Chemical castration or go to prison for up to two years – that was the choice faced by Alan Turing when he was convicted of “gross indecency” in 1952. “Gross indecency”, which here meant any form of homosexual activity amongst men, was a criminal offence under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (otherwise known as the Labouchère Amendment). Turing, the man who in breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code had shortened the Second World War by up to four years, saving millions of lives, opted for chemical castration. Whilst his conviction ended his career in national intelligence and security, he wanted to avoid prison so that he might continue his academic work. Yet, simply because he was gay, Turing would be required to take injections of synthetic oestrogen, which suppressed his libido and eventually rendered him impotent. In 1954, he committed suicide.
Turing was one of approximately 49,000 men convicted of “gross indecency” before homosexual activity was decriminalised by the Sexual Offences Act 1967. But whilst homosexuality is now legal, homosexuals in the UK are still faced with prejudice and the threat of violence. A 2018/19 Home Office Bulletin reported that 14,491 incidents of homophobic hate crime had been recorded by police in England and Wales in that year alone. This represented a 25% increase on the previous year. Moreover, a 2019 survey conducted by NatCen, the UK’s largest independent social research agency, found that just over one third of the population either “feel uncomfortable with or [are] actively opposed to lesbian and gay relationships”. Clearly, homophobia is still a real problem in this country.
It is difficult to comprehend that the UK, a supposedly civilised nation, persecuted homosexuals well into the 20th century. Indeed, some of the men who were prosecuted for “gross indecency” are still alive today. But it is truly sickening that, in this century, people are still being intimidated and physically assaulted purely on the basis of their sexuality. A particularly sadistic incident took place in May last year, when a lesbian couple on a London bus were attacked by a group of young men after refusing to kiss for their amusement. Perhaps just as shocking, however, is the fact that a significant number of the population take issue with the notion of homosexuality itself.
There is no typical homophobe; they vary in age, ethnicity and socio-economic background. But what they do have in common is, when challenged, they will inevitably rely on one or more of a very limited number of “arguments” in support of their homophobic views. They will say that homosexuality is “unnatural”, “a sin” or “just not normal”. Alternatively, one may come across those who will say something along the lines of “I haven’t got a problem with it; it’s up to them what they get up to in the privacy of their own homes – but I don’t want to see that sort of thing in public”.
One should always be wary of anyone who seeks to argue that something is wrong on the basis that it is “unnatural”. At the risk of stating the obvious, anything which occurs in nature is, by definition, natural. It has been scientifically proven that sexual orientation is not a choice; it is a matter of biology. More importantly, however, to say that something is “unnatural” does not engage with the question of its morality. It is, in essence, claiming that something is wrong because it is different. This betrays what is really at issue here: the homophobe is uneasy about the idea that people can be different; they would prefer everyone to conform to their own narrow view of the world. This explains their tendency to stereotype homosexual behaviour and disparage it as being abnormal (the use of the word “queer” is not accidental). For the homophobe, the LGBT+ community poses an existential threat because it challenges socially constructed norms, such as “masculinity” and “femininity”, and it is to these norms that the homophobe so desperately clings in order to feel secure about their own place in society. Rather than confront their own insecurities, however, the homophobe would prefer that homosexuality was not permitted and, in many cases, something to be punished.
As for the claim that homosexuality is a “sin”, it must be said that religion has much to answer for here. In the context of the UK, it is appropriate to focus on Christianity. The Book of Genesis tells the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities destroyed by God for their wickedness. This wickedness, which ranged from pride to rape, has also been interpreted to include homosexuality, as such acts also took place there. One might wonder whether this is more a reflection on those who interpret the Bible in this way; they are themselves opposed to homosexuality and, therefore, they believe that this was just another example of the wicked acts committed by the cities’ residents. In their defence, however, it is stated in Leviticus that “thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination”. No reason is given in support of this, no justification explaining why homosexuality is condemned in such strong terms. For some Christians (though not all), the fact that a text, some thousands of years old, prohibits homosexual activity is enough. It is difficult to even attempt to reason with such Christians; they have wholly and utterly assigned their moral judgement outside of themselves. Rational discourse is reduced to mere citation of “rules”. They persecute homosexuals because they believe God has told them to do so. They require no reason to justify this hostility because, to them, God is beyond question.
This particular aspect of Christian dogma has had a significant influence on UK law dealing with homosexuality. Such laws are described as anti-sodomy laws; the etymological origin of the word “sodomy” is the city of Sodom. Homosexual activity was also regarded as a matter solely for the ecclesiastical courts until the Buggery At 1533 established anal intercourse as a secular offence, the sentence for which was death. This was later abolished three centuries later by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which replaced the death sentence with one of life imprisonment or a prison term of at least 10 years. Even the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, however, did not bring an end to institutionalised homophobia; section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which remained in force until 2003, stated that local authorities “shall not promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
The arm of the law is long. It not only reaches out and moulds our interactions with each other in myriad ways; it can shape our very thoughts too. In that respect, it is important to understand that the law has simultaneously enforced and perpetuated homophobia. Of course, law can be a positive force but, in relation to homosexuality, it has for too long done much in the name of prejudice. Setting aside the nuances of jurisprudence momentarily, laws are essentially opinions on how we should behave which are backed by the full force of the state. One can see how a person might be indoctrinated into thinking homosexuality is wrong. But that does not make it forgivable, and the time for the homophobe to see past their own social conditioning is long overdue.
It is an unfortunate truism that humanity demonstrates an unparalleled capacity for cruelty to its own. Recognising that homophobia has no moral or rational basis would be a step towards unlearning this cruelty. Love is love.
*The words homophobia and homosexuality, as used in this article, should be understood as encompassing biphobia and bisexuality. However, the author recognises that whilst there are similarities in how homosexuals and bisexuals are, and have been, treated, there are also differences in the issues that they face.