The history of gay rights is blotched with all sorts of setbacks and failures, one of the worst occurred in Britain in 1885. The proximate cause was an addendum to The Criminal Law Amendment Act proposed by the MP Henry du Pre Labouchere. Originally the 1885 law was designed to address the problem of under age prostitution. It raised the age of consent to sixteen and criminalized attempts to pimp young girls.
The editor of “Truth”, as well as a member of Parliament, Labouchere was a seriously rich man. He had inherited not one but two banking fortunes, being connected to the Baring Bank founders, and he had had a chequered career. Labouchere was a republican who detested the royal family, a liberal, almost a radical, where politics were concerned, but this ex- diplomat, financier, and semi-professional gambler turned politician, had his prejudices. He was anti-semitic, convinced that women were,”mentally flighty” and therefore should not have the vote, and he detested homosexuality.
So on the evening when the The Criminal Law Amendment Act was being debated, he proposed an addition which criminalized all sexual acts between men. Sodomy had long been against the law in Britian, but other sexual practices between consenting men
were not banned until 1885, when most unluckily, Henry Labouchere’s amendment became law. It rapidly became known as “The Blackmailer’s Charter” because any sexual act between men became punishable by two years in prison with or without hard labor. This was the law under which Oscar Wilde was prosecuted in 1895, and it remained on the books in Britain for 82 years.
Strangely though, Henry Labouchere was not a reactionary. He was, on the contrary, defiantly democratic in a Britain that resembled a grand staircase of classes, with the Royal Family at the top. In such a place and at such a time very few people could be
independent enough to ignore those gradations. Labouchere, with his enormous wealth however, could. He was the author of a witty rewrite of God Save the Queen, pointing out in lyrics like a series of pinpricks to the royal balloon, just how many royals her majesty’s fecundity had added to the Civil List. The resulting fizzle from the inflated royal reputation annoyed the Queen into remarking on how much she disliked “that dreadful lying Labouchere”.
Labouchere and Truth were also unsparing of aristocratic privilege during The Cleveland Street Scandal, which uncovered a male bordello in downtown London. The revelation sent several grandees and catamites scurrying for sheets, and set newspapers to printing more sheets than the Salisbury government could tolerate. Accordingly, Cleveland St.’s underage boy staff were sent to prison,but its upper crust clientele went to their clubs. Even the most persistently identified long term client, Lord Arthur Somerset, the prince of Wales’ equerry, was allowed to escape from England rather than be prosecuted. Labouchere hated this development, just as he hated the government’s determination to hush the scandal up.
Yet this firebrand of the left was not willing to allow females to vote, or allow a decriminalized sexual life for gay men. Today, and perhaps unfairly, Labouchere is known almost entirely for his amendment, although he may have been ahead of his time on democratic issues, and labor laws. Sometimes reputation seems to be attached to the worst and not the best of endeavors.