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From Wilde to Wolfenden - Changing Attitudes to Homosexuality

Updated on July 4, 2015
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Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde | Source

In the second of the three trials of 1895, when his intention of prosecuting the Marquess of Queensbury backfired, Oscar Wilde answered a prosecutor's question concerning Lord Alfred Douglas' poem 'The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name'. Wilde spoke of such love as being the highest and noblest of emotions a man could encounter.

Perhaps the presiding judge would not have been so enraged if Wilde had confined himself to a description of the facts (the physical aspects of homosexuality, which were of more concern to the court) and not attempted to invoke a sense of the aesthetic upon the legal arena in which he found himself. With the sentence of two years imprisonment, Wilde, for the first time in history, gave homosexuality a public face.

Actor, writer and journalist Charles Brookfield
Actor, writer and journalist Charles Brookfield | Source

Stereotypes and Precedents

Unwittingly, Wilde set a legal precedent: following his conviction, homosexuals everywhere would walk in fear of arrest and imprisonment. And as if that wasn't enough, he left a ridiculously stereotypical image of opulence and effeminacy which has been thrown in the faces of gay men ever since.

As an interesting footnote, one of the chief informers against Wilde, was Charles Brookfield, who later became Censor of Plays in the Lord Chamberlain's Office. (He also played a small character role in 'An Ideal Husband' which was running in the West End at the time of the trial. The play, along with 'The Importance of Being Earnest' closed shortly after the trials began).

Following a change in British law in 1861, convictions under the rather vague charge of 'gross indecency', were difficult to obtain in this country, and as a result defendants were often acquitted. Consequently, the very idea of such outrageous behaviour (not to mention what these depraved individuals did in the bedroom) was rarely discussed in polite society. However, the arrest of playwright Wilde on 6th April 1895, and the ensuing court case forced the law courts and indeed the general public to consider their attitudes to homosexuals and homosexual behaviour.

Interestingly, Wilde was prosecuted under the Labouchere Amendment section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, the same law used to convict war-time code breaker Alan Turing almost seventy years later.

Doctors study an X-ray before a psychosurgical operation (1941)
Doctors study an X-ray before a psychosurgical operation (1941) | Source

Cures and Other Abuses

However, even though the existence of homosexuality was largely unheard of in British society, there were, in certain sections of the Government, growing concerns about the long-term effects such behaviours might have on the morality of the nation as a whole. The church and the medical profession seemed determined to do everything possible to stamp out these vile practices.

Apart from the social nature of the problem, there were those who believed it might be eradicated with the discovery of a successful 'cure'. Medical experimentation in this area of research was more common in America than in Britain. In 1937, a certain Doctor Owensby of Atlanta, Georgia, treated homosexuals with convulsive shock therapy via some kind of chemical stimulant. His notes detailed half a dozen cases of men he claimed to have cured since, after his treatment, they appeared normal in every way. Strangely, no-one else could reproduce his results. Other treatments such as hormone medication and lobotomies were carried out willy-nilly.

Quentin Crisp in 1982
Quentin Crisp in 1982 | Source

War and Velvet Suits

With the onset of the Second World War, many homosexual men made hundreds of sexual contacts under cover of the blackouts - the regularity of air raids rendered sex in bomb-shelters and doorways an easy option.

Hiding away from the public gaze became the norm for many homosexuals, but not everyone fell into this category. Quentin Crisp (author of 'The Naked Civil Servant') did his utmost to get himself noticed: sporting hennaed hair, lipstick and velvet suits, he was an easy target for the police, prompting even his friends to cross the street to avoid being seen with him.

Some of the Soho cafes frequented by Crisp and his associates were raided on a regular basis, while cafe proprietors were tarnished with running an immoral place. It was in this atmosphere of intolerance that men had to choose between the dangerous expressionistic lifestyle of people like Crisp and the socially acceptable facade of heterosexuality, marriage and the family.

The McCarthy Trials

Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn
Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn | Source

In America in the 1950's, Senator Joseph McCarthy ordered a subcommittee to investigate 3,500 federal employees who were believed to be homosexual. Along with his counsel, Roy Cohn, and the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J Edgar Hoover, McCarthy colluded in the persecution of homosexuals from within their own ranks. Hoover himself identified 406 'sexual deviants in government service' and linked homosexuality with communism. Guy George Gabrielson, a republican, asserted that:

'Sexual perverts who have influenced Government in recent years...[are as]...dangerous as the actual communists.’

In 1948 Henry Hay had founded the Mattachine Society (derived form the French Societe Mattachine, a secret organisation involving men in masked rituals). Its function was to seek legal and social reform. Although Hay denied any political objectives, the Government pursued him into the political arena where he was tried before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC), who, fortunately for Hay, were badly misinformed and his decision to take the Fifth Amendment was unnecessary.

What is most shocking, however, as we now know, is that Hoover, Cohn and McCarthy themselves were all homosexuals.


Back in Britain, the trials of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu in 1954 and the solicitor Peter Wildeblood (with Michael Pitt-Rivers) in 1957, brought terror into the hearts of gay men everywhere. The situation was not helped by the upsurge of police activity, particularly in incidences involving cottaging (the practice, popular with gay men, of picking up lovers in public toilets), where agents provocateurs were used.

With the formation of the Wolfenden Committee in 1954, the homosexual debate raged like never before. It was generally believed, even by such as the Law Society, that homosexuality posed a threat to the morality of the nation. With the concept of 'curing' the condition still popular, the British Medical Association put forward the suggestion that 'Christianity mixed with forestry, farm work and market gardening' might well provide the answer!

The cheaper daily papers fuelled the debate claiming that if legalised, homosexuality would spread like an infection. Therefore, it came as some surprise that the Wolfenden Committee's findings suggested that 'homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offense'.

However, recommendations were merely that, and it wasn't until 1966 the Homosexual Reform Society (made up of such distinguished figures as Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender and JB Priestly), were able to show a shift in public opinion, that the law was actually amended (in 1967) and then only due to the new Labour Government. Even so, the law didn't apply in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands of the Isle of Man. The changes did not come there until 1980 (Scotland), 1983 (Northern Ireland and Channel Islands) and 1992 (Isle of Man).

And Now?

Twenty-odd years later, you'd think things might have moved on a bit, but there are still an awful lot of people out there who won't or can't accept that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have the same rights as everyone else. And then of course there's the whole issue of gay marriage, civil partnerships, gay adoptions and such like, but that's a box of frogs I don't intend opening here.

Do you think homosexual people should have the same rights as everyone else?

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    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks Brian - yes, it's bad enough that we have to deal with all the sexist, racist, homophobic folk that are around these days, without having to risk prison for what you believe. Thanks for reading.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Loved the research and presentation. It is hard for this generation to imagine the draconian campaigns against homosexuals in the so-called civilized world not so very long ago. Thank God for all the brave people who have worked and sacrificed for equal rights. We live in a better time in history, even though there is still so much more work to do. Great article.


    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks Larry, much appreciated.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Interesting historical overview.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Yeah, McCarthy was an asshole in every sense of the word - he hurt a lot of people under the pretence of doing the right thing when all along he had his own warped agenda. Thanks for reading.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      I knew about Roy Cohn, but McCarthy? Learned something new. That would explain a lot. Very interesting article. Voted up.


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