A Gay Revolution?

Fifty years ago, parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act, partially decriminalising homosexual acts between two consenting males. Some campaigners hailed the legislation as a landmark on the road to equality. But, asks Brian Lewis, has this bullish assessment stood the test of time?

A proponent of same-sex marriage protests outside the Houses of Parliament, 3 June 2013. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine and complemented the BBC’s ‘Gay Britannia’ season 

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Arthur Strange Kattendyke David Archibald Gore, the 8th Earl of Arran, had two main obsessions: “To stop people buggering badgers and badgering buggers.” He failed to protect the badgers – his attempt in the House of Lords to pass legislation against badger-baiting got nowhere (“There are not many badgers in the House of Lords,” he allegedly said) – but he succeeded, to some degree, in protecting the ‘buggers’.

Arran was the champion in the Lords of a private member’s bill sponsored in the Commons by Leo Abse, the colourful Labour MP for Pontypool. This became the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 – 50 years ago this summer. The act decriminalised sex between two – and only two – consenting males (lesbian sex was never criminalised in the UK as male legislators couldn’t imagine how sex between women was possible), so long as they were over the age of 21 and the sex was in private. It did not apply to the armed services and to the merchant navy, where sex between men remained illegal. Nor did it cover Scotland and Northern Ireland, which had to wait until 1980 and 1982 respectively for similar legislation.

Sodomy (or buggery) used to be a hanging offence in Britain. This was modified by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which replaced capital punishment with minimum sentences of 10 years’ imprisonment. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 added to the statute book a two-year maximum penalty for “gross indecency” between men (all other forms of sexual behaviour) in public or in private. The third in the trinity of statutes routinely used to control gay sex was the Vagrancy Act of 1898, designed to fight “persistent importuning and soliciting” by female prostitutes – but the police preferred to use it against men flirting with men instead.

Natural variations

These were the laws. But between the late 19th and the mid-20th centuries, understandings of human sexuality began to shift dramatically. The new science of sexology, exemplified by Havelock Ellis, Sigmund Freud and Alfred Kinsey, reformulated same-sex desires, identities and practices less as sins or crimes than as genetic or psychological conditions, or as natural, harmless variations.

By 1954, the claims that the law wasn’t fit for purpose had reached such a crescendo that Winston Churchill’s Conservative government commissioned a Home Office committee, led by Sir John Wolfenden, the vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, to investigate. The Wolfenden Committee canvassed the views of more than 200 experts and organisations – everyone from the Lord Chief Justice to the British Medical Association and the Church of England to a small handful of self-identifying homosexuals. And, after examining the evidence, the Wolfenden Report of 1957 recommended that consenting sex between men over the age of 21 in private be decriminalised.

The higher-brow newspapers applauded but the popular press was appalled. “If the law were to tolerate homosexual acts, a great barrier against depravity would be swept aside,” railed the Daily Mail. The threat was existential: “Great nations have fallen and empires decayed because [moral] corruption became socially acceptable.”

Faced with this kind of backlash, and since surveys in the 1950s indicated that most people still found homosexuality “disgusting”, neither the Conservative government nor the Labour opposition was prepared to champion the changes that Wolfenden requested. As the home secretary, Rab Butler, put it in the Commons, so many people considered homosexuality to be “a great social evil” that “education and time” would be needed to persuade them of the case for reform. “The matter now goes into that extensive limbo of reforms that are supported by almost everybody who has seriously studied the subject,” opined The Economist, “and by penological common sense – but are rejected by common emotion. It will be enacted in the end, but past experience suggests that the end may be a decade or so away.”

A permissive climate

The Economist was correct. It took 10 years of hard lobbying by the Homosexual Law Reform Society (founded in 1958), pressure from the most liberal-minded MPs, and support from a progressive home secretary, Roy Jenkins, in the more permissive climate of the 1960s, before parliament adopted the Wolfenden principles in the 1967 act.

In the debates in both houses there were still strong voices of opposition. In the Commons, for example, Peter Mahon, Labour MP for Preston South, shared his “absolute revulsion” for the bill. “It will be a bad bill through time to eternity because homosexual acts are a perversion of a natural function.” Changing the law would be “a move toward perdition and an act of moral cowardice”. And, lest anyone be in any doubt, he declared: “I am against the bill lock, stock and barrel, root and branch, hook, line and sinker, warts and all.” Sir Charles Taylor, Conservative MP for Eastbourne, chipped in: “This is another occasion where the government are completely out of step with the people, who do not believe in buggery.”

One of the main concerns of the bill’s opponents was that, in seeming to give a parliamentary seal of approval to this ‘social evil’, they would encourage its spread. To counter this accusation, speaker after speaker on the reforming side reaffirmed their abhorrence of homosexual practices, highlighted the limited nature of the legislation, and voiced their belief that the act would encourage homosexuals to crawl out of their dark corners into the light of day to seek help for their affliction.

The act would be “an important and civilising measure”, thought Roy Jenkins, but a vote in favour was not “a vote of confidence or congratulation to homosexuality. Those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of loneliness, guilt and shame. The crucial question… is, should we add to those disadvantages the full rigour of the criminal law?” Lord Arran warned newly liberated homosexuals against ostentatious flaunting: “Homosexuals must continue to remember that while there may be nothing bad in being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good. Lest the opponents of the bill think that a new freedom, a new privileged class, has been created, let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike or derision, or at best of pity.” Antony Grey, secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, who was present to hear this “frightful stuff”, “almost puked”. He wasn’t alone.

Given the negative language even of the proponents of the measure, many scholars and activists have downplayed its significance, refusing to treat it as a great, progressive triumph. Arran disagreed, claiming that, because of the passage of the act, “perhaps a million human beings will be able to live in greater peace”.

So which interpretation is the most accurate? There’s little doubt that Arran’s assessment was unduly optimistic: the act did not amount to much for gay men, at least directly. In the early 1960s, the figures showed that 1,500 to 2,000 men were found guilty each year of homosexual offences (buggery, attempted buggery and gross indecency). One calculation reckoned that only about 100 of these were for the type of private, consensual offences that had now been decriminalised. Sex with teenagers and young adults, sex in public (even in bathhouses or saunas), importuning for sex and male prostitution all remained illegal. In fact, convictions increased in the years after the 1967 act.

In an article in The Guardian a few weeks after the act’s passage, the writer Geoffrey Moorhouse gave some insight into how ordinary gay men felt. He interviewed John and Eric who had been sharing a council flat and living “what they would call normal lives” for 20 years. They claimed the act “hasn’t made a ha’porth of difference to them”.

A man named Neville, by contrast, lived alone. He felt that the act had lifted “some small sense of shame”, but it hadn’t made it easier for him to find a partner. The London clubs that homosexuals frequented were “too florid” for his taste. And he was still fearful of the consequences of being outed or of inadvertently outing himself at work.

Florid meeting places

The Albany Trust, a counselling charity that complemented the Homosexual Law Reform Society, expected its casebooks to remain full of similar instances: “Men living in isolation in bedsitters, fearing their tendencies, always being on guard against others finding out, wondering whether they would lose their jobs, gradually shedding friends and not making new ones.” Reformers wanted further legislation to equalise the age of consent and to put gay and straight relationships on an equal footing. This would allow meeting places to be established “which are not florid but where homosexuals can behave naturally.” But Neville was not convinced that this would accomplish anything. As Eric put it, the crucial task was to “remove the stigma from being homosexual”.

A vibrant scene

Did the Sexual Offences Act help to do this? It is tempting to think so because of what came next: an explosion of gay activism with the founding of the Gay Liberation Front in London in 1970; the rise of a vibrant gay commercial scene from the 1970s; the development of a renewed militancy in the late 1980s, with groups such as Stonewall and Outrage!, as a response to the Aids crisis and the Thatcher government’s introduction of Section 28 (see timeline above); the raft of gay civil rights legislation under the Blair government, including an equal age of consent and civil partnerships; and full legislative equality with the introduction of gay marriage in 2013 under David Cameron’s coalition government. Attitudes have been revolutionised, making the talk of ‘evil’, ‘shame’ and ‘moral corruption’ sound positively antediluvian.

There is no doubt that the decades of discussion about homosexuality culminating in the Wolfenden Report and the 1967 act played a part in all this and gave at least some gay men a psychological boost. But it was just as much gays and lesbians themselves, drawing inspiration from the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969 (see timeline on p65) and the radiation of gay liberationist energy, who seized the initiative and metaphorically unfurled the rainbow flag. Thanks to their combined efforts the cautious and limited toleration of 1967 became the much greater acceptance of today.

In the Lords debate at the time of the act, Lord Auckland was aghast at a report he had read in the News of the World of a “very nasty happening”: a “homosexual wedding” in a continental country. “I only hope that if this bill becomes law,” he wrote, “the most vigilant eye will be kept on practices of this kind. I do not think these things could happen in this country, but it is possible.” Well, here we are, half a century on. What was nearly inconceivable in 1967 is now the law of the land.

Brian Lewis is professor of history at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. His latest book is Wolfenden’s Witnesses: Homosexuality in Postwar Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Gay times: the long battle for equality

1885: ‘Gross indecency’ is criminalised

The Labouchère Amendment, or section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, was proposed by a radical MP, Henry Labouchère (above), and passed with little discussion. It made “gross indecency” illegal in public or in private and imposed a maximum penalty of two years’ hard labour. It was another tool in the armoury of law enforcers and made it easier to prosecute homosexual behaviour.

1895: Oscar Wilde faces hard labour

The playwright was the most famous victim of the Labouchère Amendment. After three trials in 1895 (the first a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry), Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labour in Reading Gaol.

His name, face and mannerisms became important components of an emerging public sense of the male homosexual.

1928: A pro-lesbian novel goes on trial

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a novel advocating the acceptance of homosexuals, was banned for obscenity in 1928. Hall was known as ‘John’ to her friends and dressed in a masculine way. The publicity during the trial increased the visibility of lesbians and helped cement a public image of the ‘mannish’ lesbian in particular.

June 1954: Alan Turing dies

Alan Turing, codebreaker and pioneering computer scientist (above), was prosecuted under the Labouchère Amendment in 1952. To avoid prison he opted for hormonal treatment to reduce his libido. When he died shortly afterwards, in 1954, the coroner recorded a verdict of suicide. Turing received a posthumous pardon in 2013. The ‘Alan Turing law’, passed earlier this year, grants automatic pardons to men convicted of homosexual acts that are no longer offences.

March 1954: An English aristocrat goes to jail

In 1954, landowner Michael Pitt-Rivers, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and the Daily Mail journalist Peter Wildeblood were tried and imprisoned for consensual and private homosexual offences on the Beaulieu estate. The trial generated considerable publicity and helped bring about the Wolfenden Committee enquiry later in the year.

1957: Wolfenden recommends partial decriminalisation

The Wolfenden Report of 1957 recommended stiffer penalties for female street prostitution as well as the partial decriminalisation of homosexual sex. It adopted a strict public-private division – the ‘vices’ in question could only take place in private – and its recommendations would be enshrined in law in 1967.

1969: Gay New Yorkers fight back

The police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969 (above) had a big impact in Britain. American gay bars were routinely raided, but this time the patrons fought back, rioting ensued and a legend was born. The Gay Liberation Front was founded shortly afterwards, mimicked within the year by a similar organisation in London. ‘Gay Lib’ indicated that sexual minorities were now going to demand their rights and not just politely lobby for them.

1977: Whitehouse takes Gay News to court

Mary Whitehouse, a schoolteacher who set up the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, represented a backlash against the ‘permissive society’. In 1977 she resurrected the archaic blasphemy laws to successfully prosecute Gay News for publishing a poem by James Kirkup about a Roman centurion at the foot of the cross fantasising about having sex with Christ.

1978: The rainbow flag makes its debut

The symbol of LGBTQ pride was designed by the San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker. The most popular version bears six colours: red (symbolising life), orange (healing), yellow (sunlight), green (nature), blue (harmony/peace) and purple/violet (spirit).

1988: Section 28 sparks a furore

Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was the Thatcher government’s attempt to prevent local authorities from promoting homosexuality or state schools from teaching that homosexuality was acceptable “as a pretended family relationship”. It sparked huge protests (as at Gay Pride, 1988, right) and was repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in the rest of the UK in 2003.

2013: Same-sex marriage is legalised

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The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, in some ways the culmination of the Wolfendenian logic of allowing same-sex behaviour in private, was passed in 2013 in England and Wales and similar legislation was passed in Scotland in 2014. Same-sex marriage is still not permitted in Northern Ireland.