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social sciences

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Little is known of lesbianism in the earlier periods, but in the eighteenth century, the phrase "romantic friendship" emerged to describe the love between women. Because they were presumed to be non-sexual, romantic friendships between women enjoyed a social acceptability that did not extend to male-male sexual relationships.

The Victorian Era

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By the end of the nineteenth century, homosexuality had become a social identity, defined in terms of illness as well as crime and sin. If during most of the period, it was the love that dared not speak its name, by the end it had become a topic freely--if mostly censoriously--discussed.

Nineteenth-century London was the site of two major scandals involving homosexuality, one at the beginning, the other at the end of the century. The 1810 conviction of the Vere Street Coterie, a group of men arrested in a male brothel, led to the most brutal public punishment of homosexuals in British history. Two men were executed and others were subjected to the pillory. At the end of the century, Oscar Wilde, the dandiacal playwright and wit who exemplified a new way of being homosexual, was convicted of "gross indecency" and sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor.

On the one hand, the difference in the punishment of those involved in these scandals indicates some progress. In 1861, the punishment for "," which had been execution, had been reduced to imprisonment; but in the 1880s, the Labouchère Amendment vastly expanded prohibited conduct, covering not simply sodomy, but also other acts of "gross indecency." Although Wilde was allegedly spit upon by a mob, it did not physically attack him the way earlier mobs had attacked members of the Vere Street Coterie who stood in the pillory.

Victorian London was a great contradiction. Beneath the harsh conservative tone of the Victorian era, in which sexual repression came to be seen as a sign of good breeding, there was a vast sexual underworld that thrived on the city's poverty. It was no accident that the chief witnesses against Wilde were male prostitutes.

At the end of the nineteenth century, homosexuality emerged as a social identity, and so did a rudimentary movement for homosexual emancipation.

Modern Times, Thatcher, and the Rise of the Gay Ghetto

In the earlier twentieth century, London's homosexual subculture was largely underground. While a number of homosexuals achieved prominence in the worlds of literature, theater, arts, and design, harsh criminal penalties and the memory of the persecution of Oscar Wilde kept most of them in the closet.

Among the most important, largely homosexual artistic group of the earlier to mid-twentieth century was Bloomsbury. Its name taken from the London neighborhood encompassing Gordon and Fitzroy Squares, where Vanessa and Virginia Stephen lived, following the death of their father Leslie Stephen in 1904, Bloomsbury was an important cultural outpost where homosexuality figured prominently.

In the conservative times following World War II, however, social reformers, now led by such notable figures as Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, sought again to rid London of homosexuality. In the late 1940s and the 1950s there was a vast increase in the number of prosecutions for homosexual offences throughout England, but especially in London.

However, the increase in police raids and arrests of cruisers now generated not only public hysteria about homosexuality, but occasionally unexpected public sympathy. For example, when newly knighted actor Sir John Gielgud was arresting for soliciting in 1953, he was greeted by his fans with an ovation rather than with the scorn he probably expected; and when Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers, and journalist Peter Wildeblood were convicted of having sexual relations with young working class men and received sentences ranging from twelve to eighteen months in prison, a portion of the London press openly questioned whether their behavior merited such treatment.

During this period, there was a vast disparity in punishment meted out to individuals convicted of homosexual offences. Some were fined small sums of money while others were sentenced to life imprisonment. Some offenders were required to undergo aversion therapy and hormone treatments as conditions of parole or probation.

In response to such disparities in treatment, and goaded by the psychiatric belief that homosexuality might better be treated as an illness than a crime, the Home Secretary appointed the Wolfenden Committee in 1954 to study the matter. The Committee's 1957 Report recommended the decriminalization of private and consensual homosexual acts performed by those over the age of twenty-one.

The government and public opinion initially resisted the Committee's recommendation, but the Report had the effect of stirring public debate. After more than a decade of lobbying by reformers, Parliament finally implemented the Committee's recommendation in 1967.

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