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social sciences

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United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present  
 
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Emboldened by the mood of intense homophobia, police did not hesitate to arrest even very prominent figures for homosexual acts and indecent behavior. Among the many men arrested in 1953 were William Field, a well-known and popular Labour Member of Parliament (MP); Ian Harvey, Tory Junior Minister; Ian Horrabin, Tory MP; and Sir John Gielgud, the prominent actor.

Convicted in October of soliciting sex in a public lavatory, Gielgud was fined ten pounds and encouraged to seek counseling. However, many men were given much more severe punishment. For instance, famous author Rupert Croft-Cooke was imprisoned for nine months after being convicted for sexual offenses with two sailors. Others were forced to undergo medical regimens, including hormone therapy and aversion therapy, as a part of their sentence or as a condition of parole or probation.

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Announced on October 16, 1953, the arrest by Scotland Yard of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his friend film director Kenneth Hume for "serious offenses" with boy scouts provoked a frenzy of media coverage. Because of suspicion that the police had tampered with some of the evidence, the jury of the trial in December dismissed one charge and left a second unresolved, awaiting retrial. Before that could occur, Lord Montagu was arrested in January 1954, along with his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers and friend Peter Wildeblood, a prominent journalist, for conspiring to commit unnatural acts with two members of the Air Force. The servicemen were exempted from all charges in exchange for their testimony. Found guilty at their trial in March 1954, the three accused were sentenced to prison: Montagu, for 12 months; Pitt-Rivers and Wildeblood, for 18 months each.

Disturbed by the heavy sentences given to these highly respected public figures, the Sunday Times and some other leading newspapers published editorials questioning the wisdom of imposing such penalties for homosexual acts. Outside the courthouse, Wildeblood was cheered by a large crowd that clearly regarded him as a martyr. Thus, the trial of Montagu and his associates contributed to an impetus for reform.

To consider revisions to the existing laws regulating sexual behavior, the government established later in 1954 a Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offenses and Prostitution, usually called the Wolfenden Committee after its chairman, Sir John Wolfenden. The Committee consisted of fourteen men and three women, including, among others, a Member of Parliament, a psychiatrist, a Presbyterian minister, two judges, and others of impeccable moral reputation. Although copious testimony was taken from declared homosexuals, none served on the Committee.

On September 4, 1957, the Committee finally issued its report, which recommended that homosexual acts in private between two consenting adults should be decriminalized. However, the Committee made clear that it regarded homosexuality as a debilitating condition, which should be treated, if possible, with medical means (though it declined to classify homosexuality as a mental illness). Further, the Committee opposed decriminalization of public homosexual acts and recommended stiff penalties for male prostitution. The age of consent for homosexual acts was to be established at 21 rather than 16 as it was for heterosexual or lesbian sexual acts.

Given the lingering homophobia and the dynamics of the parliamentary system, which permits a recall election if a government-backed measure is defeated, it is not surprising that leading politicians delayed acting on the most significant Wolfenden recommendations. However, in 1959, Parliament enacted its proposals to make male prostitution and street solicitation (by both men and women) illegal.

To campaign for the Wolfenden proposals, a small group of straight and gay supporters of reform discreetly founded the Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS) in London in 1958. By 1959, the HLRS had begun to launch a nationwide campaign, although its headquarters remained in London.

Women during the 1940s and 1950s

In 1956, the pervasive official silence about lesbian sexuality was broken when the sexual assault of a woman by another woman was added to the Sexual Offenses Act. While it did not criminalize lesbianism per se, this revision of the legal code did serve to publicize the threat that lesbians were thought to pose to heterosexual women. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, lesbians were subjected to significant social prejudices.

Although exact statistics are unavailable, recent feminist historians have suggested that lesbians were more impacted than other women by government regulations instituted in 1942 that required all single women to register for war work. In response to rumors of lesbianism, government publicity emphasized that women engaged in war work retained both their femininity and their interest in men.

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