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Edward Carpenter and Gay Rights

John Simkin

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Edward Carpenter played an important role in the campaign for Gay Rights in the UK. The son of a naval officer, Carpenter was born in Brighton. After studying at Brighton College, Carpenter entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1864. He was ordained in 1870 and was appointed as curate of the Church of St. Edward. Frederick Denison Maurice, the leader of the Christian Socialist movement, was the minister at the church and he had a profound influence of Carpenter's political opinions.

Soon after Carptenter becoming a curate he joined the Republican Club, that led by Henry Fawcett, the husband of Millicent Fawcett, and the future leader of the NUWSS. It was later claimed that Carpenter despised the socially divisive capitalist system that allowed the ruling classes to live off the labour of the poor.

In 1874 Edward Carpenter left the Church and became a lecturer on astronomy, science and music for the recently established University Extension Scheme. This teaching involved visiting northern industrial towns and cities.

By 1880 Carpenter had acknowledged his homosexuality and had moved in with Albert Fearnhough, a scythe riveter from Sheffield. When Charles Carpenter died in 1882 he left his son a considerable amount of money. This enabled Edward Carpenter to purchase a farm in Millthorpe, near Baslow in Derbyshire and to concentrate on his writing.

Influenced by the work of John Ruskin, Carpenter began to develop ideas about a utopian future that took the form of a kind of primitive communism. In 1883 he began attended meetings of the Social Democratic Federation and came under the influence of H. M. Hyndman. He later wrote about this conversion:" My ideas had been taking a socialistic shape for many years; but they were lacking in definite outline. That outline as regards the industrial situation was given me by reading Hyndman's England For All." Carpenter, along with fellow members, William Morris, John Burns and H. H. Champion, contributed articles to the party journal, Justice.

Some members of the Social Democratic Federation disapproved of Hyndman's doctorial style and the way he encouraged people to use violence on demonstrations. In December 1884, William Morris, Ernest Belfort Bax, Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx left to form a new group called the Socialist League. The following year Carpenter also left the SDF to join the SL.

In 1885 Carpenter joined William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Ernest Belfort Bax and Edward Aveling in the Socialist League. He became the head of the Sheffield branch. "Our Sheffield Socialists organised lectures, addresses, pamphlets, with a street-corner propaganda which soon brought us in amusing and exciting incidents in the way of wrangles with the police and the town-crowds. At first an atmosphere of considerable suspicion rested upon the movement. Where there had been only jeers or taunts at first, crowds come to listen with serious and sympathetic men."

By the 1880s Carpenter had established himself as a poet of democracy and socialism with books like Towards Democracy (1883) and England's Ideal (1887). He also wrote socialist songs and hymns such as England Arise! that were used by the Labour Church movement in the 1890s.

In 1893 Carpenter joined with Keir Hardie, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Mann, H. H. Champion, Ben Tillett, Philip Snowden, and Ramsay Macdonald to form the Independent Labour Party. It was decided that the main objective of the party would be "to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange".

Carpenter believed that homosexuality was innate and should not be classed as a sin. A strong advocate of sexual freedom, Carpenter wrote several pamphlets on the subject including Sex Love and Its Place in a Free Society (1894), Women and her Place in a Free Society (1894), Marriage in a Free Society (1894) and Homogenic Love and Its Place in a Free Society (1895).

George Merrill moved in with Carpenter at his home in Baslow. After the House of Commons passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act that made all homosexual acts illegal, Carpenter had to abandon his campaign for sexual tolerance. In 1908 Carpenter returned to this theme with his book Intermediate Sex. Although the book created a great deal of hostility it had a strong influence on literary figures such as Siegfried Sassoon, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster.

Carpenter was a pacifist and opposed both the Boer War and the First World War. He played an active role in the No Conscription Fellowship and wrote important anti-war pamphlets such as Healing of Nations (1915) and Never Again! (1916).

Edward Carpenter died in Guildford on 28th June, 1929.


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