|Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a gifted liberal advocate of utilitarian philosophy. He supported feminism, antislavery activism, animal rights, divorce, faith/state seperation, free trade and the abolition of corporal and capital punishment. And gay rights.
He wasn't the first philosopher of note to do so in Europe itself, as Voltaire and Montesquieu had beaten him to it. However, those august French figures weren't above using homophobic diatribes against political opponents, and argued that gay men should still be kept under police surveillance- which happened after Napoleonic France decriminalised male homosexuality in 1791. The offending police office wasn't abolished until 1981.
Decriminalisation of homosexuality wasn't in as much favour within England at the time. Noted historian Edward Gibbon Wakefield and jurist William Blackstone condemned 'sodomy' and upheld execution for any man caught in the act of gay sex. Against them stood Jeremy Bentham, a noted liberal utilitarianism of his time. Although the French revolution caused a wave of conservative reaction across most of Western Europe, Bentham's utilitarian philosophy guided legal reform throughout Napoleonic France, Spain and post-revolutionary Central and South America.
Toward the end of his life, Britain took its first hesitant steps toward adult franchise and industrial relations reform. However, due to the histrionics that surrounded eighteenth century cases of apprehended gay men and their sentence to the pillory or to execution, his advocacy of homosexual law reform remained unpublished until last century, as he feared homophobic smear tactics might undo his other legislative reform work.
Bentham argued that adult male homosexuality was pleasurable, harmless, didn't undermine muscular military masculinity, was commonplace in cultivated Greco-Roman antiquity, didn't displace heterosexual predominance and that 'homophobia' (as we would call it) stemmed from puritanical ascetic hatred for pleasure. He was repelled at the displays of visceral sadistic glee at capital punishment of gay men that prevailed until 1861 in England and Wales. He disparaged the use of histrionic condemnation of homosexuality that used words like 'abomination' and 'perversion' in that context.
Bentham's legacy of compassion and humanity would ultimately prevail, but not until the advent of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 and the hesitant beginnings of LGBT political reform as we know it, which would ultimately spread to New Zealand.
Jeremy Bentham: "Offences Against One's Self" Part 1: Journal of Homosexuality 3 (1978): 389-405: Part 2: Journal of Homosexuality 4 (1978): 91-107.
Louis Crompton: Homosexuality and Civilisation: Cambridge: Belknap Press of Princeton University Press: 2003
Rictor Norton: Mother Clap's Molly House: The Gay Subculture in Britain: 1700-1830: London: Gay Men's Press: 1994.
Audio: J.Bentham: "Offences Against the Self": http://librivox.org/offences-against-the-self-paederasty-by-jeremy-bentham/ Craig Young - 12th January 2009