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Homosexuality and Crime - Anglo-american Law Reform

gay family laws rights

A thaw in the repressive climate of the post–World War II period occurred on several fronts in the late 1950s. In Britain, as in most western European countries and the United States, gay and lesbian people began to organize in small, cautious groups in major cities. These homophile groups attempted to provide mutual support in an environment characterized by fear and harassment. Criminal laws gave police and citizens alike a warrant to persecute: blackmailers were given free rein to exploit many, gay bashers could act with impunity, gay bars were subject to raids, gays and lesbians were vulnerable to losing their jobs when a newspaper or a gossip informed on them to employers, and some were pressed into mental hospitals and prisons. No one could count on sympathy from courts or professionals when seeking redress against discrimination. Indicative of the times was the 1954 death of Alan Turing, a master cryptographer during World War II responsible for breaking Nazi codes and today recognized as an originator of the modern computer. When his homosexuality was found out by police in 1952, he was forced to undergo destructive hormone treatments and hounded to suicide in 1954 (Hodges). But also in 1954, an unrepentant Peter Wildeblood spoke out against his persecutors in a well-publicized trail by demanding "the right to choose the person whom I love" (Adam, 1995). The courts responded by sending him to prison. Nevertheless, by 1957 a royal commission recommended that private homosexual relations between consenting adults be decriminalized (Weeks). It look another ten years before a Labour government enacted the commission's recommendation during a period when laws were being liberalized on a series of "moral" and family issues, such as divorce and abortion.

In the United States, the Civil Rights movement challenged Americans to practice the legal and democratic ideals professed in the Constitution, and to recognize the racial subordination that violated these ideals. The Civil Rights movement, in turn, opened the way for wide-ranging public debates about other forms of social injustice, and gave courage to other subordinated groups to mobilize for citizenship rights. Students, women, other racial minorities, and gay and lesbian people joined in the New Left demand for democratic participation of disenfranchised groups. The defensive homophile groups of the 1950s gave way to a new militancy of the 1970s as lesbians and gay men shifted from apologetics to a rights discourse. In 1961, Illinois became the first state to decriminalize by adopting the Model Legal Code of the American Law Institute. Twenty years later a bare majority of the states had followed suit either through legislative reform or court rulings, and in 1986 the United States Supreme Court upheld the sodomy laws in the unreformed states (Bowers v. Hardwick).

Similar changes were occurring worldwide during the 1960s and 1970s. Canada and Germany decriminalized in 1969, and Australia decriminalized the federal capital and northern territories in 1973, beginning a process that worked its way through state legislatures.

Decriminalization came about as part of a larger set of socio-economic changes that have led to a public rethinking of the meanings and functions of family and sexuality, especially in the advanced, industrial nations. The growth of women in the workforce helped create the foundation for feminist movements and challenged traditional presumptions about gender and family. Women's movements struggled for a right of personal and sexual self-determination, successfully pressing for reform of divorce and abortion laws. Families shifted from being units of production in traditional, agrarian societies, to units of consumption in wage-labor systems, resulting in a fall in the birthrate and a corresponding questioning of pro-natal ideologies. All of these changes are associated with a gradual reconceptualization of marriage as voluntary, egalitarian, and romantic—all criteria that have equal applicability to same-sex unions. Same-sex relationships have been part of this reorganization of the elements of gender, sexuality, and family, and have come to seem less "different" as heterosexual relationships have themselves changed over time. And lesbian and gay people have organized to throw off the disabilities imposed on them by law and psychiatry.

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