Who Was Responsible for the Partial Decriminalisation of Homosexuality in the UK?

On 27th July 1967, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 became law: “An Act to amend the law of England and Wales relating to homosexual acts.” This partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts was the first step towards full equality – a fight that continues today. But how did it come about? And what impact did it (initially) have?

The 1967 Act was proposed by Leo Abse, a Labour MP, and Lord Arran, a Conservative peer. They drew heavily on the findings of the Wolfenden report, which had been set up to investigate homosexuality and prostitution in the country. Three previous attempts had been made to turn the report’s recommendations into law, but weren’t fully successful. The report had been published in September 1957, following the conviction of several well-known men for homosexual offences, including Lord Montagu and Michael Pitt-Rivers.

The committee was chaired by John Wolfenden (whose son later came out as gay) and consisted of twelve men and three women, including a judge, an academic, a psychiatrist and several theologians. They gathered testimony from police officers, religious leaders, psychiatrists and gay men whose lives had been affected, often ruined, by the existing laws. In order not to upset the ladies in the room, Wolfenden recommended that they use the terms Huntley & Palmers (Huntleys for homosexuals and Palmers for prostitutes) after the biscuit manufacturers.

With the exception of James Adair OBE, former Procurator-Fiscal for Glasgow, the committee concluded that the what people got up to in the privacy of their own home was not within the remit of the law. They wrote: “The law’s function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others… It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.” Contrary to some medical testimony, they also reported that “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease”.

They made the primary recommendation that: “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offence”. 10 years later, the Sexual Offences Act was passed, making law that: “Notwithstanding any statutory or common law provision… a homosexual act in private shall not be an offence provided that the parties consent thereto and have attained the age of twenty-one years.”

The Bill was only a partial decriminalisation, including various provisos: the age of consent was set at 21, compared to 16 for heterosexual couples. (It was reduced to 18 in 1994 by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act and equalised in 2000.) Any acts done “in a lavatory to which the public have or are permitted to have access” were still treated as criminal offences (perhaps unsurprisingly, although such public spaces included hotels), as were acts “where more than two persons take part or are present” (it wasn’t until the 2003 Sexual Offences Act that this was decriminalised; men were prosecuted as recently as 1998 for having group sex in private). (Between the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the vast majority of the original 1967 text has been repealed or amended.)

The Bill was debated in parliament late into the night before being passed at around 5.50 am. Home Secretary Roy Jenkins captured the government’s attitude during the debate: “those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives.” (This language alone demonstrates how much more was needed.)

Lord Arran tried to minimise public criticism that the legislation would directly lead to further homosexual civil rights, adding that: “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.”

The Act didn’t stop the arrest of gay and bisexual men: between 1967 and 2003, around 30,000 arrests were made for offences that would not have been criminal had they been heterosexual. In his 1992 book Europe in The Pink, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell claimed that the legislation actually led to an increase in prosecution.

It was far from perfect – and incredibly problematic in some respects – but the 1967 Act was the first major step towards LGBT equality in the UK. (Scotland legalised homosexuality in 1980; Northern Ireland in 1982.) We need to remember its history.

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