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social sciences

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United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present  
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Increasing Oppression of Homosexuality at Mid-century

During the fifteen years following the outbreak of World War Two, the number of recorded indictable homosexual offenses increased dramatically. In 1938, the police in England and Wales dealt with 134 cases of sodomy; in 1952, 670; and in 1954, 1043. Arrests for homosexual assault increased from 822 in 1938 to 3,305 in 1955. Furthermore, in 1955, there were 2,322 recorded instances of "gross indecency" in England and Wales, in comparison with 316 in 1938.

According to accounts of queer veterans, the difficult and exceptional circumstances of military duty helped to foster a certain degree of tolerance within the ranks for casual same-sex acts, as long as there was no explicit indication of homosexual identity. Nevertheless, military authorities became increasingly concerned about homosexual activities as the war progressed. During the first twelve months of the war, 1939-40, forty-eight men were court-martialed for "indecency between males"; in the final twelve months, 1944-45, the number of court-martials for homosexual acts had increased to 324. During the course of the war, there were more British men court-martialed for homosexual acts than for any other category of offense.

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Among the prominent military personnel accused of sodomy was Sir Paul Latham, a wealthy Conservative Member of Parliament, who, though exempted from service, joined the army of his own accord. In 1941, he was tried and convicted of "improper behavior" with three gunners and a civilian while serving as an officer in the Royal Artillery. Convicted of ten charges of indecent conduct, he was discharged dishonorably, imprisoned for two years, and forced to resign his seat in Parliament.

During the course of the war, tabloids increasingly featured stories claiming that military personnel stationed in British communities were in danger of corruption by predatory homosexuals. In response to the public outcry incited by these accounts, police utilized the Defense Regulations and Emergency Powers Acts to close "disorderly" premises without following standard legal protocol. Thus, for example, under authority of this Act, Sam's Café in Rupert Street, London, was closed between 6 P.M. and 6 A.M. in 1941. Further, in 1944, several prominent gay-friendly pubs (including Swiss Hotel in Old Crompton Street) were cautioned for harboring "sodomites." As the new regulations were enforced, many pubs and cafes voluntarily began to exclude homosexual patrons in order to avoid possible harassment by the police.

The intensification of the prosecution of homosexuals coincided with the appointment in 1944 of Sir Theobald Mathew as Director of Public Prosecution (a post he held until 1964). Disturbed by the recorded increase in homosexual incidents during the war years, Mathew made the suppression of homosexuality a primary goal of law enforcement agencies.

Specific targets for arrests of homosexuals were established by local police authorities, who also devised the means used to arrest homosexuals. By the late 1940s, the Metropolitan Police offered detailed training courses, preparing officers to go "underground" in homosexual milieus. Entrapment became common, and men were often arrested after performing sexual acts with policemen.

In 1951, the defection to the Soviet Union of the spies Guy Burgess and David Maclean, both known homosexuals, solidified the public impression that sexual deviance was detrimental to the well-being of the nation. In response, the British government instituted policies to weed out homosexuals in sensitive government positions.

In 1952, during this atmosphere of hysteria, Alan Turing, one of the most gifted scientists of his generation, who had cracked the German Enigma machine code during World War II and who had pioneered in the development of the modern computer, was arrested and prosecuted for "gross indecency" when he reported a burglary at his home. As a show of leniency toward someone who had contributed greatly to the war effort, Turing was given a choice between prison or "organo-therapy," a kind of chemical castration. He chose the latter, but grew depressed when the "treatment" left him impotent and caused him to grow breasts. In 1954, like many homosexuals before him who ran afoul of prejudice and stupidity, he committed suicide.

Appointed Metropolitan Police Commissioner in 1953, Sir John Nutt-Bower intensified efforts to clamp down on homosexuals with little regard for established legal procedures. Courts generally supported his endeavors, frequently overlooking infringements on the rights of individuals who had been indicted for homosexual acts.

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