Queers in 18th & 19th Century England 4/4

US Union soldiers hold each other’s cigars

Sex acts between men in public or semi public places like brothels had been banned in England since the days of Henry VIII, but in 1885 sex between men even on private property behind closed doors became a serious criminal offense. Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act criminalized “gross indecency”which effectively allowed for prosecution where sodomy could not be proved. Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor under Section 11, and Alan Turing was subjected to chemical castration in lieu of jail. 

Because of social and legal marginalization of queerness, records are patchy and mostly feature times of heightened persecution and prosecution. Sadly this contributes to the Tragic Gay Narrative trope and of course made a lot of queer people very miserable. Moral panics about queers and sex workers (overlapping groups) tend to occur together, with clergy and other busybodies going to great lengths to ” expose” an underground counter culture. 

Between these periods (early 1700s and mid 1800s) of heightened scrutiny and hatred, much less is known about sexual minorities. This is what is meant by “history is written by the victor”. Our best records on homosexuality are homophobic in nature. Indeed it would seem that,  far from forcing their gay lifestyle on modest straight prudes who’d rather be ignorant, gay culture of 18th and 19th century England was kept hidden from heterosexuals unless they sought it out. 

In each of these eras organized anti queer bigotry from religious types has inspired queer organizing and necessitated building communities and safe havens. Whether it’s the Society for the Reformation of Morals in 1700 or the American Family Research Council of today, homophobes draw attention to quiet queers, a strategy that endangers individuals even as it mobilizes groups. The first pride march was a riot, a tradition that probably goes back much farther than we think. 

Thanks to widespread literacy and the availability of better record keeping, future historians looking at the 21st century will be able to know what homosexuals – and bisexuals and pansexuals and asexuals and more – think of queerness. Our love letters, our wedding announcements, our queer media will carry on to the future. Some lesbian like me a hundred years from now will have our blogs and magazines and celebrities to look back on, not just court cases of sex acts. I hope she can appreciate it. 

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