Name We Give Our Mistakes

Victorian England was an interesting place. High society still ruled, although a growing middle class and the ever expanding industrialisation of England was changing the landscape. With the invention of steam power, and trains, it was much easier for non-upper class to move about geographically, although socially was still neigh on impossible. The changing social climate led to increased crackdowns on anything perceived as immoral. History is filled with times of great social and political change, but there is always something which becomes the grounding force. In Victorian England, it was morals (although Victorian England was less strict about societal rules than Regency England).

In 1866, the case which established marriage as between one man and one woman was heard in England. The case was actually a case of polygamy, but the verdict would impact the future of homosexual marriage. In Hyde v. Hyde and Woodmansee a decision was written that not event the Pope could have predicted the impact of. On 20 March, in a courtroom in London, Lord Penzance (really his name) uttered words that still haunt the gay rights movement today. In answer to a divorce case in which the husband sues for divorce based on adultery, arguing his Mormon wife doesn’t have the right to marry more than one man, even though he was excommunicated. In response, Lord Penzance says “marriage as understood in Christendom is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.” That one sentence would do more damage to homosexual rights than almost any other written phrase in history. Lord Penzance’s words would embed themselves into the political history of homosexuality, and remain through the present day.

In 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Act added a provision that outlawed, directly, oral sex between men and indirectly any other homosexual act. The Labouchere Amendment prohibits “gross indecency” between men. This amendment, ostensibly, made it possible to prosecute homosexual men when buggery or attempted buggery couldn’t be proven (and again: how do you prove attempted buggery?) No where, at all, in any writings, is gross indecency ever defined by any court. It was an all-encompassing phrase for anything they couldn’t prove as buggery.

The end of the 19th century saw two society scandals in England. In 1889, a male brothel on Cleveland Street in London was raided after police received a tip that there were rent boys employed there. Several aristocrats were caught on premises, including the Prince of Wales son, Prince Albert Victor. Six years later, in 1895, playwright Oscar Wilde was tried for gross indecency under the Labouchere Amendment. A series of events led to Wilde’s arrest, whose sexual orientation wasn’t exactly a secret. He was convicted, and sentenced to two years hard labour. Wilde was at the time, arguably, the most high profile person ever convicted of gross indecency.

Between the beginning of the 19th century in England, and when the death penalty for buggery was abolished in 1861, 8,921 men had been prosecuted for buggery or attempted buggery. Of those 8,921, 404 were sentenced to death and 56 executed. The death sentence was replaced with life imprisonment, often including hard labour. Attempted buggery carried a 10 year prison sentence.

The Industrial Revolution created sweeping social changes. The urbanisation of Europe and America led to increased fear of moral degradation. as the rise of an increasingly poor lower class, the rise of the middle clerk class, and very entrenched upper/aristocratic class defined the social strata of the 19th century. However, several areas of Europe saw repeal of part, or all, of their anti- homosexuality laws. In 1811, the Netherlands abolished all laws which criminalised homosexual acts; in 1813, Bavaria abolished all laws criminalising homosexual acts; in 1830, a new criminal code for the Empire of Brazil decriminalised sodomy; in 1840, Hannover abolished all laws criminalising homosexual acts between consenting adults. Italian unification in 1860, which adopted the Napoleonic Code, decriminalised all homosexual acts between consenting adults.

Germany and Russia, however, went backward. In 1871, after the unification of Germany, the first German anti-homosexual laws were passed (the various states that became Germany had passed sodomy laws). In May 1871, paragraph 175 was added to the German Criminal Code; it made all homosexual acts a crime. Paragraph 175 was broadened in 1935, and remained German law until 1994. In Russia, muszhelozhstvo (article 995 of the criminal code) was criminalised in 1832, which was ostensibly sodomy. Men who were convicted lost all their legal rights and were sent to Siberia for five years.

In America, the 19th century was harsh to all. Although anti-sodomy laws existed in almost all states and territories, as well as federally, there were several reasons they weren’t often used. First, the vast size of the US at the time (which spanned from the Atlantic to the Pacific shortly after Lewis and Clark’s adventures in 1804-1806) made it almost impossible to properly legislate. The stories of the Wild West, and US Marshall’s being the only law for hundreds of miles aren’t entirely fictionalised romantic accounts of early America. In the East, which was already stratified by North and South, the culture and society wasn’t much different than England. In fact, the drawing rooms of the East in the 19th century looked practically identical to the drawing rooms of England. Second, by 1850, the United States was on the brink of war with itself, persecuting homosexuals was pretty far down on the list of important things. That’s not to say it didn’t happen. Bathhouses for the purpose of sex existed throughout the East and midwest, and were often the target of raids. If you were outed, you’d be arrested. By the mid-19th century, most states had abolished sodomy as a capital crime, although commitment to an asylum was a frequent sentence. In both the America and Britain, the idea that homosexuality was a mental disorder that could be cured was an opinion agreed to by most, and ‘curing’ homosexual thoughts was believed to be a better treatment than imprisonment. It wasn’t, and countless men were committed to asylums in attempts to ‘cure’ them. The idea that homosexuality was a mental affliction would last through a large part of the 20th century. Ironically, what most of the world considers America’s attack on homosexuality, and its refusal to accept it based on constructed moral obligations, didn’t become big politics until the 20th century.

Social change, and the politics that caused it, are always more when the change is as large as the Industrial Revolution. With the Unification of Germany, the last puzzle piece was in place that would lead a changed society, and a forever changed map of Europe.

Part XI: The Great War


[Note: Nowhere is the phrase ‘gross indecency’ ever specifically defined… it was used to encompass anything ‘immoral’…nor have I been able to find any actual definition of ‘conspiracy to commit sodomy’ or ‘attempted sodomy.’ Sadly, I think you’ll have to use your imagination as to how those conviction happened.]

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