@_AlexandraClare on The Sexual Offences Act and perceptions of homosexual relationships at the time when homosexual acts were decriminalised.
If you wanted to celebrate the anniversary of the legalisation of homosexual acts in the UK, you have a broad choice of dates, depending on factors like where you live, whether you are in the armed services and your age.
The obvious place to start is 1967, a nice round number of an anniversary and, on paper, a huge step forward because, for the first time since 1885, homosexual acts between men were decriminalised. The Sexual Offences act had taken ten years to make it through parliament following a recommendation from a committee chaired by Lord Wolfenden (which itself had taken three years to produce its report). The legislation applied only to England and Wales and the definitions in the act were strictly drawn: to be considered legal, men had to be over twenty-one, consenting and the acts had to take place in a private place. The act even went into detail as to what this meant:
An act which would otherwise be treated for the purposes of this Act as being done in private shall not be so treated if done-
(a) when more than two persons take part or are present;
or (b) in a lavatory to which the public have or are permitted to have access, whether on payment or otherwise
Although getting the bill passed was seen as an achievement, the act’s supporters pleaded for discretion. During the bill’s second reading in the Lords, Lord Arran said:
I ask those who have, as it were, been in bondage and for whom the prison doors are now open to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity. 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 and derision, or at best of pity. We shall always, I fear, resent the odd man out. That is their burden for all time, and they must shoulder it like men—for men they are.
The News of the World described the new law as ‘a blot on the country’ and a ‘charter for corruption’.
The act left a lot of potential for both heavy-handed application and active entrapment. A third person being ‘present’ was interpreted as someone else being in the same house or even when the couple were in a shared building, such as a hotel. While allowing private acts, the act toughened penalties for public offences, including Gross Indecency, an offence that only applied to gay men. This criminalised soliciting, which was interpreted as including chatting people up, so even making an arranging to meet for sex in private could be considered criminal if the parties were in public. Convictions for homosexual offences increased after the act, only peaking in 1989.
Lord Arran also commented that
This is no occasion for jubilation; certainly not for celebration.
History has proved him wrong. While the act was limited in its scope, it was a milestone. There is an argument that the anger generated by the compromises needed to get the bill passed contributed to the formation of pressure groups in the early seventies, along with the events in America that fueled campaigns in the UK, all pushing the fight for equality. In the fifty years since the bill, areas of legal discrimination have been chipped away, step by step and that is indeed something to celebrate.
Follow Alex on twitter at @_AlexandraClare
Other related articles about this time period.
An insight in the 1967 act and other laws gay and bisexual men had to face in this time period.
A good article on the Labouchere Amendment and the man behind it is
Another good article explaining previous laws and why it led to the Labouchere Amendment, The Offences against the Person Act 1861