You’ll be Surprised to Hear People in the Victorian Era’s Thoughts on Homosexuality

You’ll be Surprised to Hear People in the Victorian Era’s Thoughts on Homosexuality

Patrick Lynch - March 24, 2018

While the topic of homosexuality wasn’t routinely spoken about during the Victorian era, it ultimately became a big issue by the end of the 19th century. Homosexuality was simply not tolerated and it was criminalized in 1885. One of the most famous instances of a gay man going to jail occurred in 1895 when Oscar Wilde was sent to Reading Gaol after being charged with gross indecency and sodomy. Along with Alfred Taylor, Wilde was convicted of indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labor.

It’s interesting to note that the word ‘homosexual’ didn’t enter the English lexicon until 1912 while ‘sodomy’ has been used since 1297. As such, it is easy to imagine that being gay during the Victorian era was downright dangerous because you were likely to spend a few years behind bars. However, historian Jeff Evans delved into a legion of court cases involving the criminalization of homosexuals and was surprised by what he found. Were the supposedly prudish Victorians more lenient towards same-sex couples than the allegedly more enlightened folk of the 1960s? Read on to find out.

You’ll be Surprised to Hear People in the Victorian Era’s Thoughts on Homosexuality
Depiction of Oscar Wilde on Trial – Paris Review

Persecution & Prosecution

Evans looked through 280,000 criminal cases from the 1850s to the 1960s where the ‘accused’ were men charged with having sex with men. He was astounded to discover that only 313 of these trials were in the period between the 1850s and the start of World War I in 1914. In other words, there were fewer than five such prosecutions a year for over a half a century in Victorian England. This would suggest that the Victorians were far more tolerant than once believed and perhaps Wilde was an unfortunate victim of his own fame.

The historian also noted that the sentences meted out to guilty parties was significantly reduced throughout the Victorian age. For example, Joseph Dean was sentenced to death in 1851 although it was commuted to transportation for life. By 1903, William Bradly received a 15-month sentence for the same crime at the same court in Liverpool. Remember, Wilde and Taylor ‘only’ received a two-year sentence apiece.

You’ll be Surprised to Hear People in the Victorian Era’s Thoughts on Homosexuality
Depiction of the Trial of Boulton and Park – Mimi Matthews

Even so, men were still being imprisoned for doing nothing more than having consensual sex with other men. Although the sentences were ‘lenient’ the shame and scandal that went with the conviction often resulted in suicide attempts. When Francis Archibald John Douglas tried to kill himself after having his heart broken by Lord Roseberry, his father, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, blamed the ‘corrupting influence’ of Oscar Wilde which led to the writer’s trial and conviction. Wilde’s career lay in ruins thereafter and he died broke and disgraced in 1900.

In the Victorian era, homosexuality was deemed to place a terrible strain on the family dynamic and when citizens and officials were forced to speak about it, the ‘accused’ men were vilified, ostracized, and classified as individuals who went outside acceptable masculinity. In other words, homosexual men were outcasts in society. Indeed, the punishment for making false claims about a man’s sexuality carried a more severe punishment than being homosexual. What’s also interesting about society in the Victorian age was the startling double standards in play.

You’ll be Surprised to Hear People in the Victorian Era’s Thoughts on Homosexuality
Anne Lister – Wikipedia

Homosexuality – Okay for Women

In Victorian Britain, women were sometimes engaged in what was called ‘female marriages’. These women would live together, own property, and even called one another ‘wedded wife’ or ‘hubby’. All of the above were impossibilities for two men. One of the reasons why women were able to behave in a way that men weren’t is the Victorian belief that the female of the species was more susceptible to their emotions than males. While many of these relationships did not involve homosexual sex, a significant number of them did.

These lesbian relationships were either overlooked or lay undiscovered. It was possible for female couples to kiss, embrace, and touch one another in public without arousing any suspicion. As a consequence, lesbian couples could easily hide the nature of their relationship. Anne Lister famously developed intense relationships with Anne Walker and Marianna Lawton which dominated much of her life. The so-called ‘lesbian diarist’ preferred to be the dominant partner which she emphasized through her masculine appearance.

You’ll be Surprised to Hear People in the Victorian Era’s Thoughts on Homosexuality
Depiction of Jack the Ripper – Stantonbury Theatre

Yet Only Women Were Punished for Prostitution

While it was primarily men who were punished for homosexuality, it was mainly women who got the wrong end of the stick when it came to commercial heterosexual sex. Moral panic about prostitution reached its peak in the middle of the 19th century in England. Part of the reason was that it allowed for visible female freedom from social control. Young women were under the yoke of male authority in all ways, except for when they became prostitutes and were economically and personally free.

Victorian society responded to the ‘threat’ of prostitution by condemning and disgracing ‘fallen’ women in newspapers, sermons, visual art, and speeches. Ladies of the night were depicted as a dangerous and depraved element in society and such women were doomed to disease and eventually, death. It was normal for men of higher standing to patrol the streets at night in a bid to persuade prostitutes to flee from their life of vice. While prostitution was unquestionably dangerous, it was one of the most profitable trades. Successful women were able to save enough to open a lodging house or business and educate their siblings.

The Contagious Disease Acts of 1864 allowed police officers to arrest prostitutes. They were examined and detained if they had venereal disease. In contrast, the ‘customers’ of these women were never arrested nor did they get into trouble of any kind. As the century drew to a close, society’s disdain for prostitutes meant they became increasingly easy targets for criminals. One of the most notorious examples was Jack the Ripper, who murdered at least five prostitutes during a brief spell in 1888. The police were never close to catching him. Meanwhile, men in drag were also being punished including one of the most famous performing duos of the age.

You’ll be Surprised to Hear People in the Victorian Era’s Thoughts on Homosexuality
Boulton and Park on stage as Stella and Fanny

The Trial of Boulton and Park

Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park met in London and developed a popular double act called Fanny and Stella. They were able to dress up as women and perform on stage at London’s West End without suffering much in the way of harassment. However, both men also engaged in homosexual relationships and the authorities began watching them and waiting for the duo to slip up. In 1870, police saw the two men disappear into a private room at The Stand theatre with several other men. The cops burst in and arrested the duo.

Park and Boulton were put on trial in 1871 and the prosecution claimed they were ‘caught’ red-handed. The court asked if the men were caught having gay sex and the prosecution admitted that they had not. While gay sexual activity was illegal, ‘acting’ gay or being in the company of homosexual men was not. As a result, there was no legal justification for convicting Boulton and Park so they were acquitted. Although it was fantastic news for them, it ushered in a dark age for homosexuals in Britain as future laws made it easier to punish gay men.

You’ll be Surprised to Hear People in the Victorian Era’s Thoughts on Homosexuality
Alan Turing – Gizmodo UK

Stricter Laws Proved That the Victorian Age Was NOT Lenient Towards Homosexuals

After failing to convict Park and Boulton, the police needed new powers to catch gay men and the courts needed the power to punish them even if they weren’t caught in the act. In 1885, the infamous Criminal Law Amendment Act, better known as the Labouchere Amendment, criminalized ‘gross indecency’. If the court couldn’t prove that the accused engaged in sodomy, incriminating love letters or cross-dressing would be enough. In other words, Park and Boulton would have been convicted under these new laws.

Oscar Wilde was one of the first, and most high profile, cases where a man was punished under the Labouchere Amendment. As part of his sentence, Wilde had to walk on a treadmill machine all day and pick apart rope with his hands until they became blistered and started bleeding. Although fewer men were convicted of homosexuality and punished in the Victorian age, its backward thinking laid the foundations for gay men and women to be ostracized and punished in the 20th century.

Alan Turing famously developed the Bombe, a code-breaking machine that cracked Nazi codes in World War II. His innovation saved thousands of lives and arguably changed the course of the war on the British side. However, when he was convicted of homosexuality in 1952, he was chemically castrated in lieu of a prison sentence. Two years later, Turing committed suicide. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967 and thousands of men, including Turing, were posthumously pardoned. Sadly, the horrendous treatment of homosexuals destroyed thousands of lives and was formed in the dark days of the Victorian era.

Where Do We Get This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources

“Friendships, Lesbianism, and Identity in Victorian Britain.” Lauren Miller in The York Historian. July 2017.

“From gay marriage to cougar wives, the Victorians have much to teach us.” Deborah Cohen. The Guardian. December 2012.

“The Victorian men in drag who led Britain to outlaw homosexuality.” Meagan Day in Timeline. October 2016.

“Alan Turing, code-breaker castrated for homosexuality, receives royal pardon.” Jethro Mullen in CNN. August 2014.

“The Victorians’ surprisingly liberal attitude towards gay men.” Jeff Evans in History Extra. April 2015.

“Sex and Sexuality in the 19th Century.” Jan Marsh in Victoria and Albert Museum.