LGBT+,Victorian Values:What’s Changed?

It didn’t feel like an ‘abomination’ to me. It felt like love.

Those words are spoken by the narrator of Scar Ghyll Levels, a short story I published recently. The setting, in place, is a harsh mining district of northern England, and, in time, is the 1870s. The ‘abomination’ the young narrator refers to is the local pastor’s condemnation of same-sex relationships.

I have always thought of Victorian England as prudish, overly moralistic and biblically fundamentalist, and the pastor echoes that view. However, there’s research that suggests that, in fact (and sadly) England in the eighteen seventies was far more liberally minded than England in the nineteen seventies….

It’s possible to study records of cases brought before the Assize and Quarter Sessions (the old criminal courts which were replaced by Crown Courts in the early 1970s). That’s what Jeff Evans, previously of Manchester Metropolitan University, did. He looked at over a quarter of a million individual cases that were brought before the Courts between the 1850s and the 1960s. He paid particular attention to cases brought before the Lancashire Sessions. (These seem to have been prosecutions brought before the Courts of Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, Chester, Cumbria and Carlisle – not, strictly, just Lancashire.) Between 1850 and the outbreak of World War One, fewer than 313 such trials related to gay men, and even when these cases came to court, half of them were thrown out. Even the Labouchere Amendment* to the Criminal Amendment Act of 1885, which criminalised all types of sexual activity between two men, didn’t make an appreciable difference to the number of prosecutions. Indeed, Evans found that, as the nineteenth century wore on, sentences became more lenient (though gay men could be, and were still, imprisoned).

I was really surprised by this apparently relatively relaxed attitude. The records suggest that both the police and the Courts felt that people’s sexual choices were a private matter. It’s only when you start looking at the nineteen fifties and beyond that there’s a significant rise in prosecutions. The 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised in-private acts between two men over 21 in England and Wales, but it left a barn door open for prosecutions under ‘gross indecency’. In the UK**, between 1967 and 2003, thirty thousand gay and bisexual men suffered prosecution. In 1989 alone, over two thousand cases came before the Courts.

The irony of all this, for me, is that this disgusting rise is largely attributable to the policies of the then government (P.M. Margaret Thatcher) with its focus on Victorian Values. Granted, when Mrs Thatcher used the term in a TV interview in 1982 (‘Victorian values were the values when our country became great’) she was thinking more about the morality of self-help and reducing dependency on the state than about sexual morality, but, I suppose, the dangerous V V mantra gathered speed and steam-rollered everything and everyone in its path. I wonder if the term would have been so popular if Mrs Thatcher had read Jeff Evans research!

But, perhaps such knowledge would have made no difference. Perhaps the Victorians weren’t quite as liberal and forward thinking as their Court records suggest. Perhaps, really, they were simply ignorant. I suppose – and this relates to the issue at the heart of Scar Ghyll Levels – that one factor is that there wasn’t the language in the nineteenth century to discuss sexual diversity- in the case of the story, a gay, sexual-asexual relationship. If you lack the words, you can neither celebrate nor condemn. Perhaps, as the relevant words weren’t on people’s lips, they didn’t appear in their thoughts. Not so much a sensible attitude, just an ignorant one.

* This was the Amendment that led, indirectly, to Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment. From what I’ve read, the case was motivated by personalities rather than by moralities.

**I’m unsure what’s intended by ‘the UK’ here. I’m quoting figures from an article in ‘The Guardian’, 24th June 2007.

Jeff Evans’ research is summarised in the article The surprising truth about the lives of gay men in Victorian England, 12th February, 2015. Search for Manchester Metropolitan University.

Scar Ghyll Levels: a short story available on Amazon Kindle. In tribute to Pride and to the AVEN Asexuality Conference, June 2019, free copies are available between 21st and 25th June. Amazon Author page is https://amazon.com/-/e/B07PDGWWPG

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