It’s 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act – but what changed things for LGBT people?

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partly decriminalised sex between men. The Act has been portrayed as the start of a decades-long shift to the greater, if still limited, acceptance of LGBT people in Britain. In fact, writes Colin Wilson, we should make a clear distinction between the campaigning which changed the law in 1967 and the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1970s. It was Gay Liberation which created the world for LGBT people we know today; 1967 belongs to a different era.

1972 Pride march in London. Photo credit: BBC

Between 1885 and 1967 all sexual acts between men were illegal. Men who committed the crime of ‘gross indecency’ faced up to two years in jail – the penalty applied to the law’s most famous victim, Oscar Wilde, in 1895. In 1955 some 2,500 men were prosecuted, and about 750 were imprisoned. Gay and bi men didn’t just risk jail, but also exploitation by blackmailers. Sex between women, if not actually a crime, also faced severe repression. Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was banned in 1928, for example, on account of its lesbian themes, and seized copies were burnt in the furnaces of Scotland Yard.

The mid-50s saw a rise in prosecutions. The Tory Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, proclaimed that homosexuals were ‘a danger to others, especially the young’. There was paranoia about networks of gay men constituting an ‘enemy within’ based on the defection of two gay British spies, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, to Russia in 1951. This increase in British state homophobia echoed the much more serious attacks on lesbians and gay men which formed part of the McCarthy witch hunt in the US – a witch hunt which saw more people sacked for their sexuality than for being communists.

In 1954, Lord Montagu and Peter Wildeblood, the diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Mail, were convicted and jailed after involvement in a liaison with two RAF servicemen. There was widespread media debate about the case, during which Montague and Wildeblood were misrepresented as wealthy, decadent and corrupt people taking advantage of honest working class folk. It seemed clear that the law as it stood was not working – some people argued for it to be tightened up, others that it should be relaxed. To decide how to proceed, the government appointed a Royal Commission, chaired by Sir John Wolfenden, vice-chancellor of Reading University, and including two MPs, two clergymen and various other ‘respectable’ people.

In 1957 the Wolfenden Committee produced a report regarding the law around both homosexuality and prostitution. They argued that the purpose of the law was to preserve public decency and protect the weak from exploitation. Private acts, even if they were immoral, were no concern of the criminal law: gay sex in private should be decriminalised. But penalties for public displays of sexuality should be increased, particularly those imposed on sex workers. The proposals were not, then, about  an increased acceptance of homosexuality, as the report made plain:

… the limited modification of the law which we propose should not be interpreted… as a general licence to adult homosexuals to behave as they please.

The government quickly acted on the recommendations regarding sex work, but not those concerning homosexuality. So the following year the Homosexual Law Reform Society was established, and a campaign to get the Wolfenden proposals passed into law continued for the next eight years. The Society was a deeply respectable body – speakers at a public meeting it organised in May 1960, for example, included a magistrate, a bishop, the editor of the New Statesman and a psychiatrist. The membership was dominated by lawyers, clergymen and doctors. While of course many of those in and around the Society were lesbian, bi or gay themselves, very few were openly so. The Society’s campaigning methods consisted of activities like writing to MPs and the press, speaking at small public meetings and debates and sending out newsletters – marches and protests were unthinkable. Nor was it the case that a bunch of respectable straight people were holding back more radical homosexuals. One of the most striking features of the period is the extent to which lesbians and gay men themselves accepted that they were inferior – one character in the 1961 film Victim, which put the case for law reform, described his sexuality with the words ‘‘Mother Nature played a cruel trick on me’’.

The election in 1964 of a Labour government determined to ‘modernise’ British capitalism gave the reformers their chance. Roy Jenkins, on the right of the Labour Party (later a Liberal Democrat) oversaw a range of reforms including the legalisation of abortion, the end of censorship in the theatre and the translation of the Wolfenden proposals into law in 1967. As with the original report, this was not about any retreat from homophobia, but about a pragmatic shift away from the law trying to control what people did in their bedrooms towards it trying to control what they did in public. The overall approach behind the Act was made clear by Lord Arran, its chief architect: ‘I ask those… for whom the prison doors are now open to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity.’ As a result, sex between men was decriminalised only in specific circumstances. Both men had to be over 21 so as to prevent any risk of corruption of the young. Sex between more than two men remained illegal. And the sex had to take place in private – the act specifically stated that sex in a public toilet, where many gay men met in this period, was not considered private. These restrictions meant that the level of prosecutions under the ‘reformed’ law actually increased after 1967.

Poster for a public meeting on homosexual law reform

Nevertheless, with this change in the law, historian Jeffrey Weeks comments, ‘the limited aims of most adult professional-class homosexuals were satisfied’ and the Society became moribund. The only real exception was in North West England. Here the North West Committee for Homosexual Law Reform had been led since the 1950s by Alan Horsfall. Horsfall was a pit deputy – a foreman in a mine – who lived near Wigan in housing provided by his employer, the National Coal Board. Horsfall was fairly open about being gay himself, and reported that he didn’t face hostility in the local working class community. Law reform campaigning in north west England was thus more firmly rooted, and broke to some extent from the domination of middle-class straight people.

Meanwhile, far more radical changes were taking place thousands of miles away. Late 1960s America had witnessed a huge level of politicisation, including the movements against the Vietnam War, for Black Power and for women’s liberation. In 1966 trans people in San Francisco had rioted against their harassment at Compton’s Cafeteria, one of the few places they were able to socialise. In 1969 the radical movement and the anger of queer people came together in the Stonewall Riot. Several thousand people fought the cops for two nights in New York, a revolt sparked by a raid on a bar, the Stonewall. The Stonewall’s clientele included many people of colour, trans people and sex workers, who played a major role in the riot. In the following weeks campaigners established the Gay Liberation Front, its name echoing the National Liberation Front, the force fighting the American army in Vietnam. They adopted the slogan ‘gay is good’, echoing the cry that ‘black is beautiful’. They had received a letter of support from Huey Newton of the Black Panthers. They marched and kissed in the street. Homosexuality, which homosexuals themselves had seen as a personal defect to be suffered in privacy and shame, became both a source of joy and a reason to fight, collectively, for revolution. A greater transformation is hard to imagine.

By the autumn of 1970 the movement had arrived in Britain. Within a month meetings at the London School of Economics were attracting over 200 people, and by the following spring between 400 and 500 people met weekly in a church hall in Notting Hill Gate. GLF’s practice revolved around three things. First, being open about your own sexuality and asserting ‘gay pride’: people did this by wearing badges identifying them as gay, of which GLF sold 8,000 in their first year. Second, coming together with other gay people in campaigning activity. Jeffrey Weeks cites examples:

Gay liberationists, men and women, held hands in public, kissed each other in underground trains or on the streets… danced together at straight discos, demonstrated together, zapped public meetings [and] held openly homosexual dances and events.

Third, these activities were inseparable from fighting for revolution, however defined. That could be revolution in an orthodox left sense, as when GLF took part in the campaign against the Industrial Relations Act, anti-union laws of the period. Or it could be a more personal revolution, centred on living collectively and rejecting monogamy. Not that all sections of the new movement were radical: Alan Horsfall reappeared as head of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality with reformist politics which would have seemed impossibly radical in 1967 and now seemed utterly tame to the revolutionaries of GLF.

With hindsight, then, we see two very different periods of campaigning: the respectable reformism of 1958-67 and the revolutionaries of the early 70s. This is not a story of a single smooth progression towards acceptance, but a history divided by major differences of political strategy. How do we assess those strategies? In some ways, today’s LGBT movement is dominated by professional law reform politics, with Stonewall the modern successor of the Homosexual Law Reform Society. That approach has brought a real and important shift towards formal legal equality. But the role of change from below, I think, is even more important, even if the revolution foreseen by GLF never arrived. It’s the heritage of GLF and Stonewall that LGBT people are open about our sexuality, that we are proud of who we are and that we campaign collectively, if possible in our thousands, for change. Those ideas have been at the heart of the LGBT movement since 1969, and they played a major role in winning us legal equality, as people came out to friends, family and workmates and fought for change and won support from straight people. LGBT politics over the last sixty years, then, show us two ways of fighting for change – from above, respectably, through parliament, and from below, collectively, through militant mass activity. The historical record suggests that change from below is the more effective strategy.

You can read Ida Sofie-Picard’s article on Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (LGSM) and solidarity here, and Jen O’Leary’s article on the politics of London’s increasingly corporate Pride festival here.

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