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social sciences

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United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present  
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During the 1920s and early 1930s, police in London tended not to harass landlords of gay-friendly establishments, especially those who paid bribes. However, following strong complaints by the Canadian Military and Admiralty in 1936, the Metropolitan Police invoked a neglected licensing act of 1839 to raid establishments with homosexual clients and held proprietors legally responsible for the "obscene" behavior of their customers. The crackdown on gay-friendly establishments intensified in the later 1930s, although some prominent venues, such as Lyon's Coventry Street Corner House, remained largely unhindered in their operations until the 1950s.

The increasingly inhospitable climate for homosexuals in the United Kingdom in the 1930s was a contributing factor in the decision of several leading young writers--most notably, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood--to emigrate.

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The Law and Lesbians in the Interwar Years

In 1921, a Criminal Law Amendment Bill was introduced that would have classified any "act of gross indecency between female persons" as a misdemeanor, punishable in the same manner as comparable male acts under the Labouchère Amendment. On August 4, 1921, the House of Commons passed the measure by a vote of 148 to 53. However, the bill was rejected by the House of Lords on the grounds that insufficient evidence had been presented to indicate the necessity of the act.

Although sexual acts between women were not criminalized, the obscenity trial of 1928 concerning the distribution of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness in the United Kingdom indicated the limits on the public expression of lesbianism. Clarence Dane and other authors who dealt previously with lesbian themes avoided prosecution for obscenity by emphasizing the suffering of lesbian characters. From the beginning, Hall intended Well to present lesbianism to the public sympathetically, and, to this end, she arranged for Havelock Ellis to write a preface, emphasizing the sociological worth of the book.

Although The Well of Loneliness was banned in the United Kingdom, copies printed in France and the United States became available, and, in the short interlude before the obscenity trial, favorable reviews appeared in a number of publications, including the Sunday Times. Although it affirmed the ban on the book, the trial helped to call public attention to lesbian issues, and it established the Well in the queer canon. Further, Hall took great pride in the letters that she received from other women (up to 10,000 per year, according to her account), who emphasized that publicity about the novel helped them to become aware that their own homosexual inclinations were shared by other women.

Opportunities for Women's Socialization

The role of a husband in enabling women to attain economic security and social respectability made it difficult for many middle-class and lower-class women to realize (or perhaps even to conceive of) lives structured around lesbian relationships. Nevertheless, diaries, letters, and other documents reveal that some women of all classes established emotionally intense friendships with other women. During the interwar years, most of the women who engaged in sexual relationships with other women probably did so secretly, juggling these with their commitments to husbands.

In contrast to the situation for gay men, there were no public commercial spaces catering primarily to lesbians. Nevertheless, wealthy lesbians found a welcome during the 1920s in bohemian nightspots such as London's Cave of Harmony and the Orange Tree. By 1921, Enid Chambers had developed detailed plans for a lesbian center in London, but, despite the help of Carpenter and other friends, she was unable to secure sufficient funding for the project.

In mid-1930s, Alice Williams (1863-1957) attempted to redress the lack of a lesbian social center through the foundation of the Forum Club. This socially exclusive establishment at Hyde Park Corner in Knightsbridge provided its members with many of the functions of traditional men's clubs: accommodation, food services, and opportunities for intellectual discussions on a variety of topics. Although not advertised as a lesbian club, it was widely perceived as such, and a very high percentage of its members self-identified as lesbians, according to Emily Hamer.

For women of the middle and working classes, the Women's Institutes (established 1915), the National Union of Townswomen's Guild (NUTG, established 1928), and other women's organizations were important in fostering unity and in keeping alive the spirit of feminism, even after suffrage had been achieved. At least some of the women involved in these organizations, such as Alice Franklin (1885-1964), honorary secretary and treasurer of NUTG, were relatively open about their sexual orientation and their distrust of men.

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