Charles Upchurch’s newest book, “Beyond the Law”: The Politics Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain, documents the early nineteenth-century debate in Britain over the ethics of punishing sex between men, culminating in votes in Parliament in 1835 and 1840-41. On each of these occasions, majorities in the House of Commons approved ending the death penalty for sodomy, even as the reform was blocked in the House of Lords. While the reform itself failed, the opinions preserved by the attempts provide a remarkable and previously unknown way to analyze cultural attitudes towards sex between men in the early nineteenth century. Rather than focus on what was not present in these debates (the modern homosexual identity category as defined in the late nineteenth century) this book focuses on the multiple ways various groups of individuals understood what sodomy was, and what constituted an ethical response to it. Arguments were made, in a variety of settings, as to why execution for private consensual sexual conduct was immoral. A leader in the movement to abolish slavery was prominent in these efforts, as were individuals who had family members who were subject to arrest under the laws against sodomy and attempted sodomy. Arguments stemming from utilitarian reform were a part of these debates, but so too were arguments for marital privacy, and the negative impact of the sodomy law on married couples. Jeffrey Weeks, author of the first landmark works of LGBTQ history for nineteenth century Britain, has called the book “a triumph of historical detective work… [that] is genuinely breaking new ground.”
Charles Upchurch is a Professor of British history at Florida State University. He received his Ph.D. in modern British history from Rutgers University in 2003, and his research focuses on nineteenth-century British gender and social history. His first book, Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform explores the ways in which family and class influenced the interpretation of same-sex desire in the period between 1820 and 1870. His work has been published in Gender and History, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, and the Journal of Social History. His most recent book “Beyond the Law”: The Politics Ending the Death Penalty for Sodomy in Britain investigates a group of men in the British Parliament who were working to reduce the penalties for homosexual acts in the early nineteenth century. Charles tweets from @cupchurch2
Justin Bengry is a founder of NOTCHES as well as Lecturer in Queer History and Director of the Centre for Queer History at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he convenes the first MA in Queer History. Justin tweets from @justinbengry
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