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Wednesday 08 October 2008

Proclamations of the Red Queen

29th February 2008

When is A Gay Man Not A Gay Man: H.L.A. Hart

Posted by: Craig Young

In Britain’s Prospect current affairs magazine, a recent book review referred to the ambiguous ‘homosexuality’ of Herbert Hart, a noted mid-century law reformer and social liberal.

Why did I place inverted commas around ‘homosexuality?’ According to Nicola Lacey, his biographer, Hart didn’t actually have sex with another man at any point during his life, yet is described as ‘homosexual’ in his biography.

Who was Hart? In the fifties and sixties, the United Kingdom was subject to contrasting perspectives about the relative roles of religion, law and morality in British society. In 1956, the Wolfenden Report had called for partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality and prostitution. Herbert Hart was a relative social liberal, who called for limited decriminalisation of male homosexuality, while Patrick Devlin believed that law should reflect conservative religious definitions of morality.

As Patrick Higgins told us, the Wolfenden Report and eventual UK Sexual Offences Act 1967 led to highly constricted and unequal forms of decriminalisation, which imposed a highly discriminatory gay age of consent (21), heavier sanctions against public sex, multiple partner sex and still banned lesbians and gay men alike from participation in the armed services.

Higgins attributed this flawed legislation to the primitive nature of psychological and social scientific research almost four decades ago.

As Lacey notes, Hart might have experienced homoerotic feelings toward other men, but is it accurate to describe him as ‘gay’ if he didn’t act on this latent sexual orientation? Some might say so, if one considers that murderous assault, police harrassment, imprisonment and psychiatric abuse scarred the lives of lesbians and gay men in the past. If Hart had consummated his feelings and been discovered, a brilliant legal career might have been destroyed.

There are similar debates within lesbian historical studies. In the eighties, there was talk of a ‘lesbian continuum’ which extended from intense female friendships and emotional ties to overtly political lesbian feminist networks. Alternative perceptions argued that this historical perspective desexualised lesbian social identity, and did a grave disservice to women who had run risks to establish sexual contact with other women in the repressive climate described above.

There is merit to this argument- although lesbianism per se was rarely the target of legal prohibition, lesbians were prosecuted and executed under mediaevil ’sodomy’ laws, although far fewer than gay men.

However, lesbians and gay men alike were at risk of psychiatric abuse, involuntary medication and electroconvulsive therapy if they were caught having sex. Does ‘desexualising’ lesbian and gay history mean that we are somehow ashamed of earlier generations and their sexual expression?

So, was Herbert Hart gay? If we recognise gay men through gay sex as a common bond that leads to related social networks, then the answer is no.

According to Lacey, he wasn’t even a man who had sex with men, whose sexual networks did not extend to adoption of a gay social identity. However, if we consider the closet as a survival strategy for gay individuals in a repressive past, then evidence of homoerotic desires alone might be sufficient in themselves, given risks of disclosure.

In that case, who are our ancestors?

Recommended Reading

Patrick Devlin: The Enforcement of Morals: Oxford University Press: 1959.

Alison Gram and Annmarie Turnbull (eds) The Lesbian History Sourcebook:

Routledge: London: 2001.

Herbert Hart: Law, Liberty and Morality: Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1968.

Patrick Higgins: Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain: London: Fourth Estate Books: 1996.

Nicola Lacey: A Life of H.L.A. Hart: Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2004.

Tags: Politics

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