ON AUGUST 15, 1921, the British House of Lords squirmed in discomfort as they debated the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which had recently passed the House of Commons. The Commons had modified the Act to include a clause making “gross acts of indecency” between women illegal, and “punishable in the same manner as any such act committed by male persons.”
In response to this amendment, House representatives set about the mind-twisting task of attempting to legislate lesbianism while refusing to speak its name. “My Lords,” began the Earl of Malmesbury, “I am extremely sorry to raise a discussion upon what must be, to all of us, a most disgusting and polluting subject.” Agreed the Earl of Desart: “I much regret that such a question has even been discussed. … I may perhaps draw cold comfort from the realization that there are not many people who read the debates of either House.” The Earl of Desart, former Director of Public Prosecutions, was particularly concerned that prosecuting lesbian sex would amount to its public advertisement by the Legislature: “The mere discussion of subjects of this sort tends, in the minds of unbalanced people to create the idea of an offence of which the enormous majority of them have never even heard.” Fearing the “noxious” spread of lesbianism through its public discussion, the Lord Chancellor confidently agreed that “in a sophisticated city … of every thousand women … 999 have never even heard a whisper of these practices.” And so, the amendment never became law.
Seven years later, 1928 would mark the publication of two revolutionary works of literature by queer women writers, and lesbianism would once again become the subject of intense dispute. Published within three months of one another, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (July 1928) and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (October 1928) both deeply challenged the gender conventions and sexual mores of their time, however disparate their approaches to these topics. While Woolf’s novel was celebrated as one of her greatest literary achievements, Hall’s novel was prosecuted for obscenity and subsequently banned by the British Crown.
Meghan Tibbits-Lamirande, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, is researching radical social and political movements of the 20th century.