The 50th anniversary in July of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 will be marked by celebratory events, from Queer British Art at the Tate to the BBC’s Gay Britannia season. I feel ambivalent about the celebrations: 1967 was progress, but the criminalisation of homosexuality in the UK did not in fact end until 2013.
The 1967 act was just a start. It was the first gay law reform since 1533, when anal sex was made a crime during Henry VIII’s reign; all other sexual acts between men were outlawed in the Victorian era, in 1885.
My new research reveals that an estimated 15,000-plus gay men were convicted in the decades that followed the 1967 liberalisation. Not only was homosexuality only partly decriminalised by the 1967 act, but the remaining anti-gay laws were policed more aggressively than before by a state that opposed gay acceptance and equality. In total, from 1885 and 2013, nearly 100,000 men were arrested for same-sex acts.
The 1967 legislation repealed the maximum penalty of life imprisonment for anal sex. But it still discriminated. The age of consent was set at 21 for sex between men, compared with 16 for sex between men and women; a decision that pandered to the homophobic notion that young men are seduced and corrupted by older men. The punishment for a man over 21 having non-anal sex with a man aged 16-21 was increased from two to five years.
I was 10 when The Naked Civil Servant was shown on TV. My mother was working nights as a nurse and my stepdad and I watched the programme together. Afterwards he turned to me and said, “Your mother is worried you might turn out like that.”.
Not half as worried as I was. Looking back now, I can appreciate Quentin Crisp for the trailblazer he was. Aged 10, I was terrified of him.I left Wales in 1984 and moved to London to study and become the person I knew I wanted to be. In 1985 I attended my first Pride march and I heard my first marching slogan. .
“Give me a G! Give me an A! Give me a Y! What does it spell? Gay! What is gay? Good! What else is gay? Angry!”There was a lot to be angry about in the mid-80s. .
The age of consent for gay men was 21, which meant the law was being broken on a regular basis. Section 28, with which the Thatcher government outlawed the promotion of homosexuality in schools, was just around the corner. .
And soon a big disease with a little name would claim the lives of many of my closest friends.Around this time I had a friend called Tom, who was in his 60s and who would often tell me tales of life before the 1967 act. .
He and his partner had been together for many years but slept in two separate single beds. As he told me, “You could be put in prison just for loving someone.” The day the act was passed he and his partner went out and bought a double bed. Every time he told me this story, my eyes would fill with tears.
Looking back over your shoulder in fear, embarrassment and shame is not a good state of mind. Self-doubt, leading a double life, masquerading as a person you’re pretending to be: the tone is set for an unfulfilled life, anxiety and mental health issues. Over the last 50 years battles have been fought, lives have been lost and undoubtedly saved. Equality is always just around the corner.
There are many of us who remember the hatred, the discrimination, the abuse. Yet as we commemorate the advances we must be ever mindful that those attitudes still exist today, not just in other countries around the world but also right here on our doorstep.
We live in a more tolerant society now but ask yourself, whoever you are: do you want to be tolerated or do you want to start off on an equal footing?The past five decades years have seen laws that allowed people to be criminalised, demonised, and barred from serving their country or marrying the person that they love slowly chipped away.
It is remarkable, as a gay man, moving from the underground to a higher level of visibility. The first pride marches were more like political rallies, resulting in near-riots and violence. Today it is a massive street party, attended by thousands of people of all genders, races and sexual orientations, closing off a significant section of central London.What most people want is acceptance and equality.
Full stop. I recall during our debate about gay marriage, a Ukip councilllor, who is a grown adult, an educated man, genuinely said that if the UK legalised gay marriage, we would be “beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war”. And guess what, in the last couple of years we’ve had some of the worst floods in history.
So maybe he had a point, for it is written in the Holy Book, that after the flood there comes a rainbow.To be able to write this in a national newspaper is huge. To have official organisations commemorating this change in legislation when remembering all the battles over Section 28 is extraordinary. To be able to be me is living. The only thing in my closet are my clothes.
I thank all those people upon whose shoulders we stand for not keeping quiet. And if one young person, going through the trauma of finding out who they are, can be encouraged and made to feel they are worth something, it has all been worthwhile. I’m holding off on using the word “celebrate”. The battle is not yet won.
Gay sex remained prosecutable unless it took place in strict privacy, which meant in a person’s own home, behind locked doors and windows, with the curtains drawn and with no other person present in any part of the house.
It continued to be a crime if more than two men had sex together or if they were filmed or photographed having sex by another person. Seven men in Bolton were convicted of these offences and two were given suspended jail terms – in 1998.
The 1967 reform applied to only England and Wales, not being extended to Scotland until 1980 and to Northern Ireland until 1982. It did not include the armed forces or merchant navy, where sex between men remained a criminal offence.
Gay military personnel and merchant seamen could still be jailed until 1994, for behaviour that was no longer a crime between gay civilians. Legislation authorising the sacking of seafarers for homosexual acts on UK merchant ships was repealed only last month.
Centuries-old anti-gay laws remained on the statute book long after 1967 as “unnatural offences”. The two main gay crimes continued to be anal sex, known in law as buggery; and gross indecency, which was any sexual contact between men including mere touching and kissing.
There was also the offence of procuring – the inviting or facilitating of gay sex. The law against soliciting and importuning criminalised men chatting up men or loitering in public places with homosexual intent, even if no sexual act took place.
In the 1980s, the Conservative government’s “family values” campaign whipped up hysterical levels of homophobia, aided by the moral panic over HIV/Aids. At the 1987 Conservative party conference Margaret Thatcher used her keynote speech to attack the notion that people had a right to be gay..
Coinciding with this intolerant atmosphere was a massive rise in arrests of gay men for consenting behaviour. In Home Office archives I found that there were 1,718 convictions and cautions for gross indecency in 1989..
The 2,022 recorded offences of gross indecency that year was almost as many as the 2,034 recorded in 1954, when male homosexuality was totally illegal...
Full reform did not happen until 36 years after 1967. The gross indecency law of 1885 had been used to convict the computer genius Alan Turing in 1952 and, before him, to jail the playwright Oscar Wilde in 1895..
Together with the criminalisation of anal sex, it was finally repealed by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. As a result, for the first time in 470 years, England and Wales had a criminal code that did not penalise gay sexuality..
In Northern Ireland, the ban on anal sex was not finally repealed until 2008. Scotland’s anti-gay laws were repealed in 2009 but, in the case of sodomy, did not take effect until 2013. It seems scarcely credible, but gay sex ceased to be a crime in the UK only four years ago...
I was born in 1965 – two years before the passing of the 1967 act. I was raised in south Wales – at that time, a place hardly known for its progressive attitudes towards sexuality..
Homophobia was rife. I was bullied at school a lot. Kids were calling me “poof” and “fairy” long before I knew what those words meant. They also called me “tog”, which was a local term for queer. I didn’t know I was queer. I knew I was different but I didn’t know how or why..
It’s a commonly held misconception that the 1967 act legalised male homosexuality. It didn’t. It partially decriminalised it under certain conditions. In the years that followed, gay sexuality was policed more aggressively than before and the number of men arrested for breaching those conditions actually rose considerably.
As research conducted by Peter Tatchell recently found, in 1966 some 420 men were convicted of the gay crime of gross indecency. By 1974, that number had soared by more than 300% to over 1,700 convictions
.Policing in the 80s and early 90s was virulently homophobic, whipped up by hysteria around Aids and gay-baiting newspapers such as the Sun, Daily Mail and News of the World. Manchester’s police chief, James Anderton, penned a tabloid column about Aids in which he described gay men as “swirling in a human cesspit of their own making”.
Gay saunas were raided. “Disorderly house” charges were pressed against gay bars and nightclubs. At the Royal Vauxhall Tavern one night there was a raid by police wearing rubber gloves.
The drag queen Lily Savage – also known as Paul O’Grady – encouraged everyone to resist arrest.’m not saying that the 1967 Act wasn’t revolutionary. In many ways it was. For men such as my old friend Tom, it meant a change of life. Finally he got to sleep with his partner in a double bed!
But it was also very limited. It allowed the law to go on punishing us for things heterosexuals took for granted – the freedom to have sex at 16, the freedom to express our love in public, the freedom to be ourselves.