Sexual Offences, 50 Years On

It’s (about to be) 50 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. This February’s LGBT History Month will have a lot of events focused on that anniversary, but it’s worth remembering how limited a change it really was.

The bill was a bid to pass some of the proposals from the Wolfenden Report, which might be better understood if we remember its proper name was the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. Promising, eh?

Set up in 1954 and reporting three years later the committee’s work was a response to the trials of gay mathematician and modern computing icon Alan Turing, and bisexual Lord Mongtau of Beaulieu – regular readers will recall a recent BCN piece about his life. They were the two most high profile of many more, with over a thousand men in jail convicted of homosexual offences at the time.

This was not a crusade of social freedom – or at least was careful not to be seen as one – but a plan for dealing with the social impact of moral ills so that their impact on respectable society could be kept minimal. Lord Wolfenden’s committee reported in 1957, and the proposals to tighten up the law around sex work were taken up quickly, as the Street Offences Act of 1959. But the proposals around making life a little less difficult for bi and gay men took much longer to implement.

The report concluded that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence” and, perhaps even more outraging values of the time, that “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects.” The latter was out of keeping with much medical opinion at the time; even today as we know much more about the worse mental health experiences of bisexual and gay people we have to underline that such research is about the effects of biphobia and homophobia, not of being gay or bi.

The 1967 bill wasn’t the first attempt to implement Wolfenden’s proposals. A series of similar measures had fallen, proposed by Labour and Tory parliamentarians in both Houses. The last before the 1967 Act was a 1966 bill from the Conservative MP Humphry Berkley, which had easily passed its Second Reading and looked set to become law when the government called an early General Election. It is interesting to consider whether the party political story of LGBT rights in the past fifty years might have run differently if the 1960s Act had been passed in the name of a Conservative rather than a Labour member.

Humphry lost his seat – the publicity associated with championing the ‘gay rights’ cause probably helped. But the campaign was picked up by another MP in his absence.

In the 1966 parliament, Leo Abse’s Ten Minute Rule bill was given all the parliamentary time it needed, with the Home Secretary of the time – Roy Jenkins whose time in the job also saw abortion and divorce law transformed – pointedly sitting in the chamber throughout all the debates.

Under the bill, sex between consenting men over 21 was allowed – provided both were behind locked doors with the curtains drawn and no-one else in the building. Even aside from the age gap, this was a limited decriminalisation, not equal treatment. And it wasn’t all for the better: consensual sex between a man over 21 and one between 16 and 20 saw an increase in the length of sentences handed down.
It’s been argued that the bill actually led to an increase in prosecutions, both through the social backlash that often follows legal change due to public debate, and because police forces that had regarded the 1885 Act as rather dated now had a freshly drawn line-in-the-sand to attend to.

Abse’s bill only applied to England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland would have to wait until Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street to see even this much reform.

Yet 1967 was two years ahead of the Stonewall riot that is popularly told as the start of the equal rights movement and four years before the first Pride march in London and the first ‘gay rights’ fringe meeting at a party conference. It was a very different world.

It was a first step that led to us getting where we are.