1990s >> 1993 >> no-1065-may-1993

Roots of Gay Oppression

Homosexuality—sexual relations between, or attraction to, members of the same sex—has existed from the beginning of human history. In Ancient Greece the love of men was “integral both to the concept and the practice of Greek maleness” according to Rosalind Miles in her recent book The Rites of Man. Already in 1917 in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Idea Westermarck had stated that homosexuality probably occurred among every race of mankind.

Although homosexual love was considered commonplace, natural and pleasurable in the ancient world, homosexuals became increasingly ostracised, ridiculed and persecuted in the modern world. The development of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as international powers, able to wield influence over a wide range of human affairs led to homosexuality being outlawed.

An early condemnation of homosexuality occurs in the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament of the Bible. Homosexuals are condemned to death along with adulterers and those committing bestiality. But Christians have been notorious at changing the rules and deciding which parts of the Bible are to be slavishly followed and which parts are ignored. Usury is condemned in the Bible but, with the rise of capitalism, banking is now a respectable profession. Polygamy was accepted in biblical times but is now strictly illegal in many countries and punishable by imprisonment.

The term “bugger” derives from “bougre” used to describe the supporters of the Bogomil heresy in Bulgaria in the tenth century. The Albingensias in Southern France in 1208 were also known as “bourges” or “bougeron”. It was in fact from about the twelfth century onwards that homosexuality came to be perceived as a vice and harsh punishments were meted out. The rich and powerful, however, escaped the prohibition that applied to other homosexuals. Richard I (“The Lionheart”) had a passionate affair with King Phillip of France which was carried on quite openly.

In Britain an ecclesiastical law of 1290 ordered “sodomites” to be buried alive, but this sentence seems to have been never carried out. The few who were convicted by the Church courts were hanged by the secular authorities. King Henry VIII introduced hanging as the secular punishment for sodomy in 1533 to remove the power of the Catholic Church that he was in the process of breaking away from.  But this move was politically rather than morally motivated and there were few prosecutions for sodomy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sexual relations between men were considered a commonplace method of getting sexual pleasure. Local authorities were more concerned to prevent the birth of bastards who might well have to be supported by the parish and a blind eye was turned to homosexual behaviour despite its illegality.


From about the 1700 attitudes to homosexuality hardened again. Homosexuals responded by setting up “molly houses”, back rooms in private houses or taverns where heterosexual relationships were mimicked and mocked. According to R. Davenport Hines in his Sex, Death and Punishment, “mock marriages and pregnancy rituals were performed with mock lying-ins and the “pregnant” man being delivered of a doll or a Cheshire cheese.

Homosexuals were depicted as effeminate, partly in retaliation for the “molly house” rituals, partly because transvestites were thought to be homosexuals and partly as a result of social labelling and stereotyping.

As early as 1728 men solicited in London for the sole purpose of blackmailing those who responded to their advances. Police spies and agent provocateurs were used in England for the first time to trap homosexuals. Lord Jowitt claimed that at least 95 percent of blackmail cases which he knew about when Attorney General in 1929-32 involved fears of prosecution for homosexual behaviour.

Oscar Wilde is undoubtedly the best known homosexual to be prosecuted in the late Victorian era. He received two years hard labour in 1895. According to N. Greig in his introduction to Edward Carpenter: Selected Writings “it was the act of treason of taking working-class boys to upper-class clubs which sealed his fate”.

In this century the persecution of homosexuals has continued. In 1942 at Abergavenny 18 men received gaol sentences of between 10 months and 12 years. Thirteen of the men received a total of 57 years imprisonment. In 1955, alone, 1065 men were imprisoned for homosexual offences. And in 1951 a campaign against homosexuals in government services started after the homosexual Guy Burgess and the bisexual Donald Maclean absconded to Russia after it was revealed that they had spied for the Russian government for years.

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards homosexuality was seen in some quarters as a medical condition and homosexuals were treated with drugs, hypnotism, psychotherapy and aversion therapy. However, the American Psychiatric Association has now voted to delete homosexuality from its official list of pathologies.

Most teenagers seem to be aware of their homosexuality between 12-14 years of age. Yet such is the social pressure to conform that 61 percent of lesbians and a quarter of male homosexuals had their first sexual experience with a member of the opposite sex (J. M. Stafford, Homosexuality and Education, 1988). The London Gay Teenage Group found, from a sample of over 400 homosexual teenagers, that over half had been verbally abused, a fifth had been beaten up, one in ten had been thrown out of home and many others sent to a doctor or psychiatrist. Suicide had been attempted by one-fifth of them because of intolerable social pressure.

Lesbians had been spared legal persecution but have been subjected to the same prejudices and discrimination as male homosexuals. At times lesbianism has been ignored as if it did not exist, or its existence denied. Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was banned as obscene in 1928 although there is nothing lewd or erotic in the book. Its lesbian theme was considered sufficient reason for it to be outlawed.

In 1967 homosexual relations, between consenting males over 21 years, in private ceased to be a criminal offence in this country. But prejudice cannot be legislated out of existence and hard-won reforms can always be attacked or withdrawn. The 1988 Halsbury clause of the Local Government Act has made it illegal for local authorities to give financial or other assistance to homosexual groups.

Capitalism thrives on scapegoats because they absorb the blame for the poverty, stress and insecurity that the system cause and divert the pressure for change into other channels.

Socialists hold that sexual activity between consenting adults which gives please to the participants and does not harm anybody should be entirely their own affair. Discrimination is wrong and pressure groups are right to want to change it but we must tackle cause and not effects. Pressure groups fragment the strength of the working class which should be united to bring about the overthrow of the capitalist system. Partial reforms have allowed a resurgence of homophobia to be whipped up over AIDS. And economic stress will make minority groups vulnerable to attack in the future. The overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism is the only way of preventing this from happening.

Carl Pinel

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