From Punishment to Pride – The Sexual Offences Act and beyond

1967 Pride flag. Image courtesy of playbuzz.com

1967 Pride flag. Image courtesy of playbuzz.com

From Punishment to Pride: the Wolfenden Report, 1957 and the Sexual Offences Act, 1967

The Wolfenden Report, 1957

The Wolfenden Report, 1957, from Wikipedia

The Wolfenden report was published in 1957, after a succession of well-known men, including Lord Montagu of Beaulieu were convicted of homosexual offences.

The report, prepared for the government by a committee chaired by Sir John Wolfenden, Vice-Chancellor of Reading University, investigated current laws on homosexuality and prostitution and suggested that homosexual behaviour, between consenting adults, should no longer be a crime. The 13-strong committee declared that outlawing homosexuality infringed civil liberties.

But the government rejected the proposal. Gay men would have to wait another ten years, until 1967, before the law permitted sexual relationships between adults over the age of 21, in private.

(Courtesy of the ‘Hidden Voices’ LGBT project, Reading)

The Sexual Offences Act, 1967

In 1967, the historic Sexual Offences Act was passed into Law. The Act decriminalised homosexuality – in private – at least in England and Wales; Scotland followed in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982.  The Act was far from perfect but it set in motion the long journey towards full equality, one that continues today.

Gay men in the 1950s and 1960s had lived as haunted men. In the decades before the Act (and for years afterwards) thousands of gay men and lesbian women entered into marriages of convenience to avoid being sacked from their jobs, and suffer awkward questions and social isolation.

The Act was seen as ending the ‘blackmailer’s charter’ that had resulted in many suicides. It partially decriminalised homosexual acts in private, but in reality, arrests for ‘cottaging’ and ‘gross indecency’ actually rose directly in the wake of the Act. And if a man reported robbery or burglary he could find himself under arrest if the police suspected he was gay, as Alan Turing had discovered to his cost in 1954.

The phrase “consenting adults in private” in the Act was interpreted in its narrowest forms by many police and consenting couples could still be arrested if they shared a house.

Today’s perception of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act is that it was the beginning of the end of homophobia in Britain. While it is certainly true that without it, the many legal and cultural freedoms LGBT people have today may not have happened at all or certainly would have taken longer to achieve, in reality it was not overnight liberation: it took decades for public opinion to catch up with legislation.
The Act made no mention of equality or love. In the words of Lord Arran, who sponsored the 1965 Lords Bill that paved the way for the Act:

This is no occasion for jubilation; certainly not for celebration. Any form of ostentatious behaviour, now or in the future, any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful and would, I believe, make the sponsors of the Bill regret that they have done what they have done. Homosexuals must continue to remember that while there may be nothing bad in being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good….no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity. We shall always, I fear, resent the odd man out.

And while the Act paid attention to men, women in lesbian relationships, who had never been officially criminalised, were still stigmatised and socially excluded through lack of legal protection.

(Text courtesy of LGBT History Month)

The Sexual Offences Act, 1967, courtesy of Polari Magazine

Read more about these reports on the Parliament UK website http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/overview/sexuality20thcentury/

The parliamentary discussion of the 1967 Act is transcribed in Hansard and can be read at http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1967/jul/13/sexual-offences-no-2-bill#s5lv0284p0_19670713_hol_143 whilst the Act itself can be read at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1967/60

Read a blog by David Munro, Surrey Police Commissioner, former Surrey County Council Chairman, and gay man, on the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act and the ramifications on policing and
LGBT+ equality in wider society.

From shame to pride – 50 years journey of LGBT legislation

1967 Sexual Offences Act in England and Wales decriminalises homosexual acts between men over 21 and in private. Scotland legalises it in 1980; Northern Ireland in 1982.

1971 First ever gay march and rally in London.

1979 LWT commissions the first ever gay television series Gay Life.

1982 UK’s first HIV/Aids charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust, is launched.

1988 Section 28, banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, introduced as part of the Local Government Act.

1994 Age of consent lowered to 18 from 21.

1998 Waheed Alli, one of the few openly gay Muslims, becomes a life peer in Parliament.

2000 Government lifts ban on lesbian and gay men in the armed forces.

2001 Age of consent lowered to 16.

2003 Section 28 repealed.

2004 The Civil Partnership Act allows same-sex unions; The Gender Recognition Act 2004 allows transsexual people to change their legal gender.

2005 The Adoption and Children Act 2002 now allows same-sex and unmarried couples, to apply for joint adoption.

2007 The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) outlaws discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

2009 David Cameron apologises for the introduction of Section 28.

2010 The Equality Act 2010 adds gender reassignment as a protected characteristic.

2012 The Protection of Freedoms Act is passed in the UK removing historic convictions for consensual sex between men from the criminal record.

2013 The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act is passed in England and Wales; Alan Turing is given a posthumous royal pardon for his conviction for ‘gross indecency’.

2015 The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London, is the first building given UK listed status because of its LGBT history.

Courtesy of Stonewall http://www.stonewall.org.uk/about-us/key-dates-lesbian-gay-bi-and-trans-equality and Geraldine Bedell, ‘Coming out of the Dark Ages’, The Guardian, 24 June 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2007/jun/24/communities.gayrights

Find out more about the punishment of gay men in Surrey throughout the ages.