemned her to death for wearing men’s clothing and armor, and burned her at the stake as a heretic.

Throughout the 1500s – 1700s in England and its American colonies, women accused of being “witches” were killed. In Salam, Massachusetts, for example, 20 women were executed.

People assigned “female” at birth but who presented as male and who married women, during the 1500s – 1800s in Europe, including England and the United States, if discovered, they suffered penalties from floggings to death. 

In 1533, under the reign of King Henry VIII of England, Parliament instituted the “Buggery” (or sodomy) law, punishable by the penalty of death for,

“the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind or beast.”

This meant that a male found to have had sex with another male, and, yes, someone who was discovered engaging in sexual intercourse with an animal, both the persons and the animals would be killed.

Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1564, the death penalty for same-sex sexuality between men became a permanent part of English law until 1861. Women were exempt from the law by British courts who decided that sex between two women was not possible.

Crossdressing was occasionally practiced in the colonies. Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, colonial governor of New York and New Jersey from 1702-1709 walked nearly every afternoon in public dressed in his wife’s clothing, which he explained was a tribute to his cousin, Queen Anne. There is no evidence that he engaged in sexual relations with men.

About this time in England, there developed the first documented fairly organized network of men gathering together for company and sexual encounters. From around 1700 – 1830, a series of houses or pubs, later called “Molly Houses,” catering to the needs of these men were established throughout London. Some of the “Houses” consisted of private rooms in taverns, while others were in private houses. Many of these houses were raided by police, the men tried, and some were executed.

Since the early to mid-19th century, a linear history of homosexuality, bisexuality, and gender non-conformity predominately in the West, begins with the formation of a homosexual and gender non-conforming “identity” and a sense of community brought about by the growth of industrialization, competitive capitalism, and the rise of modern science, which provided people with more social and personal options outside the home.

It is only within the last 150 or so years that there has been an organized and sustained political effort to protect the rights of people with same-sex and more-than-one-sex attractions, and those who cross traditional constructions of gender expression.

There were some in England who were early defenders of homosexuality. One was sex researcher Havelock Ellis whose wife was bisexual. He referred to same-sex desire as “inversion,” in which the person “inverted” gender traits due to a congenital hormonal anomaly. He likened this “inversion” to other human anomalies, such as color-blindness.

Another defender was writer and social reformer Edward Carpenter. Carpenter was inspired by the poems of Walt Whitman celebrating “manly attachment,” and traveled to the U.S. to confer with Whitman.

In the U.S. in 1860, poet Walt Whitman published his book, Leaves of Grass. The section titled “Calamus” was clearly homoerotic. Kalamos in Greek mythology turned into a reed in grief for his young male lover, Karpos, who drowned. The Acorus calamus is the name given to a marsh plant. For Whitman, his “Calamus” poems represent the kind of love between Kalamos and Karpos.

Very soon following the book’s publication, authorities removed it from library shelves at Harvard University and placed it in a locked cabinet with other books thought to undermine students’ morals. Whitman was fired from his job at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

During the mid-19th century in England and the United States, educational opportunities for primarily middle-class women improved somewhat. Often locked out of most institutions of higher learning, several women’s colleges were founded.

There were, however, many conservative critics who attacked this new trend warning that educated women would be unfit to fill traditional roles in society, and others, like U.S.-born Dr. Edward Hammond Clarke, in his 1873 book Sex in Education, or a Fair Chance for Girls, warned that study would risk atrophy of the uterus and ovaries resulting in chronic uterine disease. He went on to assert that sustained vigorous mental activity resulted, for girls, in masculinization, sterility, insanity, and even death.

And Dr. Havelock Ellis concluded:

“[W]omen’s colleges are the great breeding ground of lesbianism. When young women are thrown together, they manifest an increasing affection by the usual tokens.  They kiss each other fondly on every occasion… They learn the pleasure of direct contact… and after this, the normal sex act fails to satisfy them.” 

In 1861, English criminal law ended the death penalty for men convicted of engaging the same-sex sexuality dating back to the time of Queen Victoria I.

The last men executed for homosexuality in England were James Pratt and John Smith who were hanged in 1835. Persecution, however, continued.

The British Parliament, in 1885, authorized Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment, referred to as the Labouchere Amendment, prohibiting “gross indecency” between males with up to two years imprisonment. The Amendment was named after its sponsor, MP Henry Labouchere, who argued for the criminalization of men found guilty of gross indecency with another male “in public or in private” for a term of imprisonment “not exceeding two years,” with or without hard labor.

In 1895, the English court sentenced poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, to two years hard labor for “gross indecency” and “sodomy” with the young nobleman, Lord Alfred Douglas. Lord Alfred Douglas, in his poem “Two Loves,” coined a euphemism for homosexuality as “The love that dare not speak its name.” After his release, Wilde died in exile in France. 

Publishing houses introduced numerous new lesbian and gay novels in the 1920s.  Most notable among these was the English lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Shortly following its publication in 1928, the novel was declared obscene in both England and the United States, and was banned for a time.  

In England, Alan Mathison Turing, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and pioneering computer scientist, during WWII, worked for England’s Government Code and Cypher School. He and his team of scientists succeeded in breaking the Nazi German codes.

Though he was considered a national hero who some said shortened the war by approximately 2 years and saved Great Britain, in 1952, he was criminally prosecuted on the charge of “gross indecency” for soliciting a male for sex, and for being homosexual. Rather than going to prison, he accepted a plea bargain to undergo injections of female hormones referred to as “Chemical Castration.” Just two years later, two weeks before his 42nd birthday, he took his life. 

The British government constituted a committee in 1954 to investigate homosexuality and prostitution. It included several judges, a psychiatrist, several theologians and academics. The committee, later referred to as The Wolfenden Committee after its Chair, Lord Wolfenden, in their final report concluded (with only one dissenter) that private same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults within their homes should not continue to be criminalized.

The Wolfenden Report of 1957 stated, in summary: “unless a deliberate attempt be made by society through the agency of the law to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private that is in brief, not the law’s business.”

It would take, however, another ten years for Britain’s Labour government to act on the Report’s recommendations. Speaking for the government’s position in Parliament, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins argued on July 4, 1967 that criminal law must no longer prosecute homosexual men (women were not held to these laws) because “those who suffer from this disability [of being the object of ridicule and derision] carry a great weight of shame all their lives.”

The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalized same-sex sexuality between men who attained the age of 21 years. It covered private consensual sex within England and Wales, but did not apply to the Merchant Navy or the Armed Forces. The age was lowered to 18 in 1994, and to 16 in 2000 thereby equalizing age of consent with heterosexual sexuality.

Scotland followed decriminalization in 1980 with its Criminal Justice Act, and Northern Ireland in 1982 in the Homosexual Offences Order.

A royal “general pardon” was granted to Alan Turing in 2013. A recent statute posthumously pardoned thousands of men convicted of what was once ruled as the “criminal” act of homosexuality.

It would take the United States until 2003, when the Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, declared the remaining laws against same-sex sexuality between consenting adults in private as unconstitutional. 

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

July 18th, 2017 at 6:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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