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social sciences

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United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present  
 
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A government commission established in 1941 investigated sexual immorality in the women's armed forces and expressed great concern about lesbianism among military personnel. However, discharges for female-female sexual acts were relatively rare. Usually, women suspected of engaging in lesbian activities were separated from their supposed partners through reposting. Despite official efforts to suppress lesbianism, many women veterans maintained that it had been relatively easy to be a lesbian during the war if one were discreet.

During the 1950s, the dominant sociological theory of functionalism provided justification for renewed emphasis on "traditional" heterosexual family roles for women. Even the Women's Institute and similar organizations diluted their political programs through a focus on conventional femininity.

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During the 1950s, lesbianism was generally regarded as a curable, but potentially debilitating, psychological illness. The Maudsley Hospital, London, and other leading medical institutions used aversion therapy to treat lesbianism.

In 1949, Falcon Press issued the first British edition of the Well of Loneliness since the 1928 ban, and that book continued to provide many women with awareness that many others shared their lesbian desires. The cropped hair and mannish attire, favored both by Radclyffe Hall and her fictional character Stephen, remained the most obvious public indicator of lesbianism. "Butch" and "femme" camps predominated at the Gateways, a bohemian bar in Chelsea (London) that had effectively become a lesbian club by the 1950s. However, as Hamer has noted, it is difficult to know the extent to which these categories applied to most lesbian women, who maintained discreet public profiles.

Despite the dominance of heterosexual values, some prominent lesbians publicly revealed their relationships with other women. For example, the surgeon Louisa Martindale (1873-1965) discussed the significance of her partnership with Ismay Fitzgerald in her autobiography (1951). A popular middlebrow cultural critic and radio personality, Nancy Spain (1917-1964) conducted public flirtations with gay men, but she also made public, sexually-charged references to her partner, Jonnie Werner.

1960s: The Push for Legal Reform

More than 1,000 people attended the first public meeting of the HLRS held on May 12, 1960 at Caxton Hall (near Westminster). A substantial majority of those in attendance endorsed a resolution calling on the government to implement the Wolfenden proposals. Supporting the HLRS, Labour MP Kenneth Robinson introduced on June 29, 1960 a motion asking the House of Commons to enact the Wolfenden recommendations. Even liberal newspapers opposed the motion, which was defeated by a vote of 213 to 99.

In subsequent years, the HLRS undertook many different kinds of activities, ranging from advocacy of legal reforms to psychological support services for gay men. Because homosexuality was illegal, it was difficult for the HLRS to raise money openly. Therefore, in 1958, Antony Grey (pseudonym of A. E. G. Wright) founded the Albany Trust, a public charity that could channel funds to the HLRS. Despite Grey's fundraising, the HLRS often found it difficult to meet its expenses.

In 1958, the Lord Chamberlain's office lifted the ban on the treatment of homosexual topics in public theaters, and, by the early 1960s, a number of plays and films dealt with homosexual issues. Particularly important among the films that helped to promote reform was Victim (1961), which starred Dirk Bogarde as a barrister whose career and marriage were threatened by a blackmailer aware of his homosexual activities. In 1964, the BBC TV program This Week presented a sensitive, full-length documentary that compared the lives of homosexual men in the UK and the Netherlands.

Despite sympathetic films on homosexual themes, polls indicated that public opinion remained largely opposed to homosexual law reform. Newspapers consistently characterized gay men as pathetic creatures even when they acknowledged the need for the reform of oppressive laws. In the fall of 1962, public attention was focused on the blackmail of homosexuals through the highly publicized trial of William Vassall, a Foreign Office clerk, accused of providing classified information to a KGB agent who had taken compromising photographs of him.

Many local agencies devised new methods to entrap homosexual men. For example, in Hertfordshire, police removed floor boards from the main floor of Baldock Town Hall so that they could spy on the men's room below. The recurring prosecutions of homosexual men prompted Allan Horsfall to found the North Western Homosexual Law Reform Society (NWHLRS) in 1964. Under the direction of Colin Harvey, the NWHLRS attracted many openly homosexual members in the Manchester area.

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