Alterations On The Map Of Europe

The end of the 19th Century saw the first ever gay rights group formed in England. In 1897, the Order of Chaeronea, which was named for the place that the Sacred Band of Thebes was slaughtered in 338 BC, was founded by George Cecil Ives. The Order becomes a worldwide organisation. It was a secret society, that came with passcodes and secrete handshakes and initiations. The purpose of the order was to promote homosexual morals, ethics, and culture. Ives believed that homosexuals would never be accepted in society, but that a place should exist to discuss ideas. Although the organisation was underground, and contained a certain organised religion feel, the ideas expressed by The Order would resurface in the mid-20th century.

The beginning of the 20th century saw huge social changes. As the Victorian era wound to a close, and the Gilded Age breathed its last, the age of oil erupted…literally. Although discovery of oil, refinement, and usages began in the late 19th century, it wasn’t until an oil strike outside of Beaumont, Texas in 1901 that what we know as the Petroleum Age truly started. Petrol would change the face of the earth, and would become one of the most important tools to warfare. Although it was easier, and quicker, to move across continents and oceans, society was still rigidly structured.

One of the biggest homosexual witch hunts in American history happened in November 1912 in Portland, Oregon. Benjamin Trout, a 19year old who had been arrested for shoplifting, informed Portland Police that he’d been corrupted by several adult men in town. This incited a panic, which history calls the Portland vice scandal. Upon further interrogation, Trout listed names of those he had encountered, and named gathering places. Over 50 men were implicated in the scandal, and dozens charged with sodomy, oral sex, indecent and immoral acts, crimes against nature and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Of those arrested and charged, 7 were eventually convicted. The response of the vice scandal by politicians included legislating school sex education programs that taught heterosexuality, expanding of sodomy laws throughout the Northwest, and the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho adopted eugenics programs which allowed for the forced sterilisation of those convicted of sexual perversion.

The knowledge that such an invisible subculture could exist, with no one the wiser, was shocking to the population. The beginning of the 20th century saw the first true gay subcultures appearing in large cities across Europe and America. In America, the front page national news caused by the Portland vice scandal created other witch hunts, and homosexual rights took a massive hit. In London, some homosexuals had begun openly gathering in pubs and coffee houses across the city. In Lyons Corner House, a section was reserved for homosexuals…it was dubbed Lily Pond. In 1912, the first gay pub opened off Regent Street. The Cave of the Golden Calf became the gathering place of the wealthy, aristocratic, and artistic. However, that didn’t mean England was ready. Between November 1911 and October 1912, twenty-three men were whipped as punishment under the Labouchere Amendment for unnatural crimes.

On 28 July 1914, the landscape of Europe changed forever. Europe had been slowly marching toward a massive conflict, and after the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the situation escalated. Violence in the Balkans, as a reaction to the Serbian assassination, increased leading to the July Crisis. Austria gave Serbia ultimatums in order to avoid war, all but one which Serbia met (which was an ultimatum Austria knew Serbia would never accept). Austria, with the backing of its ally Germany, took this lack of acquiescence and declared war. The alliance system which had been established between the 1890s and 1912, and the German invasion of Belgium, resulted in all out war in Europe.

The thing to remember about any war is the political influence the wartime psyche had. The First World War was in many areas groundbreaking. New ideas of warfare, weapons, the rise of the use of oil which would introduce aeroplanes and precursors to tanks, the alliance system in Europe. In term of reactionary politics, it was destructive. Wars create their own social impacts, especially large ones which cover vast geographical distances and encroach across sovereign lines. The First World War was horrendous, and stagnant, and long. Once Europe realised that the war would NOT be over by Christmas, and armies settled in, society did what humanity always does: it found something to blame.  There were some rather dire predictions by conservative churches in both England and the United States that argued the war, and its consequences, was the result of God’s punishment of ‘loose morals.’ That particular line of thought was certainly not the norm. However, as society still believed that the purpose of sex was for procreation (after the war this idea would become even more important), and had a particular image of homosexuals, much of society considered homosexuals ‘treasonous’ and ‘unpatriotic,’ because they could neither engage in combat nor procreate.

As with many things during the First World War, homosexuality was associated with Germany. This association meant that trials related to homosexuality often carried a tone of treason. Two very public trials serve to show how hysterical society got about anything they didn’t understand, or considered morally reprehensible, particularly in war time. The trials of Noel Pemberton Billing and Sir Roger Casement have become synonymous with WWI hysteria. Billings was a member of Parliament who published an article entitled The Forty-Seven Thousand, in which he essentially accused homosexuals as denigrating the war effort. Billings was sued for libel by an actress, Maud Allen, whom Billings had insinuated was one of the Forty-Seven Thousand. Billings was acquitted.

Casement, who was a professional soldier, was arrested for treason. His trial centred almost entirely around his personal diaries, in which he’d recorded everything possible to get himself convicted. The diaries were never mentioned in detail, nor were any of Casement’s lovers mentioned. In the trials they’re simply referred to as ‘the black diaries.’ The trial made front page news both in England and the US. Casement was convicted, and hanged for treason in 1916. All in total, 270 enlisted men and 22 officers were court-martialled for homosexual activity during the war

Although the United States didn’t enter the First World War until 1917, the US military had already adopted a means of discharge for those pegged as homosexual (amongst other things not technically covered by what little military law existed). The discharge, called a blue discharge, was neither honourable nor dishonourable, and was used for a variety of reasons, including cowardliness and insanity. However, the majority of blue discharges were issued as a means to remove homosexuals from the ranks. In WWII, blue discharges would be used exclusively to discharge someone accused, or assumed to be, a homosexual. The blue discharge would fade away as the United States established a standing army, and would be replaced by a dishonourable discharge for Conduct Unbecoming a Gentleman.

The end of the First World War saw an entirely restructured map of Europe, an America that found itself on the international stage, and increased stigma surrounding homosexuality. As the political culture of Europe was entirely redrawn, so were social attitudes. The First World War had an impressive impact on politics, and society, and technology. Its impact on the politics of homosexuality, however,  was just beginning.

Part XII: Armistice and The 1920s


[History Note: I could write an undetermined number of words on WWI…the causes, the consequence, the politics. I have in fact, as an entire section of my MA thesis. SO, in deference to the fact that most people are not that interesting in political history, and that the point of this series is how the world went from accepting homosexuality as part of society to today, I’ve made the lead in to the First World War very brief. In reality, the war ITSELF isn’t all that important to the political history of gay rights, but the consequence of the changes after the war are.]

[Note: The Cave of the Golden Calf went bankrupt in 1914. If you live/visit London, you can still go there…it was a postoffice, and until very recently it was the Living Room W1, which I think closed in Nov/Dec?]

[Afterward: I made an, unintentionally, connection to recent ideology professed by a few very conservative Christian churches in America which blame war/*enter bad thing here* as God’s punishment for homosexuality. It was honestly not intentionally, and I didn’t even catch it until after I’d posted. However, connection made, so I’ll run with it.]

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