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social sciences

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United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present  
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By the end of the nineteenth century, a visible gay male subculture and a somewhat less visible lesbian subculture had emerged in the United Kingdom, but almost all expressions of male homosexual desire were illegal, and both gay men and lesbians were regarded as pariahs. Moreover, with the medicalization of same-sex desire, many manifestations of same-sex affection, which had previously been regarded as benign, had become suspect.

During the twentieth century, efforts to reform the law and public opinion in regard to homosexuality met with mixed success, each apparent advance seemingly followed by reactions of oppression and persecution. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, somewhat surprisingly given its history of resistance to glbtq demands for equality, the United Kingdom emerged as a leader in recognizing the human rights of its homosexual citizens.

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Sexual/Gender Liberation Movements in the Early Twentieth Century

The suffrage movement attracted the support of women-identified women through varied political efforts to remove many different kinds of barriers to women's full participation in society. Among the women openly involved in the suffrage movement was composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), who composed the suffrage anthem, The March of the Women. Also open about her identity, Ciceley Hamilton (1872-1952) wrote the lyrics to Smyth's anthem, as well as numerous feminist treatises and plays for performances at feminist events, including the highly successful, humorous Votes for Women (1909).

Yet, despite the significant involvement of lesbians, feminist organizations generally did not encourage explicit public discussion of lesbian issues. Among the few published discussions of homosexuality in the context of the feminist movement was a series of articles that appeared in the progressive Freewoman in 1912. Although notable for its sympathetic treatment of the topic, the series was focused on male homosexuality and included only one specific reference to women's relationships.

Scholars are only beginning to reconstruct the emotional lives of lesbian women of the era, but some attention has been given to a few notable couples, such as Christopher St. John (1873-1960; name legally changed from Christabel Marshall, before 1899) and Edy Craig (1869-1947), who lived together for forty-eight years, beginning in 1899. Although each had separate careers (St. John as a theater designer and Craig as journalist), they collaborated together on several writing projects. Their relationship was public knowledge, and it was even noted in St. John's obituary in the Times.

Unifying their personal and professional lives, Agnes Hunt (1867-1948) and Emily Selina Goodford (b. 1856) founded in 1911 Baschurch Hospital for Cripples, which offered innovative, comprehensive care to disabled individuals.

Despite such notable examples, many lesbians felt isolated and lonely in the first decades of the twentieth century. A surprising number of them wrote for advice and emotional support to Edward Carpenter, especially after the publication of his Intermediate Sex (1908), in which he discussed lesbian relationships positively. His interest in lesbianism and his endorsement of women's suffrage distinguish Carpenter from many male homosexuals of the era, who seem to have been at best indifferent to women's causes.

Male Homosexual Subculture before World War I

Concern about the moral threat of male homosexuality intensified in the years leading up to World War I. Thus, the Vagrancy Act of 1898 was revised by the 1912 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which established a mandatory sentence of six months imprisonment upon conviction of male-male sexual solicitation, whether cash exchange was involved or not; flogging was mandated for a second offense.

Fear of punishment and social disgrace continued to encourage furtiveness in homosexual liaisons. Full of explicit details, the diaries of Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916), a prominent Irish patriot, describe extensive but secretive sexual encounters with working-class youths, who were usually remunerated financially by him. After executing Casement for treason, the British government deliberately leaked the contents of his diaries in a successful effort to tarnish his reputation. Implying a connection between homosexual acts and treason, the revelation of the diaries reinforced among homosexual men an awareness of the need for secrecy in the conduct of their personal lives.

According to Jeffrey Weeks, Casement was typical of British upper-class homosexual men, who tried to retain public respectability by confining their homosexual dalliances to anonymous (often paid) encounters. The fascination of upper-class homosexuals with crossing social class barriers through casual sexual encounters is also evidenced in writings by J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967), E. M. Forster (1879-1970), and other prominent British literary figures throughout much of the twentieth century.

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