LGBT History Month: 50th Anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act

“I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly… 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” – Lord Arran (quoted during Royal Assent of the bill by The Times newspaper on 28 July 1967)

Lucy Power

By Lucy Power, Kent Police and Justice Branch

It took almost 500 years from the passing of the buggery act, which made homosexuality punishable by death, to reach partial decriminalisation.  As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, it would serve us well to recognise how far we’ve come, and yet how far we still have to go.  This is especially true in light of the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump in the US.

Homophobic laws have always been a particularly male problem, focussing specifically on buggery. The patriarchal view of women as little better than children, to be ‘done to’ rather than ‘done by’, saved most women from the worst ravages of anti-homosexual thinking; often despite the best efforts of some politicians.  Homosexual and bisexual men, on the other hand, were seen as fair game. The last men in Britain to be executed for buggery were hanged in 1835. Between 1806 and 1835 404 men had been sentenced to death for sodomy, and 56 executed.

When the Sexual Offences Act was finally passed in 1967, it had taken ten years of active campaigning, a departmental committee, and Lord’s sponsorship. However, it did not legalise homosexuality.  It only exempted gay sex from criminal prosecution if it took place between two consenting males aged 21 or over, in private.  In private meant that no other person could be present in the building where two men were engaging in sexual activity.  It also only applied to England and Wales. It also did nothing to address homophobic attitudes that affected both men and women. Those that took the opportunity to come out were often quickly disabused of their mistaken notions of approaching equality—like Maureen Colquhun, the first openly lesbian Labour MP, who came out in 1975, and was subsequently deselected by the Labour Party as they felt she would be unable to attract supporters to help with her re-election.

The limited decriminalisation also served to encourage more vigorous policing of the remaining prohibitions, labelled gross indecency, resulting in dramatic increases in prosecutions for age of consent violations, public sex acts and cruising.  Those found guilty increased from 420 in 1966 to 1,503 in 1989. Harsher sentencing was an added hardship.

However, every cause, every under represented group, can lament to failings of poorly composed legislation, and the unintended consequences.  Often law leads the way, and societal attitudes change more slowly.  There is no doubt that the Sexual Offences Act paved the way for the gradual reduction of the age of consent to reach equity with heterosexual legal definitions.  The European Court of Human Rights challenged the criminalisation of Homosexuality in Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as the privacy restrictions in the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

It took another 30 years to remove the bar on homosexuals serving in the armed forces, for homosexual couples to have the same rights to adopt, and to attain the right to have civil partnerships.  After 40 years it finally became illegal to discriminate against individuals based on their sexuality.

Having moved so far in fifty years we now face a new challenge. The Brexit vote means there is no longer a Court of Human Rights to appeal to.  The Christian Right in the US see Donald Trump’s election as an opportunity to roll back gay rights, and this is a growing movement in the UK too. Across the world, countries that were moving toward liberal views of sexuality, such as South Africa and Russia, are now repealing protective legislation, and engaging in anti-gay rhetoric.  The rights that the gay community have gained are fragile, and complacency will destroy them.  There are no spectators to a revolution – everyone participates whether they know it or not; if you don’t join the revolution you are an anti-revolutionist, even if you think you’re a neutral spectator.  In this fiftieth anniversary our celebrations must be a rallying cry to continue the struggle. We must secure our current rights and join our international comrades and allies to fight discrimination and champion equality.

Revolutions are killed by spectators.