When were homosexual acts decriminalised in England and Wales?
The Sexual Offences Act 1967 is often described as a partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality. The act introduced just one narrow exemption from prosecution. Apart from this one exemption, sexual acts between men continued to be a punishable offence.
The Act decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, with consent, aged 21 or over. The Act applied only to England and Wales and excluded the armed forces and the merchant navy. (Thanks to the National Union of Seamen sexual relations with a male passenger was permitted).
The Act introduced the term ‘homosexual’ into British law for the first time. The term ‘homosexuality’ would have to wait until Section 28/2A in 1988.
Where did the ideas for reform come from?
In early 1954 some MPs, judges, newspapers and the public were concerned there was a homosexual ‘witch-hunt’ going on. The number of prosecutions had increased enormously. There were over 5000 in 1952, the year Alan Turing was prosecuted. This was the policy of Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe. There were prosecutions of well-known people, including an actor, an MP and a Lord. Newspaper stories showed the police used entrapment, tapped telephones and searched without warrants. People understood that fear of the law was used to blackmail vulnerable gay men.
In August 1954 Maxwell-Fyfe announced an inquiry chaired by Sir John Wolfenden. It would advise on the reform of laws for prostitution and homosexuality. Maxwell-Fyfe strongly supported the criminalisation of sexual acts between men. He hoped the committee would recommend no change.
What did the report say about homosexuality and the law?
The Wolfenden report was published in 1957. It favoured tolerance and reform and it dismissed many common myths. It said the law should not concern itself with what a man does in private. But it also repeated many prejudices of the time. Although the committee refused to classify homosexuality as a mental illness it still urged research for a “cure”. The report condemned homosexuality as immoral and destructive to individuals. Wolfenden himself opposed homosexual equality. He blocked other committee members who wanted more acts decriminalised.
The report was an instant bestseller.
What happened to the recommendations?
Many of the proposals for prostitution were acted on straight away. But for homosexuality there was no political majority for change. Maxwell-Fyfe doubted that the general population would support reform. It was left to individual MPs and peers to try for change. They introduced their own reform bills based on Wolfenden’s recommendations in 1958, 1960 and again in 1962. In 1965 Lord Arran introduced his own bill into the House of Lords. After fierce opposition it passed. However the bill then ran out of parliamentary time. In 1966 Conservative MP and gay man Humphry Berkeley introduced the Arran bill in the House of Commons but a general election was called. These debates in Parliament and then reports in the newspapers encouraged the campaign for reform.
Who campaigned for decriminalisation after Wolfenden?
In 1958 the Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS) and the The Albany Trust were started. The Albany Trust was set up to support the mental health of homosexual men.
HLRS lobbied the Government to implement the Wolfenden recommendations. Over ,1,000 came to its first public meeting. Antony Grey became the Chair in 1963. The campaigning was an uphill struggle and the opposition to it was bitter and abusive.
The North-West Homosexual Reform Committee followed in1964. It was started by a Labour councillor, Allan Horsfall. It offered opportunities for homosexual men to meet socially. In 1969 it became the Committee for Homosexual Equality (CHE).
Faced with extreme hostility some individuals risked their livelihood and reputation to speak out and defend themselves. On 4th June 1960 a letter appeared in the New Statesman magazine. Three men used their real names and started the letter, ‘We are homosexuals….’. An early example of ‘coming out’ in the press.
How was decriminalisation finally achieved?
In 1966 the Labour Government was re-elected with a large majority and said it would continue to reform criminal justice. The Labour MP Leo Abse reintroduced the Arran Sexual Offences Bill that had passed in the Lords the year before. In 1967 Home Secretary Roy Jenkins made sure the Abse bill got parliamentary time.
As it was a private member’s bill Abse needed more than 100 supporters for the bill to pass. MPs who were against the bill proposed many amendments. The amendments would take a long time to discuss and they hoped the bill would run out of time. Abse managed to keep enough supporting MPs in the House of Commons chamber all night. At 5.50 am on 5th July the bill was supported by 101 MPs. Just one more than was required.
What was the reaction to the Act?
The 1967 Act was a major change in the legal status of homosexuals in the UK. That is why its 50th anniversary was celebrated so widely in 2017. However, it didn’t come close to making the legal status of homosexuals equal to the legal status of heterosexuals.
And the change in the law didn’t stop the arrests. Between 1967 and 2003, 30,000 gay and bisexual men were convicted for homosexual acts. Those acts were not crimes if they were between a man and a woman. Horsfall later said nobody he knew realised things had changed on the 5th of July. But it transformed his life. He and his lifelong partner no longer felt that they were at risk every moment of every day.
Lord Arran’s final speech in the Lords annoyed the gay community. ‘I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful… [And] make the sponsors of this bill regret that they had done what they had done.’
Clearly the community had other ideas… and the campaigning continued.