Foreign News: The Unspeakable Crime

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Like skin disease and real poverty, sodomy is one of those enduring evils not generally favored as dinner-table conversation among solidly respectable Britons. In 1895, British Victorians forgot their table manners for a while when Poet-Playwright Oscar Wilde was convicted of sodomy and bundled off to prison,* but in time the topic dropped back once again to the realm of racy wit and awed whisper.

Last week, buttressed by solemn pronouncements in press, pulpit and Parliament, the subject of homosexuality was once again being openly discussed in Britain. Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express put banner headlines on the latest case to come before the courts. The influential Church of England Newspaper devoted a grave editorial to the history and portent of homosexuality. In article after article, the Sunday tabloids roundly denounced all homosexuals as "vile men," while the learned weeklies forgot politics and commercial television for the moment to turn the light of their own modernist reason on the unmentionable subject. "Like other normal men," wrote New Statesman and Nation Editor Kingsley Martin, "I am instinctively repelled by everything connected with homosexuality, [but] it may be some help in overcoming prejudice to discover how many . . . honored names in our own day and in the history of mankind have found their affections centered on members of their own sex."

"Serious & Growing." The sudden interest in homosexuality was sparked by a number of recent court cases involving Britons whose names were unquestionably distinguished. They included: 1) Edward Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, a rising young (27) Tory in the House of Lords, who last week voluntarily returned from a vacation in the U.S. and France to face charges of committing "a serious offense against a young person"; 2) Shakespearean Actor Sir John Gielgud, who pleaded guilty two weeks ago to importuning males in public; 3) Laborite W. F. Field, who resigned his seat in Parliament after being found guilty of the same charge.

"We are left in no doubt," said the respected Sunday Times, "that homosexuality is widespread, that it extends to people in high positions here and abroad and that its eruption in such offenses as importuning, corrupting boys or public indecency is today a serious and growing criminal problem."

British law, like the prevailing law in the U.S., makes sodomy a crime, but in Britain, as elsewhere, there is a widespread disagreement between those who regard homosexuality as criminal and those who regard it as a psychological aberration, or as no aberration at all.

Despite the severity of the law, Britain's police seldom bother homosexuals unless they make a public nuisance of themselves. Even so, arrests for sexual offenses have more than doubled in the past 15 years; a magistrate in Chelsea said that 600 cases of male depravity came before him each year.

"Assured of sufficient public support," wrote one retired police superintendent in the Sunday Express, "the police would quickly sweep it away." But Journalist Ewan Butler wrote in Time and Tide: "If we are agreed . . . that chains and the whip were not the proper treatment for lunacy, can we be certain that prison is the proper place for the homosexual?"

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