The terrifying consequences of witch-hunts

ScandalNow that, one by one, European countries are shifting the law for allow for same-sex marriage – the spotlight now turns on Italy where mass demonstrations have taken place in support of the idea – it is  worth thinking about why homosexuality was criminalised in the first place.

We have spent so much time celebrating the decision in 1967 to repeal laws which did so, that we have perhaps forgotten to look a little further back to see how they came onto the statute book in the first place (sodomy had been a crime for some centuries before).

The story goes back to the Phoenix Park murders of 1882, when republican terrorists stabbed the Irish Secretary to death – accidentally, as it turned out: he happened to be walking with the intended victim.

The murders shocked the public on both sides of the Irish Sea, and to claw back the moral high ground, Irish Nationalist MPs launched a campaign to identify homosexuals in the Irish government, or part of the establishment in Dublin in some way – starting with the senior detective in charge of the Phoenix Park case, James Ellis French. The campaign led to huge torchlight processions and mass demonstrations, with bands, in many towns and cities of Ireland.

Most of the defendants were acquitted – the main issue at stake was whether it was physically possible to commit sodomy in a hansom cab.

The scandals barely ruffled feathers in London, except among campaigners linked to the Irish nationalist cause, or political friends of their parliamentary leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Among these, the maverick Liberal MP Henry Labouchère was particularly frustrated that sodomy had been so difficult to prove.

So when the opportunity arose the following summer, as the Criminal Law Amendment Act – designed to raise the age of consent for women from 12 – crawled through Parliament, Labouchère seized his chance. His amendment was debated at night in a few minutes and only one MP queried whether it was relevant to the debate. But for the next eight decades, it put men – it only applied to men – in a perilous position if they loved their own gender. Up to 70,000 people were prosecuted under the amendment and many of them committed suicide, including Alan Turing.

The full story, and the link to my own great-great-grandfather – a prominent Dublin banker – who fled from Ireland at the height of the affair, is in my new book Scandal: How Homosexuality Became a Crime.

But the implication is that we have to be careful. Allegations of sexual abuse have to be investigated among politicians, of course. But when those allegations are brought for political reasons, it can have devastating consequences.

We need to remember this now that sexual allegations are being exchanged so freely in political circles. Once you stoke up a witch-hunt, the human consequences can remain for generations to come.

* David Boyle is a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and the author of Tickbox (Little, Brown). You can buy the book from Hive or Amazon.

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11 Comments

  • Actually I can see attempts now. We will see it on PrEP and Poppers. PrEP – `why don’t they all get married`and Poppers `ugh gay sex – ban the things` despite there being literally no evidene there’s any harm from Poppers.

  • Though of course Crispin Blunt bravely saw where that was going and helped stop that little game.

  • Philip Rolle 25th Jan '16 - 9:26pm

    In the wrong climate, all that is necessary for a witch-hunt is an allegation. Some recent allegations made about politicians and other public figures were just not credible, and should not have been dealt with in the way that they were.

  • Philip Rolle. The problem surely is that people know/knew that certain individuals were abusing but did nothing. Examples, Saville and Smith. Recent historical allegations were hard to prove after the passing of time. The political class still close ranks until after the individual dies and is unable to incriminate others.
    John, poppers can cause side effects and can be dangerous for those with high and low blood pressure. They can also affect the nervous system. No chemical put in your body comes without a price.

  • Ronald Murray 26th Jan '16 - 8:20am

    Excellent informative post David. I doubt many people know the facts regardng this law in the UK. Simply Republicans scoring points against the establishment, obviously there are/were no gay republicans lol.

  • Anne – yes people are aware of those things but I don’t see why that’s banned and alcohol which is highly addictive isn’t. It’s to do with `risk politics` ie what’s a proscribed risk and what isn’t. Poppers are proscribed risks because to put it bluntly it’s to do mainly with sex and gay sex at that. Alcohol is the sanctioned drug that has far worse effects than poppers. Coffee is also bad for people with heart problems. Can’t see anyone banning that.

  • @Cllr Mark Wright – what about Alchohol and Coffee?

  • John, there is a lot of information on the affects of alcohol perhaps not so much on coffee although I do know about it so it is not a secret. What did gay people do before chemicals? There has always been alcohol.

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