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Radclyffe Hall, Sapphism, Sexology, and Speech Rights

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If courts of law were to decide what we should read, we would read nothing at all.

Following publication of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness in Great Britain in 1928, censors immediately raised their overly sensitive attenae, sensing that their duty to protect the social morals, indeed their duty to protect civilization itself (and, presumably to protect it from itself), was in play.

Appealed to by other moralists as well as the silent bastions of humanity, unable by wit to decide for themselves what is right or wrong, these crusaders urged a moral defense. Defenders of morality, the self-appointed purveyors of saving graces who impose moral tariffs on those creative souls who are always least able to afford such official, often legal, harassment, represent only self-interest and greed.

Resurrecting a long overlooked statute, the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, Sir Chartres Biron, presiding over the trial in Bow Street Magistrate's Court, pronounced the book obscene and ordered all confiscated copies to be destroyed. (Michael Baker, Our Three Selves: The Life of Radclyffe Hall, 1985 at 239, 244)

On appeal, the magistrate, Sir Robert Wallace, summarily dismissed hearing the case describing The Well of Loneliness as "a disgusting book...prejudicial to the morals of the community." (ibid. at 245)

This despite the fact that not one obscene word is written in the novel, nor are acts of sex described other then two women "kissing" (which only a generation before the book was written, possibly less, was considered absolutely normal).

Similarly, the book was also temporarily banned in the United States, but not before 50 thousand copies were sold following on the heels of the sensation caused in Britain. The Sumner case, as it was known on the American-side of the Atlantic, was tried in Manhattan in February, 1929.

In April, 1929 a court of appeals ruled that the book was not obscene and lifted the ban allowing The Well of Loneliness to be freely and openly published.

The lifting of the American ban on publication of Hall's novel of the mannish lesbian Stephen Gordon represented a triumph for free speech, free press, and sex rights. Publicly defended by such literary giants as F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Edna Ferber, Ellen Glasgow, Ida Wylie, and others, what is shameful is that the book should have been condemned, indicted, and tried in the first place. (op. cit. at 251)

But to ignore the historical context within which the trial occurred - the historicity of the subject matter – is to disregard the "pastness of the past." From a contemporary vantage point, it is perhaps difficult to imagine such a furor over a lesbian novel. Interestingly, the issue in the obscenity case turned not on homosexuality, but on free speech concerns.   

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Constance Lavender is an HIV-Positive pseudonymous freelance e-journalist from a little isle off the coast of Jersey; New Jersey, that is...

In the Best spirit of Silence Dogood and Benj. Franklin, Ms. Lavender believes that a free (more...)
 

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