So a British man walks into the London embassy of a Commonwealth country (we'll say 'Australia' for the moment), and asks if it would be possible to get Australian citizenship and leave Britain as soon as possible. The embassy official on duty looks a little startled, and asks the man what prompted him to want to renounce his citizenship.
'Sodomy,' the man replies, shaking his head sadly. 'Two hundred years ago, you'd be hanged for it. Then a hundred years ago, they changed hanging to hard labour. Then they said it was all right if you were twenty-one, and then they talked about changing twenty-one to eighteen, and now they're talking about lowering it to sixteen. I'm getting out of here before they make it compulsory.'
This joke circulated in several forms during the late 1990s, when the British government was debating lowering the age of consent for male homosexual relationships to sixteen to be in accordance with the age of consent for heterosexual relationships. (Oddly enough, there was no statutory age of consent for lesbian relationships -- but that's another article entirely.) Attitudes toward homosexual relationships may have changed somewhat since the days of Oscar Wilde's famous trial, but the change took a long time in coming.
Before the Victorian era, homosexuality was punishable by death. Of course, so were a whole host of other heinous crimes, such as pickpocketing, cutting down a tree one didn't own, and robbing a rabbit warren. The death penalty for homosexuality -- more specifically, 'the abominable vice of buggery committed with man or beast' -- dated back to a law that Henry VIII had forced Parliament to pass in 1533. This law remained in place for over three hundred years, and it was not until 1861 that the death sentence for a man having it off with another man was done away with.
As for Queen Victoria and the era of repressed sexuality and cold-water baths that is associated with her name, it has been said that because she simply could not comprehend the idea of two women having a lesbian relationship, and therefore allowed it to remain 'legal' even though male homosexuality was punishable by hard labour. I don't think anything more need be said about that.
Between the Victorian era and the Swinging Sixties, it was an unfortunate time to be openly homosexual in Britain, particularly for those in positions of power. Oscar Wilde's trials are well-known, but consider the case of Alan Turing, the mathematics genius who played a crucial role in the cracking of the German Enigma codes during World War II. Turing committed suicide in 1954 after spending almost a decade being persecuted for 'gross indecency' and shunned as a security risk. Government officials could seemingly overlook Turing's homosexuality as long as he was needed to work on German codes, but once the war was over there was no need to tolerate his 'aberrant behaviour'. As in America, homosexuals who worked for the government could lose their jobs on security grounds because it was believed that they would be more vulnerable to blackmail. Panic swept through the senior staff of the Royal Navy in the 1960s over fears that homosexuality was 'rife' amongst its men. And one need look no further to illustrate the perceived security risks of homosexuality than the infamous Cambridge Spies who passed Foreign Office secrets to the Soviet Union. Of the four main spies only Kim Philby was a confirmed heterosexual -- both Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean were discrete about their homosexual dalliances, but Guy Burgess was flamboyantly gay. British public opinion was generally hostile to homosexuality, and only with the growth of the 'permissive society' in the 1960s was there sufficient impetus for change.
In 1967, Harold Wilson's Labour government finally passed laws that legalised the age of consent for homosexual relationships at twenty-one. This was a definite victory for activists, but the victory was only a partial one. After all, the heterosexual age of consent at the time was sixteen, and the five-year difference was a glaring example of the fact that sexual preference was still a matter of inequality in the eyes of the law. Attempts were made later in the 1970s to lower the age of homosexual consent to eighteen, the age of legal majority, but fifteen years went by with no real change in the legal status of homosexual consent.
In 1996 the bureaucrats of Brussels entered the picture when European Court of Human Rights began to hear a case that argued that Britain's unequal ages of consent were a violation of human rights. The Labour Government that entered office in 1997 began to work on legislation to alter the age of consent laws, but the Government met with stiff opposition from Conservative opponents in the House of Lords. After a prolonged battle where the Lords threw out several possible pieces of age-of-consent legislation tacked onto other bills, the House of Commons invoked the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1941 and over-rode the Lords' delaying measures. In late November 2000, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill lowered the age of homosexual consent in Britain to sixteen.
So where does that leave us now? While homosexual sex may not be 'compulsory', there's little doubt that quite a lot has changed since Henry VIII tried to legislate away the one carnal act he HADN'T performed himself. The courts may have overturned the law that sent Oscar Wilde to walk the treadmill and Reading Gaol and made De Profundis the book that one shouldn't read before bedtime, but the love that dare not speak its name continues to be a controversial part of modern debates on morality, legality, and homosexuality.
A Potpourri of Interesting and Informative Links
* BBC Q and A - The Age of Consent
* Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England
* An A to Z of the British and Sex
* Knitting Circle Law List
* Cambridge Spies biography
* ECHR Overturns British Ban on Gays in the Military