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social sciences

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United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century  
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Systematic efforts to suppress the new subculture can be traced back to at least 1699, when the police raided cruisy public parks in Windsor and London. In 1707, over one hundred men were arrested in a highly publicized series of raids on London parks. A widely distributed broadside, The Woman Hater's Lament, featured a woodcut illustration of the suicides of three of the men arrested in 1707.

Although police raids inflicted great suffering on the men who were trapped by them, they also inspired a will to resist infringements on personal freedoms. Thus, William Brown, who had been arrested for having sex with another man on Moorfields (an open space in London), declared at his trial in 1726 that he had the right to do what he wanted with his own body.

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Developments in the Later Eighteenth Century

After the series of raids of 1725 and 1726, police did not mount further systematic attacks on homosexual meeting places in London for the rest of the century. For the next fifty years, most indictments for homosexual acts in London occurred as the result of complaints by private citizens rather than police action. Public dissatisfaction with the corruption of the police, as revealed at the trials of sodomites, may have been a factor in the shift of policy.

Although individuals and pairs of men were arrested occasionally for homosexual acts, less than one person per decade was executed in London for homosexual acts between 1730 and 1800. The difficulty of establishing certain proof of anal penetration may have made many justices reluctant to impose the death sentence. Those who were convicted of sodomy typically were imprisoned (with sentences ranging from a few months to two years or more), fined, and forced to stand in the pillory, where they were often savagely attacked by mobs.

Convictions were most likely in cases involving two consenting adult men of approximately equal age. Virtually all of the men accused of sexual acts with teenagers or young boys were acquitted. Rates of conviction were highest for working-class men; skillful use of appeals by lawyers helped many men of higher social classes avoid punishment.

Despite the decline in arrests after 1726, the possibility of indictment remained a threat for all who were inclined to commit homosexual acts, and many middle- and upper-class men paid blackmail in order to avoid being reported to the police. The gravity of an accusation is vividly revealed by the resoluteness with which Sir Edward Walpole (1706-1784) fought against the charge of sodomy lodged against him in 1750 by John Cather. With the help of his brother, Horace, Sir Edward secured the transfer of the trial from Middlesex magistrates to the King's Bench, where Cather found it impossible to meet the financial requirements. Because Cather never presented his case, the indictment was dismissed.

Following his acquittal, Walpole sought vengeance by securing indictments against Cather and four associates for conspiracy to commit libel. At the conclusion of the highly publicized trials, lasting several months, all men were imprisoned with hard labor, from two to four years. However, because virtually no concrete evidence was produced at the trial to prove the charge of libel, Sir Edward was widely thought to have been guilty of sodomy, and he never recovered his position in society.

A lifelong bachelor, Horace Walpole (1717-1797) managed to avoid the legal difficulties and attendant public scandal that ensnared his older brother, even though he focused his personal life on close relationships with other unmarried men, including the poet Thomas Gray and the architect John Chute. Walpole conducted his friendships with great discretion, and scholars debate whether any of his relationships with other men were consummated sexually. Perhaps learning from Sir Edward's experience, he chose to ignore a derogatory pamphlet published in 1764 by William Guthrie that characterized him as having a female disposition.

Regarded as the first Gothic novel, Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764) established the horror story as a respectable literary genre and helped to create a taste for the bizarre in all the arts. Purporting to be a transcription of an ancient manuscript, the novel recounts the deeds of a ruthless medieval prince who murders his daughter and torments other members of his family. In Castle of Otranto, Walpole seems to be articulating the view of a sexual outsider, as he reveals the abuse and destructiveness that can be contained within a "conventional" family structure.

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