Thursday, 23 February 2017

Lesbians and the Law

There is a widely held belief that the main reason that lesbians were never made subject to the criminal law in the way that homosexual men were is that Queen Victoria refused to believe that such things could occur between women.

In fact, we have been unable to find any evidence at all to substantiate that. However…

In 1921, Parliament considered the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which proposed that the offence of Gross Indecency created by the now infamous Labouchere Amendment should be extended to cover same-sex behaviour between women:

The House of Commons passed the measure, but it failed in the House of Lords.

The Bill did not fail because their Lordships were stout defenders of lesbian rights - far from it…

“You are going to tell the whole world that there is such an offence, to bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it, never thought of it, never dreamed of it.”  
Earl of Desart

The Earl of Malmesbury also had a great deal to say on the matter:
“My Lords, I am extremely sorry to raise a discussion upon what must be, to all of us, a most disgusting and polluting subject. ... this disgusting subject ... in passing a clause of this sort you are going to do a great deal more harm than good. You are going enormously to increase the chance of blackmail without in the slightest degree decreasing the amount of this vice. ... The more you advertise vice by prohibiting it the more you will increase it.”

He clearly knew that blackmail was a real problem for homosexual men, and therefore would likely be so for homosexual women, adding to crime rather than controlling it. He also realised that obtaining evidence to prove the offence would be 'so imperfect that no jury will convict'.

Indeed, some Members of the Commons had wanted to ignore it, in the hope that it would go away:

“There are only three ways of dealing with perverts.  The first is the death sentence… The second is to… lock them up… The third way is to leave them entirely alone, not notice them, not advertise them. That is the method that has been adopted in England for many hundred years, and I believe that is the best method now…”
Lieutenant-Colonel Moore-Brabazon

Colonel Josiah Wedgewood was horrified at the idea that the House would pass the Clause, because it was 'a beastly subject' and was 'being better advertised by the moving of this clause than in any other way'.

They were wrong, of course. Even though the Bill failed, it didn’t go away.

Rebecca Jennings, 2007, A Lesbian History of Britain
Oram & Turnbull (eds), Parliamentary Debates [House of Commons] Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 167


1. Labouchere Amendment - see for a brief description.

2. This post is based on a set of four posters created on behalf of Merton LGBT+ Forum for a display at Merton Civic Centre and Wimbledon Library during LGBT History Month 2017.

You can download
the poster for this topic here:
Feel free to use them, if you wish.

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