The 1967 Sexual Offences Act: a landmark moment in the history of British homosexuality
An important moment in the history of homosexuality in Britain, the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised male homosexual acts. Yet despite its significance, it wasn't a moment of sudden liberation for gay men
More than 50 years on, 20th-century historian Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite considers the importance of the act and its role in ushering in a new wave of LGBTQ+ activism…
In July 1967 male homosexual acts were partially decriminalised by the Sexual Offences Act. This was a hugely important moment in the history of homosexuality in Britain – but it wasn’t a moment of sudden liberation for gay men – and nor was it intended to be. We tend to think of the ‘swinging sixties’ as a moment of permissiveness, and this might suggest that the liberalising legislation of the late 1960s was the result of changing social mores. But the story is more complicated than that. There was no great change in public views of homosexuality in the 1960s: the idea that it was a disease, a mental illness, an unfortunate congenital abnormality, or even a moral failing, persisted. The change in the law came about because of elite-level lobbying, and shifts in legislators’ thinking about the relationship between society and the law. Decriminalisation had huge consequences though: in the end, it allowed the development of far more radical and transformative gay activism. This was a key factor in pushing societal attitudes towards homosexuality to slowly change.
Sodomy had been an offence under civil law since the 16th century (before then it was the Catholic Church that policed sexuality), and the law on sodomy had long been used to prosecute not only anal sex, but also other homosexual acts between men. In 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Act went even further, and made any act of ‘gross indecency’ between men a criminal offence, whether in public or private. (Sexual acts taking place between women were never criminalised – it was suggested in the early 20th century that they might be, but some government figures feared that such a law would do more to publicise the possibility of lesbianism than to deter women from lesbian acts!)
A source of postwar anxiety
In postwar Britain, homosexuality was increasingly a source of anxiety. This was a period where many people wanted to go ‘back to normal’ after the upheavals of the Second World War. Traditional gender roles and the nuclear family were key to that. Some historians have called the 1950s the decade of ‘family Britain’. In ‘family Britain’, homosexuality seemed like a looming problem. There were increasing numbers of prosecutions for ‘gross indecency’ in the early 1950s as the state tried to clean up public spaces. The law didn’t just target homosexual men, it made them targets for unscrupulous blackmailers, too. A series of Cold War scandals featuring gay men fuelled anxieties over the links between homosexuality and communism (at least two of the Cambridge Five spy ring, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, were gay). Tabloid newspapers ran lurid investigations into homosexual subcultures.
Then a number of high profile cases brought the law into question. In particular, 1954 saw the prosecution of Peter Wildeblood – journalist, novelist, playwright and diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Mail – along with Lord Montagu and Michael Pitt-Rivers. These were eminently respectable men. In court, Wildeblood did not deny his guilt, but dramatically confessed to being a homosexual, or ‘invert’ (this term was used by the important late 19th-century sexologist Havelock Ellis to denote individuals who were attracted to members of the same sex, or had some of the gendered characteristics of the other sex). Wildeblood was one of the first men to publicly declare himself an ‘invert’. He suggested by using this term that his homosexuality was innate, something he couldn’t change. He also used Freudian ideas about the ‘arrested development’ of men like himself. Using these scientific and psychoanalytic ideas meant that Wildeblood could argue that men like himself should not be punished by the law for something they couldn’t help. As long as they didn’t do anything to outrage public decency, but kept their activities firmly in private, they should be allowed to do as they wanted.
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Wildeblood went to prison, but the following year he published Against the Law, a book which expanded on his arguments, condemning the way that the law on homosexuality persecuted men for something they couldn’t help.
The Wolfenden Report
The Wildeblood case, and other high-profile trials, helped spark the creation of a government inquiry, the Wolfenden Committee, to investigate the law on homosexuality (and prostitution). It reported in 1957 and Wolfenden held that in a modern society, the law should uphold strict standards of morality in public, but it should not regulate private behaviour. Adults should be able to make their own moral choices as long as these didn’t affect others. The Wolfenden Committee therefore recommended harsher penalties for homosexual activity in public, but its decriminalisation in private. As historian Matt Houlbrook has written in his book, Queer London, it was only a “respectable, yet highly exclusive, ‘homosexual’ subject” who was to be given some rights. Those who wanted to challenge norms of sexuality and gender in public were excluded from the picture.
The Wolfenden Report was still important, though, in establishing the idea that homosexuality should be decriminalised in private. It put the issue on the political agenda, and in 1958 a small group of reformers set up the Homosexual Law Reform Committee to lobby for Wolfenden’s recommendations to be enshrined in the law. The group went public and formed the Homosexual Law Reform Society in 1960. It was a small, elite group. But, given the fact that homosexual acts were still criminalised, and homophobia still widespread and largely unchallenged, it was practically impossible to expect any mass movement to grow up to contest the law at this point.
It still took a decade for legislation to pass. The moment finally came in the late 1960s. The Labour Party was in office, and Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary. Jenkins was a man of liberal and tolerant beliefs, and an important figure on the revisionist wing of the party. Labour in these years was far from being an ardent supporter of gay rights – it would be anachronistic to expect the party to be so. Some, including Prime Minister Harold Wilson, were fearful that arguing for reform of the law on homosexuality would alienate some of the party’s traditional working-class support base, and divert attention from the most important economic goals of the government. But others in the revisionist wing thought that Labour needed to focus on more than just economic reforms, and should try to bring about a more liberal, free, relaxed society. Part of this included reforming outdated, moralistic laws which caused huge misery. This meant abortion, homosexuality and divorce laws – all of which were reformed in the late 1960s.
Nevertheless, the bill to reform the law on homosexuality wasn’t a government bill; it was introduced by backbencher Leo Abse. But government support was vital to ensure the legislation had time to pass through both houses, and Jenkins ensured the bill had that support. Practically none of the reformers supporting the bill suggested that the change in the law would bring about broader changes in society, or that it was a matter of human rights or the individual right to sexual freedom. Homosexuals were supposed to be pitied, rather than empowered. Typical of this attitude was Abse’s statement in 1966 that change in the law was about dealing with “large numbers of people – many of them, apart from this particular aberration, who are totally law-abiding”. Upon introducing the bill, he even said that the “paramount reason” it was required was to “prevent … little boys from growing up to be adult homosexuals”. This is, from a modern point of view, was very far from an enlightened standpoint.
It’s also the case that these were the sorts of arguments that worked in the 1960s, when public ignorance of and hostility towards homosexuality was still widespread. Arguing that homosexuals should be pitied, not prosecuted, and allowed to do as they wished in private, was the argument that finally succeeded in persuading parliament to decriminalise homosexuality. And the bill very nearly didn’t pass, despite all the compromises Abse made.
Those compromises were many. The act decriminalised sexual acts between men in private, but ‘private’ was defined very narrowly, and made penalties even harsher for any acts not occurring in private. In the decade after 1967, the number of prosecutions for gross indecency between males trebled.
In addition, the age of consent for homosexual acts was set at 21 – a full five years later than the age of consent for heterosexuals. This discriminatory provision reflected the longstanding association between homosexuality and corruption, particularly the corruption of the young by older, supposedly ‘hardened’ homosexuals.
The stimulus for a wave of activism
The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was limited, but it did at least pave the way for more radical activism. With private homosexual acts decriminalised, it was possible for gay men (and women) to join together openly in order to challenge discrimination and prejudice. The harsh and discriminatory provisions set out in the 1967 law were one stimulus for the huge wave of gay and lesbian activism that sprang up in the 1970s.
One important activist group was the North Western Committee for Homosexual Law Reform, which had campaigned for the reform of the law on homosexuality before 1967, and now broadened its activities. It not only ran campaigns for equal rights, but also developed a wide range of social activities. These were hugely important, for many gay men and lesbians at the time had often felt isolated and lonely, unable to tell others about their sexuality, unable to easily meet other homosexuals, or talk about the issues that affected them. Coming together in social events meant more than just having fun: it was a profound challenge to the isolation and homophobia that had characterised life for many gay men before decriminalisation. In 1971 the committee became the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, and it still exists today.
Further groups sprang up in the 1970s, which became a decade of widespread social activism, particularly following the Stonewall riots, a series of spontaneous disturbances and demonstrations against hostile police raids on bars frequented by gay and transgender people in New York in the summer of 1969. In their aftermath, a newly open, combative and assertive lesbian, gay and trans political movement sprung up in the city.
Inspired by the ‘out and proud’ gay activism that developed in the US after the riots, the Gay Liberation Front was set up in London in 1970. The Gay Liberation Front, like the New York activists, had three central tenets: gay pride, coming out and coming together. Like the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, the Gay Liberation Front wanted to challenge the prejudices of society, many of which had been internalised by gay men and lesbians growing up. In many ways, it was more radical, wanting to tear up many of the assumptions of society (many of its members would probably have looked dimly on the idea of gay marriage.) Gay Liberation Front members denounced the homophobic attitudes of some psychiatrists, organised ‘kiss-ins’ to challenge the hostility faced by gay men and lesbians expressing affection in public, set up communes to find new ways of living outside the nuclear family, and organised the first gay pride march in London in 1972, attended by the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and many other groups and individuals. Though the Gay Liberation Front had collapsed in London by 1972, its members subsequently helped to develop many new organisations which created and knit together a new, visible, ‘gay community’.
The Campaign for Homosexual Equality, the Gay Liberation Front, and many other groups, were hugely important in the aftermath of 1967. These activists, emboldened and frustrated by the limited reform of 1967, did a huge amount to transform the lives of gay men and lesbians, to change public perceptions of homosexuality and to fight for equality. It is partly because of their work that 33 years later, in 2000, the age of consent was finally equalised and in 2013 marriage equality was enshrined in law. But the line between what is seen as acceptable in public and private remains an important issue for LGBTQ+ people today.
Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is a historian of 20th-century Britain. Her PhD examined political and popular ideas about class in England between c1969 and 2000. Other historical subjects she has an interest in include gender, sexuality and prostitution.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in July 2017