Sodomy for a Shilling, Finely Chiselled Hands & Gender Transgressions

Matt Houlbrook wrote an interesting blog post just recently, On men, make-up and the “imitation woman”which engaged with the rise in the cosmetics industry in the interwar period and the impact cosmetics use had on potentially blurring lines of social class and gender. This put me in mind of some legal cases I encountered undertaking  research. These cases related to homosexual prostitution in Glasgow in the 1920s – the period Matt Houlbrook mentions.

In these cases there are two main strands which exercised the legal community, police and parliamentarians: sodomy and gender transgressions. The apparently blossoming trade in sodomy between males in industrial Glasgow (sodomy for a shilling) was bad enough but the men who engaged in these practices for profit were just as alarming to the authorities as the sexual act itself.  They are described as ‘painted, powdered’ and having ‘finely chiselled hands’; indeed a Glasgow MP went as far as to suggest they were more feminine than his own wife.  Not only did they have a feminine appearance but they also took female ‘trade’ names.

While most men charged with sodomy or similar ‘indecencies’ had to tolerate a medical examination after arrest, these men also underwent psychiatric examinations, which focused on their alleged effeminacy/failed masculinity, and there is occasional mention of the Mental Deficiency Act (1913). These men are variously described as ‘soft’, ‘childish’ and ‘fatuous’. Unlike other sodomy cases the paying customer received much less attention – in one notable case one was not charged with an offense despite being caught ‘in the act’ (and despite a squad of police officers taking turns to spy on the two men through a  – presumably steamed up – window). Perhaps this man, an ex-soldier, was perceived to have been a victim of the wily charms of this ‘feminine man’.

Effeminacy had long been a thorn in the side of the ideal of the British male (and female), from the 18th century onwards. It had been blamed for military failure, degeneration, impotence, narcissism, and homosexuality.  Its emergence in the trials of male prostitutes in Glasgow in the 1920s (it rarely appears prior to this in Scottish trials) might have been related to the perceived ‘feminisation’ of the workplace; or the impact of mass cultural forms upon the hitherto rigidity of gender roles, as Matt Houlbrook suggests. Official knee-jerking regarding transgressive behaviour, whether related to the law, sex, or gender had increased in prominence during the First World War and appears to have continued into the inter-war period. The male prostitute was much more likely to face psychiatric evaluation and committal to a psychiatric institution, and his condition was more likely to be deemed pathological.

Copyright © Jeff Meek 2013

All Rights Reserved.

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