The words spilled forth from Thomas Barrow’s mouth as if as an apology, but it was also a singular truth that humanity is coming to understand: being gay is not foul. For the final two-part episode of the hit British drama Downton Abbey, Mr. Barrow becomes the victim of O’Brian’s meanderings.
While Carson, the erstwhile butler, finds Thomas and his being gay “revolting,” he does not want to cause scandal for the house. While this episode originally aired last November in the UK, a full two months before the country finally advanced marriage equality to all citizens, it shows that even in conservative, traditional and proper Britain of days past, being tolerant could be possible.
It may be easy to believe that the writers were pushing an agenda, but their nuanced take on a century ago England’s perception of the gay community was better than most would have attempted. The idea that Thomas being gay had been broached earlier in the show, but the battle for his very freedom and potential survival, along with his very real yearnings for footman James, gave a unique perspective onto these issues, both then and now.
Despite Carson’s revulsion at the idea of gay, he believes that Thomas is the victim of nature and not his choosing. This is at odds with the ultra-conservative Evangelicals in the United States who so brazenly, and without any scientific support, attempt to claim that those in the LGBT community are choosing their lives.
Sure, with the UK only recently passing marriage equality, it could be argued that the writers were simply pushing a perception of England that many want to believe was their country. There may be some truth in this, but let us not forget that Carson and others find Thomas and his identity sickening and “unnatural.”
As we begin to piece together a history of the LGBT community and the very real fear of death, imprisonment or expulsion from society – as we witnessed with Thomas – there must be a change of attitudes and mindset among the allies. We, as allies, have a greater responsibility to stand up for the Thomas’, those people who struggle within their conservative family, town and upbringing to come to terms with their being.
At the end of the day, we must all heed Thomas’ words: “I am not foul, Mr. Carson.”
He’s right and it’s about time we showed it.
**English law identified homosexuality as an offense punishable by hanging as a result of the Buggery Act of 1533. The law was repealed in 1553 by Mary I, but then re-enacted in 1563 by Elizabeth I. The law remained until the Offences against the Person Act of 1861 removed the death penalty for homosexuality, but male homosexual acts still remained illegal and punishable by imprisonment.
In the early 1950’s, police actively enforced the laws prohibiting sexual acts between men, which led to a number of high-profile arrests. One of those was the case of scientist and mathematician Alan Turing, who was convicted in 1952 of “gross indecency.” His punishment involved treatment with female hormones, leading to a form of chemical castration, as an alternative to prison.
After much campaigning, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was passed which maintained prohibitions on buggery and indecency between men, but scaled back the illegality of it as long as three conditions were fulfilled, including that the act had to be consensual, take place in private, and involve only those over the age of 21.