Lesbianism was never made illegal in Britain because when Queen Victoria was shown the proposed legislation she refused to sign it, as she wouldn’t believe that lesbians existed: “Women do not do such things.” In other versions of the story, government ministers struck out all references to women in the Act, because they couldn’t think of a way of explaining matters to the dear old queen.
The idea that Victoria refused to sign the Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, until it had been de-lesbianised, is easily dealt with: the British monarch in the late 19th century did not have the power to overrule parliament – any attempt to do so would have triggered a political earthquake. The myth apparently started in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1977, to explain why a demonstration for lesbian equality centred on a statue of Vicky. Labouchere’s true motives for criminalising male homosexuality are still disputed; what seems certain is that banning female homosexuality never crossed his mind. Some historians suggest that the male establishment avoided legislating on lesbianism, for fear of drawing women’s attention to its existence.
Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet (Faber, 2001); www.mikedash.com/extras_victoria.htm; www.guardian.co.uk/ notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-19315,00.html