As science moved from acts to identities, so too did the public consciousness and, very quickly, the law. In England, consensual male-male sex was first prohibited by the Buggery Act of 1533. Plenty of sources will cite it as the first British anti-homosexual law, although of course it wasn’t anything of the sort. It was, however, one of the earliest anti-sodomy laws passed by any Germanic country (previously the only laws concerning sex had prohibited adultery), and it outlawed specifically “the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind or beast.” The penalty was death.
But what was buggery? And how could it be committed “with mankind or beast”? A succession of trials pertaining to arrests under the Act eventually fixed “buggery” in a legal sense as anal intercourse with ejaculation (male-male, or male-female), or intercourse with an animal. As such, if you were a young man attracted to other young men in Tudor England, you were perfectly safe under the law providing you didn’t indulge in anal sex (and the requirement of the prosecution to evidence ejaculation enabled more than one pair of lovers to escape with their lives, even after they were arrested and tried). Later, men were often tried instead for “attempted sodomy,” a crime which was easier to prove and carried a lesser sentence on paper, although depending on the mood of the crowd, standing in the pillory could be a death sentence of its own.
The Buggery Act was repealed and re-enacted a number of times, although the death penalty stood for those found guilty until 1861. Throughout its first 350 years, however, the key consideration of the Act, and the anti-sodomy laws which followed, was that they criminalised very specific sexual conduct, not an identity.
All that changed in 1885, with the introduction of what became known as the Labouchere Amendment, shoehorned into an act which was supposed to have been about female prostitution. Labouchere himself was a difficult and obstructive MP, and when he proposed the amendment at the eleventh hour, it was rushed through mostly to prevent him from disrupting the rest of the bill.
“Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with an other male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof, shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.”
Less than 75 words was all it took to change the course of British legal history. For the first time, there was no specific behaviour that had been prohibited. Instead the new crime was “gross indecency” between males, whatever that was. Certainly, it was clear from the outset that the vague wording of the Amendment left the door wide open for abuse, and almost from the moment the ink was dry it became colloquially known as the Blackmailer’s Charter.
The most famous victim of the Amendment was of course Oscar Wilde, whose crimes were defined in no better terms than the Marquis of Queensbury’s assertion he was “posing as a sodomite.” (There was some physical evidence allegedly discovered on the sheets of the hotel room in which he was staying, but it was considered too ghastly to have the maids who cleaned it testify to in court.) Another famous victim was Alan Turing, the man who cracked Enigma and invented the computer. He was offered chemical castration in place of imprisonment, and committed suicide shortly thereafter. The Amendment wasn’t repealed until homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967 and by then, LGBT identities were here to stay.
Visa Update: For those who don’t know, I had my interview at the US Embassy in London yesterday. I have been officially approved for a fiancee visa to marry AJ Rose. *flails*