Identity and Activism: The Effort to Repeal the Sodomy Laws in 1820s Britain

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM
Conference Room B (Sheraton New York)
Charles J. Upchurch, Florida State University
Reconstructing queer history for distant decades is a daunting task, as artifacts that serve as evidence have often been destroyed by families, the state, or other institutions. The meaning of evidence that does survive has often been denied or obscured, so that queer actions are presented as something else entirely. Yet when a series of political events has such a profound impact on both the contemporary period and decades of later practice, it is impossible to completely erase them from the historical record. Working to recover such a history means expanding what counts as the historical archive, combining evidence used by literary critics and political historians, and employing research techniques that combine the best theoretical paradigms with the newest electronic resources. These practices reveal that in the 1820s British Parliament there was an organized effort to quietly drop the sodomy laws, and that this effort had a real chance of success based on the strategy adopted. The men leading this effort cited Enlightenment-inspired rationalist arguments in their more publicly circulated writing, but privately they spoke of love between men and the naturalness of their desires for other men as the justification for their actions. Up until now their remarkable story, as well as the spectacular series of events that led to the collapse of the movement and the establishment of a new and more intensive level of policing of sex between men, have either been unknown or seriously misunderstood, and yet these were the events that most shaped the regulation of sex between men in Britain for the rest of the nineteenth century. This paper outlines the arguments from Upchurch’s forthcoming book that provides the first exploration of these events.
Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>