From Oscar Wilde to Asher's Bakery, LGBT rights and the law

28 Oct 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 11 Nov 2016

Consider these two legal judgements. 

“The crime of which you have been convicted is so bad that one has to put stern restraint upon one's self to prevent one's self from describing, in language which I would rather not use, the sentiments which must rise in the breast of every man of honour who has heard the details of these two horrible trials.  That the jury has arrived at a correct verdict in this case I cannot persuade myself to entertain a shadow of a doubt; and I hope, at all events, that those who sometimes imagine that a judge is half-hearted in the cause of decency and morality because he takes care no prejudice shall enter into the case, may see that it is consistent at least with the utmost sense of indignation at the horrible charges brought home to both of you.

“It is no use for me to address you.  People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them.  It is the worst case I have ever tried. 

“I shall, under the circumstances, be expected to pass the severest sentence that the law allows.  In my judgement it is totally inadequate for a case such as this.  The sentence of the Court is that each of you be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for two years.”

Judge Sir Alfred Wills sentencing Oscar Wilde and Alfred Taylor for gross indecency in 1895.

“The LGBT community has endured a history of considerable discrimination in this jurisdiction.  Homosexual acts in private between consenting males were criminalised until 1985.  Those who were gay were reluctant to expose their sexuality and some were subjected to blackmail and other intimidation.  The potential for conflict between the rights of the LGBT community and the religious community has unfortunately long been a feature of public debate in b fbNorthern Ireland and the strongest opposition to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting males came from the religious community.  It is obviously of importance that the LGBT community should feel able to participate in the commercial life of this community freely and transparently.  “

Decision of the Appeal Court in Asher’s Bakery Case 2016.

Two cases 121 years apart. Both momentous. Both coming before British courts, both presided over British judges, following the same unbroken judicial system. It is hard to think of a better illustration of how the law pertaining to homosexuality has changed over the period, and how judicial attitudes have mirrored that transformation.


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