We Are All Part of One Another: Sodomy Laws and Morality on Both Sides of the Atlantic


Sodomy laws which criminalize private consensual gay and lesbian sexual intimacy are the subject of this note. In 1986, nearly half of the states in theUnited States have sodomy laws on their books, statutes which are being en-forced zealously’ since this summer’s bitterly anti-gay Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick. In the United Kingdom, acts of lesbian sexuality were never criminalized, but gay male sex was once punishable by death and, until recently, could lead to life imprisonment. In 1954, the Wolfenden Committee, chaired by Sir John Wolfenden, was appointed to study, inter alia, “the law and practice relating to homosexual offences” and to suggest possible reforms. After three years of study, the Committee issued its recommendation”that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.” Ten years later, after much debate, Parliament enacted this view into law: the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 decriminalized sodomy in England and Wales. Nineteen-eighty Legislation enacted in 1980 included Scotland in the reform, and in 1981, the European Court of Human Rights struck down Northern Ireland’s sodomy law in the landmark Dudgeon Case.

Sodomy laws are always defended on morality grounds, whether in the courts or the legislature, in both the United States and Great Britain. How a state responds to the morality argument largely determines the fate of its sodomy law: in the United States, reformers have been unable to repeal or strike down these criminal statutes because legislators and judges straightforwardly express their moral objections to gay and lesbian intimacy.”0 Although the same morality arguments were offered in support of sodomy laws in GreatBritain, the quality and nature of official response there has differed: Parliamentary reformers acknowledged the moral objections but responded to them.Similarly, in the Dudgeon Case, the European Court on Human Rights specifically held that “moral attitudes…cannot, without more, warrant interfering with the applicant’s private life to such an extent.” Yet the legal and political status of lesbians and gay men in Great Britain today is little better than that of their American counterparts.

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