Newspapers across Australia reported on February 10 1925 that the crazy Danes would decriminalise homosexuality, adultery, abortion and euthanasia. The headlines were fake news. But the ridicule heaped on the purported reforms illustrates the pervasive conservatism of Australian media.
The Great Morality Scandal
Denmark never punished homosexuality quite as strenuously as other European jurisdictions. Partly because most Danes never realised such things occurred in their mainly agrarian communities. But rapidly increasing population during the 1800s saw the development of large urban areas. Historically, people always felt better able to explore their sexuality in cities. Metropolitan areas offer increased opportunities to make contacts and greater access to anonymous hookups.
But increased activity inevitably leads to increased risk of exposure. In 1906/7, the arrests of several prominent men became known as the Great Morality Scandal.
The scandal arose out of a recent change to the law. In 1901, Danish legislators learned to their shock that some young men earned their living providing sexual services to other men. They criminalised the activity and then in 1905 tweaked the law to make the sex worker’s clients equally culpable.
Among the men arrested, Carl Hansen, a respected superintendent of police. Although single at the time of his arrest, Carl Hansen previously lived for six years with the artist Jens Sørensen.
Police confiscated letters and cards Carl kept as mementoes of the relationship. In court, the prosecution made the most of the affectionate prose the pair used towards each other.
“I long so deeply to press your soft mouth to mine and spend a happy evening with you write as soon as you can… With many friendly greetings from your own little Hjalmar.”
(Jens’ full name was Jens Georg Hjalmar Sørensen.)
Carl Hansen was held in custody for ten months before being released following a nervous breakdown. He penned a series of newspaper articles condemning the crusading judge who conducted the trials during the Great Morality Scandal, previously a junior official at the Department of Agriculture.
The trials provoked discussion of homosexuality in Danish medical and legal circles and a consensus developed for decriminalisation.
However, it would take decades for the reform to occur. By the time Australian newspapers reported on the supposedly imminent legislation in 1925, three Royal Commissions over the course of a decade all recommended decriminalisation.
The bloody Socialists again
The Australian news reports appeared to originate from the Australian Press Association, the main source of foreign news for local papers. A correspondent either made a mistake, or gilded the lily on a slow news day. Notably, a search of English and American papers reveals no similar stories overseas.
The story in the Hobart Mercury on February 10 was typical.
“The Socialist Government of Denmark has introduced remarkable provisions in a new bill to amend the Criminal Code.
“The bill provides for increased penalties for fraud, illicit speculation, drunkenness, offences against women, children, and animals, and the abolition of capital punishment, while matrimonial infidelity, unnatural offences, and illegal operations cease to be criminal offences.
“The bill also provides, in special circumstances, exemptions from penalties if a person kills another suffering from an incurable illness at the request of the sufferer.”
UnChristian, says Dr Dick
‘Offences against women, children and animals’ referred to sexual assaults while ‘unnatural offences’ meant homosexuality and ‘illegal operations’, abortions.
Australian papers described the ideas as radical, new and strange, extraordinary and barbaric. The appropriately named NSW Director-General of Public Health, Dr Dick, raged against proposals that he said: “aimed at the very basis of Christianity.”
He never explained what religion had to do with public health.
It seems bizarre now that decriminalising adultery, homosexuality and abortion and abolishing capital punishment while increasing penalties for sexual assaults against women and children should occasion such controversy.
But such was the sway of religion in days gone by.
Sadly, too many people of faith still believe they should be able to compel other people to live according to their personal belief. It is why we can never give up the fight for secular government, in the hope we one day do finally achieve the true separation of church and state.
Those crazy Danes, BTW, did decriminalise homosexuality in 1933, long before most jurisidictions. Since then, Denmark frequently lead the world in the introduction of LGBTIQ+ rights.