Title: History: Blackmail and the closet Credit: Craig Young Comment Tuesday 9th May 2006 - 12:00pm1147132800 Article: 1227 Rights
Opponents of legal equality for homosexuals and the Christian Right have never considered that maintaining criminal penalties for abortion, male homosexuality and sex work creates other forms of 'deviance' - particularly blackmail. In 2002, Canadian sociologist Angus McLaren wrote a book on the subject of sexual blackmail. He analysed what happened when the above were made illegal. Granted, people still had gay male sex, or visited sex workers, and women still terminated their pregnancies if they found a sympathetic doctor or survived the unhygienic and unwelcome attentions of the backstreet abortionist. However, to commit each of these 'victimless crimes' was to risk the interference of third parties- namely, blackmailers. In the case of gay men, it was even the mere accusation that someone had had sex with other men, particularly if the other man was a rent boy on the make, or a member of the criminal fraternity who dangled a young man to entice unwary consumers of 'forbidden pleasures' during the period when male homosexuality was illegal. However, gay men weren't the only targets. At the same time that gay men were being harrassed by unscrupulous blackmailers, women also had to be careful if they were able to terminate their pregnancies, given its illegality, as did any sympathetic doctors. In fact, one of the largest blackmail extortion rackers ever recorded occurred when one criminal gang targeted several thousand women who had undergone clandestine abortions. Straight men didn't escape either. Sex workers might want additional recompense, or sometimes, young women were similarly trailed to entice the unwary and foolhardy, given the illegality of sex work for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Straight women only gained relative economic independence as the first wave of feminism opened professions to them, and weren't as likely to be targeted unless they had terminated their pregnancies, so there was no straight male equivalent to the young female blackmailer and possible accomplices. Lesbians were apparently ignored during this period, possibly due to their similar lack of relative economic privilege, and there is no record of famous lesbian blackmail cases in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. For gay men and women who had terminated their pregnancies, the results could be imprisonment for having defied the law. In the case of gay men, suicide was one way out. However, the United Kingdom escalated penalties for blackmail to try to obstruct the criminal activities of blackmailers, although it proved an enduring problem to try to eradicate completely. If the closeted gay man belonged to the establishment, then there might be some chance for protection and prosecution secrecy, given restrictions of media disclosure. Eventually, well into the twentieth century, the United Kingdom Parliamentreceived submissions related to the Wolfenden Report in 1956/7, and discovered that there were still blackmail efforts occurring. Indeed, Victim (1962) provided cinematic commentary about the consequences of criminal penalties forpastgay male sexas fodder for unscrupulous blackmailers, even in the sixties. As a result of that disclosure, the United Kingdom partially decriminalised male homosexuality when it passed the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, however restrictive it might seem to contemporary lesbian and gay sensibilities, given its exclusion of the armed forces from coverage, restrictions on multiple sexual partners, and highly discriminatory age of consent, set at twenty one. Blackmail of gay men ended, however, in the new climate of gay identity politics and community formation. Associated issues of secrecy and disclosure didn't go away, however. In the mid-nineties, there was controversy within our communities over the practice of 'outing' politicians and celebrities. Some believed that if a celebrity or politician wasn't openly homophobic, their right to privacy should be respected, while others wanted maximum disclosure of the closeted. More recently, outing has become detached from homosexuality altogether, so it is therefore possible to out 'cloister case' conservative Christians, unwary promiscuous heterosexual US Presidents, hapless New Zealand Cabinet Ministers who did nothing illegal or unethical, ad nauseum. While sexual blackmail has gone away except for self-proclaimed moral paragons who turn out to have footprints of clay leading under someone else's bed, then, blackmail per se hasn't. Nor has scandalmongering and unwarranted disclosure of individual confidentiality and privacy, and we have conservative politicians of a previous generation to blame for subject matter within the pages of lurid tabloid media like Truth, Investigate and their ilk. Do we live in a more enlightened age? Possibly. When the Christian Right got hot under the collar about Bill Clinton and his infidelities, the public was blase about it, got annoyed, and decimated Republican Congressional representation for perceived victimisation of that public figure. Scandalmongering and blackmail are double edged swords that may impale those who resort to them. Recommended: Angus McLaren: Sexual Blackmail: Cambridge, Massachuesetts: Princeton University Press: 2002. Craig Young - 9th May 2006    
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