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social sciences

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United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century  
 
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The scope of the law regarding homosexual acts was significantly expanded through Section II of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, usually called the "Labouchère amendment." In a late night session in Parliament on August 6, Henry Labouchère (1831-1912) proposed this addendum to the Act, which was otherwise concerned with the suppression of prostitution by young girls.

According to his proposal, any act of "gross indecency," committed in public or private between two males of any age, would be subject to punishment by imprisonment for one year with or without hard labor. On the following day, Sir Henry James, the Attorney General, accepted the amendment but extended imprisonment to two years. Passed with virtually no discussion, the Labouchère amendment greatly worsened the legal situation of homosexual men in Britain because it made practically any expression of same-sex desire illegal. Further, the amendment established the principle that homosexuals did not have a right to full private enjoyment of their own residence.

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Intensifying the legal and social penalties that made it so difficult to lead an openly homosexual life, the amendment also helped to strengthen the already flourishing market for prostitution. By the mid-nineteenth century, court records indicate the spread of a underground homosexual subculture in major cities, which apparently included brothels in London and Dublin. Most of the homosexual sex trade involved working-class youths and guardsmen, who casually engaged in sex for money.

Serving to impress the public with the supposed gravity of the homosexual sex trade was the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889-90, which concerned a male brothel, patronized by aristocrats and other leading citizens. In the course of an investigation of theft at the Central Telegraph Office, police learned that telegraph boys had been earning extra money by providing occasional services at the house. The man who ran the house and several of the youths in his employ were imprisoned, but the police made little attempt to pursue the clients, who included such distinguished aristocrats as Lord Arthur Somerset, equerry to the Prince of Wales. The scandal created the impression of a conspiracy of upper-class homosexuals who used their status to corrupt unwary working-class youth.

Responding to public outcry about this supposed exploitation, the 1898 Vagrancy Act mandated that any man who solicited another for "immoral purposes" was deemed a vagabond. Although, in theory the law also applied to solicitation on behalf of female sex workers, it was in reality enforced almost exclusively against homosexual men.

Medical and Humanistic Evaluations of Homosexuality

Occurring simultaneously with the rigorous legal supervision of homosexual acts, the systematic medical categorization of sexual deviants established the principle that homosexuality, generally conceived as an inversion of biological gender, was characteristic of a specific class of individual. Continental medical scientists and theorists, such as Auguste Ambroise Tardieu (1818-1879), argued that "degenerates" would be more effectively reformed by medical treatment than legally sanctioned punishment. In his 1870 trial, the defense argued that Henry Park could not be held responsible for actions because of the "moral imbecility" resulting from his degenerate medical condition. As a result, Park was acquitted by the jury, despite exceptionally detailed evidence of anal intercourse.

By the 1880s, prominent British physicians were publishing articles in scientific journals, speculating upon the best medical cures for sexual perversion. In his Memoirs, John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) discussed the varied treatments offered to him, which ranged from cauterization of the urethra to cohabitation with a woman. Ironically, medical classification was among the factors that contributed to the emergence of a distinctive homosexual subculture because it fostered among men who engaged in homosexual acts a perception that they constituted a distinctive class of like-minded individuals.

Symonds, who survived the attempts to cure him, became one of the most important early historians of male homosexuality. In the privately printed A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891), he explicitly reviewed a wide range of historical and cultural issues relevant to homosexuality. In publicly printed works, including the seven-volume Renaissance in Italy (1875-1886), he employed coded language but made clear his convictions that love of men for other men had been an important aspect of many periods of European cultural history.

Near the end of his life, Symonds had begun working with pioneering sexologist and writer Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) on Sexual Inversion, conceived as a systematic psychological and historical analysis of homosexuality. In 1897, the publication of the first volume, with excerpts from Symonds's writings, led to a legal suit by the executors of his estate. In 1898, the decision in the case brought against the bookseller who sold the revised edition (with Symonds's contributions omitted) made it illegal to sell Sexual Inversion in the United Kingdom. Later volumes in the series were published in the United States. Although heterosexual, Ellis strongly supported homosexual rights; he had an "open marriage" with a woman who was predominantly lesbian.

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