A new book by David Boyle entitled Scandal: How Homosexuality Became a Crime has just been published. It is about how a sex scandal in Dublin in 1884 led directly to homosexuality becoming a crime across the UK (sodomy was illegal already, but not any and all homosexual activity until the amendment passed in 1885 off the back of the scandal in Dublin the previous year made this so). This law was to stay on the books until 1967. In its time on the statutes, it caused the destruction of many men’s lives, very memorably that of Alan Turing who was driven to suicide as a direct result of the law. In David’s book, there is a harrowing scene depicted in 1895, after the Oscar Wilde scandal, of men at the docks of Dover fleeing the country in terror.
“Did it mean the exposure would reach those who run the nation, or did it mean something even more terrifying – that the exposure would spread downwards through society? As the passengers knew only too well, the combination of events which they had feared for a decade had now come to pass. It had been a few months short of ten years since the so-called ‘Labouchère amendment’ had been rushed through the House of Commons, criminalising homosexual activity of any kind between men. It was never quite clear why women were excluded – there is no evidence for the old story that Queen Victoria claimed it was impossible. For ten years now, they had watched the rising sense of outrage at the very idea of ‘homosexuality’ – though the term was not yet in common use – and had realised that there might come a time when that law was enforced with an unsurpassed ferocity.”
Reading Scandal reminded me most of all how laws passed in the heat of a moral panic of one sort or another almost always result in ill-judged laws coming onto the books, ones with often unintended results. Worst of all, it is very easy to see how this happens: the public get worked up about something – in 1885, what was seen as “immoral sexual behaviour” – and it presents politicians with a golden opportunity to be seen to “do something” about the root of the problem. This is relatively rare in politics, to have a simple win presented to you, and it isn’t all that surprising that many grab the chance with little thought to the wider ramifications of the laws they end up passing as a result of a brief bout of hysteria.
Scenarios like the one which led to the 1885 homosexuality laws also present a huge challenge to democracy. If part of what democracy is meant to do is protect the rights of minorities from the prejudice of the majority, here is an area where that falls down completely. Gay men in Britain were hounded into bankruptcy, prison and sometimes even death over the course of over eighty years by this one amendment – including some of the greatest geniuses these isles have ever produced, such as Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing.
I shan’t tell you any more about David’s book – other than that you should read it. It’s available here.
Phil Beesley says
You may not have been around in the UK when the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was passed, Nick. The law was quickly acknowledged to be ill considered and had little effect on owners of dangerous dogs. For a few years, MPs asked themselves whether they were about to pass another Dangerous Dogs Act when considering legislation. After New Labour had a few years in office, such considerations diminished.
Parliament needs something like a Dangerous Dogs Act every few years to remind itself of the limits of power and knowledge. As long as no people, dogs etc are harmed in the process.