More on the politician who made ‘Gross Indecency’ a crime
Pliny Soocoormanee of the Peter Tatchell Foundation speaks with Andrew Lumsden about the man who intensified the repression of gay and bisexual men in 1885
London, UK − 22 February 2019
Pliny Soocoormanee (PS): Tell us a little about yourself, Andrew.
Andrew Lumsden (AL): I took for granted that I was straight and thought for a while that I would have a wife and children and a house. I managed to combine that with falling in love with another boy in my school. I was 16 and he was 15. I never told him, and we never did anything.
I was told a lot of people go through a homosexual phase, and I thought that was it.
I realised for sure at the age of 25 that it wasn’t a phase and that I was queer. The word gay at the time was barely used. I was furious at the deception. I felt that in consequence I’d let down my friends, my family and people who knew me at work. As we say now, I’d internalised the homophobia. So, when I heard about the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in 1970 at the age of 28, I went there with rage in the heart at what I’d lost for years and had cost others, especially women I’d unintentionally deceived.
PS: You were part of the GLF (Gay Liberation Front) at the first Pride? Why did you get involved?
AL: I was working for a national newspaper as a journalist, and I read in my own newspaper that the GLF was coming to London. So I went. Pride was organised by the under 21s in GLF. At the time, the age of consent was still 21 for men and of course they had sex regardless, so the founders of Pride weren’t at all respectable, bless them, they were criminals.
In 1972, it felt wonderful to be out on the street declaring ourselves to be gay and lesbian and happy. We were the people that our parents warned us against!
At the first Pride, the police seemed to outnumber us, and imagine my surprise when one of them winked at me!
PS: If an alien landed today asked you who is Labouchere, what would you say?
AL: Henry Labouchere was a radical MP, from an extremely wealthy background who despised the aristocracy, wanted a republic, was kind to children and supported home rule for Ireland. He had a great circle of friends who admired him and was very funny. Up to that point, I think I would have liked him a lot. But then, he also did not want women to have the vote and wanted gay sex driven out of existence. In 1885, he introduced the Labouchere amendment in parliament which made “gross indecency” a crime. Gross indecency was defined as any gay male sex act in any place or intention of sexual act or owing a house in which it happened. This law was exported to all the colonies.
PS: Why should we be interested in him in 2019?
AL: That law was used to convict people like Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing and countless more. It may be, though figures are hopelessly difficult to determine, that between 50,000-100,000 men were convicted under the Amendment and other British anti-gay laws during the twentieth century.
In 1967, homosexuality was partially decriminalised and yet countless number of gay men were harassed and ended up with criminal convictions. They can today ask for an official Pardon and have the conviction erased.
The effect of this disastrous “Labouchere amendment” are still being felt today in 35 countries of the Commonwealth which criminalise homosexuality.
We should also remember that the crime of “gross indecency” was only removed from British law in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, a mere 16 years ago!
PS: Four words that come into your mind when you think of him.
AL: Chain-smoker, self-satisfied, old-fashioned, poisonous legacy
PS: Do you think Labouchere could have been a closeted gay?
AL: People are always asking me if I think he was.
I’m certain that he did not have a gay bone in his body and above all was interested in women’s legs.
When he was a student, aged approximately 18, he got into trouble for looking at a photograph of a chorus girl during an exam.
PS: Rumours have it that you are writing a book on Labouchere?
AL: Rumours are exhausted of hearing that I am writing a book on Labouchere.
PS: When do you think it will be completed?
AL: July 2019.
PS: Are you sure?
PS: Have you found anything unexpected/exciting in your research?
– Labouchere visited what he thought was Sodom!
-He may only have been acting according to the wishes of the Metropolitan police. In 1881, the brand new chief of the CID called for more police power against ‘increasing sodomy’, 4 years before the infamous amendment was born.
-He knew Oscar Wilde, and Oscar Wilde even praised his writing style.
-He was friendly to the openly gay cartoonist, Carlo Pelligrini.
PS: If by magic Labouchere appeared, what would you tell him?
AL: As a biographer, I would ask him ‘Did you pass this amendment because the British Police asked you to?’.
As a gay man, I would kick him in the ankle.
PS: Do you think, you could forgive him?
AL: Yes, out of a preference for ‘restorative justice’. Let him work unpaid for 1000 days for the Outside Project for homeless LGBTIQ+.
PS: Tell us a secret.
AL: I am planning to have a very original cover for my book.
PS: Can you tell us more?
AL: If you insist…(long pause) well, it will feature on its front cover an 18th century male anti-masturbation device.
Labouchere would have approved!