Gay Love In Victorian England: 1885-1901

In late Victorian England, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, outlawing sexual relations between men (but not between women) is given Royal Assent by Queen Victoria. Despite the passing of that law, many gay men continued to flout it of course, and some posed for photos with their lovers and friends. Like most societal rules in Victorian times, that law was hypocritical. At a time when child prostitution (female and male) was rife, and cross-dressing was popular in upper-class society, the law was rarely enforced.

Cross-dressing aristocrats posing with their lovers.

A nobleman with his younger lovers.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, his young lover. Wilde was famously imprisoned for Sodomy, and that ruined his life.

Mature gay men, happy to record their love on a photo.

Two gay lovers having a photo taken as a memoir.

Two more doing the same.

Lesbians were not considered to actually exist in Victorian society, and the word was never used to describe them at the time. Women were presumed to have ‘companions’, or ‘close friends’. Although they could not be prosecuted, gossip could ruin them socially, and most were under great pressure from their families to marry a man. But that did not stop many of them recording their love by having photographs taken.

Some dressed as men for the photos, and perhaps did the same in private.

It would not be until 1967 when homosexuality was decriminalised in England, when it was legalised between consenting adults in private.

As of July 2020, the following countries still have laws that can prescribe the death penalty for homosexuality:

Afghanistan
Brunei
Iran
Mauritania
Nigeria
Saudi Arabia
Somalia
United Arab Emirates

33 thoughts on “Gay Love In Victorian England: 1885-1901

  1. Thankfully things have changed in most places. One can but hope they do everywhere else as well. Of course, that does not mean everybody agrees or is happy about it, but at least the law is on the right side of the equation. In the US, I understand that two lesbians living together used to get called a Boston Marriage. Mamet wrote a period play with that title, although it is not one of the best known. Thanks for sharing those.

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  2. I’m applaud those who had their photo taken. My brother who has passed was gay, and it wasn’t until he was older that he found true happiness. Once he realized his sisters loved him no matter what, he became a happy man.

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  3. Worked with a guy in the LAS (not Nth Ken) we got on well as a crew. at the end of one shift we went for a pint, as we were talking the usual stuff he said he had something to tell me, he burst into tears and said he was gay, he hoped that would not effect our working together. This admission blew me away, I said most people already had suspicion and knew, also that this would not have any effect and that I’d be happy to work with him. It was after this I realised how much torment this guy must have been in, probably mirrored by many. Soon after he left, I hope he found inner peace.

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    1. Billy O’Neill told me he was gay when I worked with him as a crewmate. I told him I already knew, and it made no difference to me. We remained great friends until the day he died of bone cancer. Julie and I travelled to Oxfordshire to see him in a hospice, a few days before we heard the news of his death. Then we went back there, to attend his funeral. He was a wonderful man.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  4. There are people here who would like to make life difficult for gay couples. I have never understood the paranoia people have about homosexuality. How two people express their love for each other is between them and them only. I have always enjoyed the company of gay men and like you, I have often found them very entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It has certainly become very accepted in England during my lifetime, Carolyn. Even when I was young, it was openly discussed. My mum would describe two men who lived together as ‘confirmed bachelors’, or two women as ‘close companions’. And there was no animosity toward them at all.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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