Let’s Not Talk About Sex: Homosexuality and Scottish History

The way in which we talk about homosexuality has changed significantly in modern history. Now, sexuality is viewed chiefly as one aspect of our identities, it can exist in multiple forms, be fluid or static, and represents not our whole identity but an important aspect of who we are. Things have, of course, not always been this way. The way we talk about sexuality is informed by dominant attitudes which can marginalise or silence minority or competing discourses. A hundred or so years ago talk about gay men or women or LGBT rights would have been impossible, not only because of the absence of such language, but also the absence of such discourses. In Scotland, talking about sexuality proved slightly more difficult than say, in England during the course of the late 20th century. Scotland did not have a Wildeblood/Montagu/Pitt-Rivers moment, through which same-sex attraction became headline news. And we didn’t have an Oscar Wilde moment either in the 19th century. Silence dominated discourses of diverse sexualities.

It’s interesting to trace how Scots have talked about sexuality over the past 200 years or so. Even prior to that period tracing diverse sexualities is difficult. There are few pre-18th century Scottish sources which mention same-sex activities. One of the earliest relates to the trial of two men John Swan and John Litster in 1570, who had committed sodomy and were executed. There as another trial 60 years later with a similar outcome. The sheriff of Lanarkshire, Archibald Allison wrote about sodomy in 1832 lumping it with bestiality as unnatural relations (interestingly Allison claims that bestiality was more common a crime in Scotland than sodomy). Most legal commentators of the 18th and early 19th century are rather dispassionate about the crime. John Millar who held a regius chair in civil law at Glasgow University was almost blasé about it, suggesting that it was a difficult crime to categorise as there was no apparent victim. Baron Hume, nephew of David Hume, however, got his knickers in a twist about it, spitting feathers as he described it almost entirely in adjectives.

Spitting Feathers?

Spitting Feathers?

Same-sex activity did seem to emerge more prominently in the 19th century in Scotland (in a legal sense at least), a period identified by quite a few social theorists as central to the relentless categorisation of sexual behaviour. There are more sodomy cases for example; a peak reached in 1872 with 22 High Court prosecutions (many more cases short of sodomy were to appear before the country’s sheriff courts), with sentences ranging from 1 year to 15 years. As we entered the 20th century the average sentence dropped, and most convicted men could expect between 3 months and 6 years. But how did those outside of the law courts talk about homosexuality?

You would be hard pressed to find very much at all about same-sex desire in the Scottish press prior to the 1950s (Wolfenden of course!). There were occasional court reports, but these are extremely limited in detail (won’t someone think of the children?!). The House of Commons was slightly more animated in the 1920s about it. George Buchanan, the Gorbals MP, got rather upset about homosexual prostitution in Glasgow, and wrung his hands over the effect this might have on innocent Presbyterian youths scanning the newspapers in public libraries (he needn’t have worried, there was bugger all). And there’s little evidence of uncomfortable conversations in family homes over plates of mince and tatties, well, certainly not in the 1920s. The Houses of Parliament certainly kept the flag flying, and over the period 1920-1980 really got quite exercised about homosexuality. Male homosexuality, of course. Scottish attitudes to female homosexuality were highly dismissive, of its frequency and threat. Take for example the Crown Office’s attitudes to gay women, when replying to a polite enquiry from the Scottish Minorities Group about the legal situation in Scotland in 1970: ‘As far as female perverts are concerned, they have never been a problem to this office’. Okay.

Now, there were a number of Scottish parliamentarians who were confident enough to speak about bringing decriminalisation of male homosexual acts to Scotland. But, the general trend after 1957/8 (the end of the Wolfenden committee’s examination of homosexual offences and prostitution) and 1967 (when male homosexual acts between consenting male adults were legalised in England and Wales) was a stiff resistance to change. Take for example Lord Mathers, Labour Peer, who opined in 1957 that homosexuals should ‘strive their utmost against all that separates them from normal companionship and sympathy’ and saw it as a Christian duty to pray that they ‘set before them, steadfastly and prayerfully, a truly Christian life as their goal’ and in doing so ‘they are certain to raise themselves in their own estimation and also in that of their fellow-men, and they will rid themselves of the bonds that have hitherto held them in thrall’. You could almost set that to music.

Lord Mathers

Lord Mathers

Jump forward 20 years, and onto the lips of the Countess of Loudoun, Barbara Huddleston Abney-Hastings, who red in tooth and claw, wailed from her seat: ‘Are we to encourage the infectious growth of this filthy disease by giving the authority of Parliament to the spreading of corruption and perversion among a new generation of young men and the younger boys in contact with them?..The psychologists have explained the reasons for homosexual behaviour, and no blame can be attached to those who suffer this handicap. But you cannot be a homosexual alone, which inevitably leads to the corruption and perversion of others, which is a symptom of the disease. So although it would be wrong to condemn, just as it would be wrong to condemn the victim of an attack of cholera, such an outbreak must be contained and isolated, not given a licence to multiply’. Barbara didn’t do subtle, apparently.

So, what of our religious leaders during the same period?  But I’ll leave that for another day.


Copyright © Jeff Meek 2013

All Rights Reserved.

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