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Homophobia, Class and Party in England*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 November 2009

David M. Rayside
University of Toronto


Institutionalized homophobia in England has been intensified over the last decade, linked to concerns about “permissiveness” so prominent within the lower middle classes so courted by the modern Conservative party. However, anti-gay norms have long been embedded in working-class and middle-class cultures, more than in continental European and North American societies. Moralistic crusades against homosexuality have been common in England, and are still reinforced by the police, the courts and especially the tabloid press. Opposition has been roused within Labour party and Liberal/Liberal Democratic circles, but often reluctantly, and framed by a limited form of tolerance.


L'homophobie institutionnalisée en Angleterre n'a fait que croître au cours des 10 dernières années; ceci est lié au « laxisme » qui préoccupe tant la petite bourgeoisie, présentement la cible du parti conservateur. Cependant les classes ouvrières et moyennes ont toujours rejeté l'homosexualité, plus que dans les autres parts de l'Europe et en Amérique du nord. En Angleterre, il n'a pas été rare de voir des véritables croisades « morales », qui ont eu et ont toujours, l'appui de la police, des tribunaux et de la presse populaire. À l'intérieur du parti travailliste et des cercles libéraux et libéraux démocrates, une certaine opposition s'est manifestée mais souvent avec réticence et seulement dans le cadre d'une tolérance très limitée.

Research Article
Copyright © Canadian Political Science Association (l'Association canadienne de science politique) and/et la Société québécoise de science politique 1992

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1 The final wording of section 28 was as follows: “A local authority shall not: (a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material for the promotion of homosexuality; (b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship by the publication of such material or otherwise; (c) give financial assistance to any person for either of the purposes in paragraphs (a) or (b) above.” Until the Local Government Bill was passed into law, this section was referred to as Clause 28, although various changes in the bill during its parliamentary passage altered the number to 27 and 29. The amendment was thought to be encouraged by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (The Guardian, April 8, 1988).

2 Section 25 includes as crimes “indecency between men” and “procuring others to commit homosexual acts.” According to one critic, the legislation would prohibit allowing two men to stay overnight and have sex, “cruising” or chatting up other men in public, having any form of gay sex with more than two people, and other things. See Rites, April 1991, 9, and Angles, May 1991, 4.

3 See for example, Burstyn, Varda and Smith, Dorothy E., Women, Class, Family and the State (Toronto: Garamond, 1985)Google Scholar; Stacey, Margaret and Price, Marion, Women, Power, and Politics (London: Tavistock, 1981)Google Scholar; and Weeks, Jeffrey, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800 (London: Longman, 1981)Google Scholar.

4 Hall, Stuart, “Reformism and the Legislation of Consent,” in National Deviancy Conference, ed., Permissiveness and Control: The Fate of the Sixties Legislation (London: Macmillan, 1980), 143Google Scholar.

5 Weeks, Jeffrey, Sexuality (London: Tavistock, 1986), 89Google Scholar. The argument to follow is similar to that made by Weeks in his chap. 5. The same conservatism often targets abortion as well as homosexuality, although for a number of politicians in England, the latter is a safer target.

6 Pratt, John, “The Place of Sexuality in New Right Discourse,” Canadian Criminology Forum 3 (1981), 87Google Scholar.

7 Willetts, David, “The Family,” in Kavanagh, Dennis and Seldon, Anthony, eds., The Thatcher Effect: A Decade of Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 265Google Scholar. In Willetts' view, the Conservatives' family policy agenda generally avoids issues of sexuality and reproduction generally associated with the category, but I disagree. There are leading party members clearly interested in some such issues, and certainly prepared to use the issue of homosexuality for opportunistic reasons at least.

8 Pratt, “The Place of Sexuality in New Right Discourse,” 94–95.

9 Watney, Simon, Policing Desire: Pornography, Aids and the Media (London: Methuen, 1987), 28Google Scholar.

10 Dearlove, John and Saunders, Peter, Introduction to British Politics: Analysing a Capitalist Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984), 374Google Scholar.

11 Watney, Policing Desire, 23.

12 AIDS and the New Puritanism (London: Pluto, 1986), 74Google Scholar.

13 Day, Patricia and Klein, Rudolph, “Interpreting the Unexpected: The Case of AIDS Policy Making in Britain,” Journal of Public Policy 9 (1989), 346349CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Hodges, Michael, “No Gays, Please, We're British,” The Nation, February 6, 1989, reprinted in Censorship, vol. 62, no. 3 of The Reference Shelf, ed. Long, Robert Emmet (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1990), 4142Google Scholar.

15 New Statesman, January 8, 1988, 3.

16 Hodges, “No Gays, Please,” 39.

18 This treatment of early attacks on homosexual practice is substantially informed by Greenberg, David F., The Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), chap. 6Google Scholar.

19 Crompton, Louis, Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-century England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 64Google Scholar. In a few continental countries (like Spain), executions for sodomy had reached their height during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at the same time as the peak of the heresy trials, but they declined afterwards.

20 See Davenport-Hines, Richard, Sex, Death and Punishment: Attitudes to Sex and Sexuality in Britain since the Renaissance (London: Collins, 1990), 32Google Scholar; and Crompton, Bryon and Greek Love, 34.

21 Davenport-Hines, Sex, Death and Punishment, 101.

22 Peter Gay discusses the bourgeois anxiety of the nineteenth century, in the midst of a period marked by a shift away from the comforts of unquestioned belief. For many, the authoritarianism of the traditional family helped to provide secure anchors, even though double standards and evasions were common. See Education of the Senses, vol. 1 of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), chaps. 1, 2Google Scholar.

23 Davenport-Hines, Sex, Death and Punishment, chap. 3.

24 Ibid., 126.

25 See Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society, chap. 2, and 109.

26 See Weeks, Jeffrey, Coming Out (London: Quartet, 1977), 158160Google Scholar.

27 From chap. 2 of the Wolfenden Report, cited in Hall, “Reformism and the Legislation of Consent,” 12. See also Weeks, Sexuality, 102; Berg, Charles, Fear, Punishment, Anxiety and the Wolfenden Report (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1959), 23, 32Google Scholar. By adopting 21 years of age as the lower threshold for decriminalization, the legislation imposed a higher age of consent for homosexual acts than any other country in Europe (Warner, Nigel, “Parliament and the Law,” in Galloway, Bruce, ed., Prejudice and Price: Discrimination Against Gay People in Modern Britain [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983], 9899Google Scholar).

28 In the 10 years following the passage of the reform bill, the number of prosecutions for “indecency” between males trebled, and the number of convictions quadrupled (Weeks, Sex, 275).

29 Surveys have shown that there was an increase in moral condemnation of homosexuality between 1983 and 1987, the number of Britons thinking that homosexual relations were “always” or “mostly” wrong increasing from 62 to 74 per cent. Asked whether lesbians and gay men should have the right to adopt children, overwhelming majorities of 86 (for lesbian couples) and 93 per cent (for gay male couples) rejected the notion, those opinions if anything hardening in the late 1980s. See Jowell, Roger et al. , eds., British Social Attitudes: The 5th Report (London: Gower, 1988)Google Scholar; and Rayside, David and Bowler, Scott, “Public Opinion and Gay Rights,” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 25 (1988), 649660CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 This conclusion is inspired by Hobsbawm, Eric (Workers: Worlds of Labour [New York: Pantheon, 1984], chap. 10)Google Scholar and Thompson, E. P. (The Making of the English Working Class [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968], chap. 12)Google Scholar, although they differ with one another in dating the foundations of working-class culture.

31 Harrison, Brian, Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England, 1815–1872 (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), chap. 16Google Scholar.

32 Crompton, Byron and Greek Love, 307.

33 Horsfall, Allan, “Battling for Wolfenden,” in Cant, Bob and Hemmings, Susan, eds., Radical Records: Thirty Years of Lesbian and Gay History, 1957–1987 (London: Routledge, 1988), 21Google Scholar. Peter Wildeblood recognized the power of the stereotype of homosexuality as “a kind of fashionable vice restricted to decadent intellectuals and degenerate clergymen” (Against the Law [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955], 29Google Scholar).

34 “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in Cant, and Hemmings, , eds., Radical Records, 255256Google Scholar.

35 Survey reported in The Guardian, March 6, 1990.

36 Gough, Jamie and Macnair, Mike, Gay Liberation in the Eighties (London: Pluto, 1985), 120Google Scholar.

37 Patricia Hewitt, in a letter to Kinnock, cited in Lumsden, Andrew, “Parrot Cries,” in Cant, and Hemmings, , eds., Radical Records, 203Google Scholar.

38 Labour: A Tale of Two Parties (London: Hogarth, 1987)Google Scholar.

39 Wainwright argues that public opinion currents are often more contradictory than party leaders recognize, and that in any event the party should be challenging the prevailing interpretations of events that swing public opinion in non-progressive ways. She offers considerable evidence of left-wing Labour MPs and councillors doing as well electorally as mainstream candidates. She notes, however, that resistance to policies dealing with women and blacks is very strong in sections of the party's supporters, and that point could be made even more strongly with regard to gay issues.

40 The support for what the authors of British Social Attitudes call a left-wing position on homosexuality is less widespread among middle-class Liberal and Social Democratic partisans than among Labourites (29% as compared to 43%). See Table 1.

41 Davenport-Hines, Sex, Death and Punishment, 145.

42 Crane, Paul, Gays and the Law (London: Pluto, 1983)Google Scholar.

43 Gough and Macnair, Gay Liberation in the Eighties, 11. On earlier judicial treatment, see Hyde, H. Montgomery, The Other Love: An Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality in Britain (London: Heinemann, 1970), chap. 5Google Scholar.

44 The Sun, January 28, 1988, and May 16, 1990.

45 The Sun, November 4, 1988.

46 Tatchell, Peter, The Battle for Bermondsey (London: Heretic, 1983), 102104Google Scholar.

47 Wildeblood, Against the Law, 36–37.

48 Quoted in Horsfall, “Battling for Wolfenden,” in Cant, and Hemmings, , eds., Radical Records, 26Google Scholar.

49 The Independent, February 2, 1988.

50 Watney, Policing Desire, 12.

51 Quoted in Crompton, Byron and Greek Love, 245.

52 Hyde, The Other Love, 151.

53 Quoted in Morrison, Blake, “An Even Bigger Splash,” The Observer, January 24, 1988Google Scholar.

54 Crompton, Byron and Greek Love, 22.

55 I do not want to argue here that Italian authorities or the general public accepted homosexuality, but that there was less preoccupation than in England with enforcing penalties against it, and more inclination to regard it as sickness than as sin. In this I draw on Germino, Dante, “Italian Gays in Historical and Comparative Perspective: Some Reflections,”paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association,Washington, 1991.Google Scholar

56 Altman, Dennis, The Homosexualization of America (Boston: Beacon, 1982), 210Google Scholar.

57 D'Emilio, John and Freedman, Estelle B., Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 40, 123Google Scholar. D'Emilio and Freedman are inclined to emphasize the similarity between England and the United States; I am here emphasizing that there were differences in degree. The Progressive era, late in the century, was witness to a certain amount of vice crusading, but it never had the focus on homosexuality that some of the English moral panics had. Crompton agrees that during Byron's time English homophobia was more virulent than that in America (Byron and Greek Love, 253).

58 D'Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 234.

59 Costello, John, Love, Sex and War: Changing Values 1939–45 (London: Collins, 1985), 357Google Scholar.

60 D'Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 284, 333.

61 Altman, The Homosexualization of America, ix, 35. To a degree, what is claimed here about the US could also be said of Canada. As D'Emilio and Freedman argue, a large portion of the gay activist population in the US had shifted its focus during the few years after the explosion of gay liberationism activity in 1969, in ways that dovetailed with the mainstream American notion of equality rights. See Intimate Matters, 323, and Watney, Policing Desire, 15.

62 This included early 1890s amendments which followed the lead of the 1885 Labouchere amendment in England. On this and related questions, see Kinsman, Gary, The Regulation of Desire: Sexuality in Canada (Montreal: Black Rose, 1987), chaps. 5, 6Google Scholar.

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