Content Note: discussion of classism, homophobia & prejudice against sex workers
Sure, homophobia existed in the Victorian era, but the way society dealt with gay subculture had as much, if not more, to do with class than with homophobia itself.
We’ve come a long way since Queen Victoria was on the throne. Her reign saw a re-criminalisation of homosexual activity; while so-called ‘gross indecency’ was always looked down on and discouraged, this era ushered in another age of the policing, arrest and violence against male homosexuals. Gay subculture persisted and survived to this day. The underground scene, then as now, provided the grassroots for new queer festivities, as well as the tried-and-tested gay events, the (white-western) world over! But this simple portrait of gay Victorian Britain wasn’t just about the straight vs. gay and public vs. private battle that it may appear to be.
Sure, homophobia was present in Victorian society. It existed more specifically within a broader effort to drive out the ‘moral deviants’ from the ‘civilised’ world, rather than being a prejudice reserved exclusively for queers. The homosexuals, as well as sex workers and Irish migrants, became the subject of privileged (read: English, wealthy male) distaste. We see a nation trying to redefine what it means to be a British citizen, painting the UK in a pure, enlightened image. In doing so, the ‘morally deviant’ outsiders were pushed further to the periphery, in this case, to the slum.
The ‘slum’ became a demonised space – a home to those without property, economic freedom, or social standing. Those without the means to engage with the state as citizens turned the slum into a safe space. Amidst the ‘unwashed masses’ lay a sort of bohemia, outside of the upper-class’ idealised vision, and where the rich certainly dared not venture without caution. Nonetheless the slum played home to an increasingly underground subculture of homosexuality, persistently present and centred around the same sexual acts that disgusted the ‘enlightened’ civil society. The slum made no room for social codes or formality; people instead were bound by a struggle to survive, united in their diversity and unfortunate situations. The invisible presence of homosexuals permeated the city, notably London, in places only accessible to those in the know. Word of mouth became the medium through which meeting points became social (and sexual) hubs, and how areas in the city such as Soho and the West End became ghetto-ised not just because of homosexual acts, but also, crucially, because of the mixing of classes.
For the privileged in the segregated upper section of society, the idea of ‘true’ citizens mixing with unwashed, bohemian, immoral anti-citizens was unjustifiable. But, for some, it also proved a tender release from the social protocols and codes of behaviour required in the upper echelons of society. Societal elites – in this case privileged homosexual men – used philanthropy, innocent walks, and other disguisable means, to find in these demonised, lower-class areas of moral depravity a space in which to delight in their deviant lust. The slum provided a more accepting, yet vastly under-privileged citizenship, defined not by sexuality, but by class. Gay men occupied both societies and could come together in the invisible subculture provided in the slums and ghettos of Victorian cities. Some benefitted from the quasi-necessary invisibility, able to return to their elite lifestyles when it suited them. Others remained in the excluded zones of squalor laid out for them by the very same institution.
The Criminal Law Amendment Act, passed in 1885, outlawed homosexual acts, as well as other ‘offences’ committed by moral deviants such as sex workers. It was a way in which the streets could finally be rid of the seedy, underground offences that occurred everyday. If only that were the case. It may not be surprising that the English, white, propertied man was exempted in practice, from arrest and scandal. Scandal provided the opposite effect to what the law was in place to achieve; it prevented the issue of moral deviance from being brushed under the fine Victorian carpet. It served, in this instance, to bring the threat of homosexual debauchery closer to elite society, worsening homophobic thought. Elite homosexuals were in such positions of reputation and power in society that, even by association to such a public scandal, others would feel repercussions if such stories were to be printed in the media. This worked to keep the higher-class individuals safe from outing and prosecution. All the while, poorer (male) homosexuals without the elite support networks necessary to manoeuvre public embarrassment, arrest, and further consequences suffered for decades as further victims of the idealised citizenship.
Throughout this time, no doubt, male homosexuals were sitting in the Houses of Parliament. They would have occupied positions of power throughout society, by virtue of owning property, being thoroughly English, white, and of course, male; contributing, through fear of association with the ‘gross indecency’ below, to a system of active prejudice. This not just against other homosexuals, but to all walks of life excluded from the narrow means-tested form of citizenship employed at the time.
The policing of homosexual subculture, no matter how vibrant that culture might have been at the time, was inherently an issue of class prejudice, not an exclusively gay issue. Homosexual persecution in Victorian Britain was just one more example of white, upper-class men using their privilege to ensure their own supremacy over other classes, nationalities and genders.
It’s important to remember this because the parallels to today’s society are plain to see, as the progressive laws we need made are left in the hands of those who such laws do not concern. How progressive, in this sense, can we really consider modern Britain to be?
Joe Jukes (GR. Features Contributor)