Friday, 27 July 2007

Gay Lives Transformed

Guest Blogger ANTONY GREY writes:


Forty years ago today, on 27 July 1967, the Sexual Offences Act received the Royal Assent, and a ten-year campaign, in which I had been closely involved from the outset, to decriminalise male homosexual behaviour in accordance with the recommendations of the 1957 Wolfenden Report achieved its first significant success.


The Act was a limited one – in my view, too limited. It did not bring the law on homosexual behaviour into line with that regulating heterosexual behaviour, and it did not even fully implement Wolfenden’s proposals. There was a cluster of reasons for this. Far less was understood in those days about the sheer ordinariness of gay people. Homosexuality was widely regarded, even by professional people who should have known better, as a sick degeneracy or perversion, as well as a vice, practised by a few sick psychopaths but liable, if let loose, to spread like wildfire. So the Home Office, who – despite the Bill’s nominally backbench sponsorship – had effective control over its detailed drafting, erred on the side of extreme caution. And the Bill’s Parliamentary sponsors, Lord Arran in the Lords and Leo Abse in the Commons, deemed it prudent to play the ‘pity these sad misfits’ card heavily, whereas the Homosexual Law Reform Society, of which I was Secretary, would have preferred – I believe rightly – to lay most emphasis on the blatant injustice of the unreformed law. Arran and Abse paternalistically deplored any attempts by gay people to organise themselves either politically to socially, and expected them – indeed, exhorted them – to ‘put up and shut up’ once the 1967 reform was achieved. It was an unrealistic attitude: within a few years, not only conventional bodies such as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, but also the flamboyantly radical Gay Liberation Front, were out and proud.


What the 1967 Act, flawed though it was, did achieve, however, was of great significance: for the first time in over 80 years, it was no longer a crime for two consenting men aged over 21 to enjoy physical sexual relations with each other in private in England and Wales. [Scotland had to wait until 1980 and Northern Ireland until 1982 to be brought into line]. Of course, men had never stopped behaving homosexually, and never will, whatever the law says. In its attempts to regulate peoples’ desires on ‘moral’ grounds, the law is always an ass. But what this law did do was to signal that it was now possible to behave in this way without being a criminal; and this removed a nightmarish burden of secrecy and blackmail from the lives of many thousands of men.


Looking back over the 40 years since the Act was passed, much surprises me and quite a lot still disappoints me. While I am gratified that the sex laws have at last been equalised for men and women, and for homosexual and heterosexual behaviour, I am surprised – and dismayed – that this has been done in such a way that much sexual activity that is in fact consenting is still a crime, especially between teenagers. This strikes me as mistakenly over-protective. People of all ages should be safeguarded from rape and other sexual assaults, and empowered to say an effective ‘No’ to unwanted advances. But to punish those who do in fact agree to consensual behaviour diminishes their responsibility rather than enhancing it. I regard the notion that early sexual experiences willingly embarked upon are inevitably ‘harmful’ to those concerned as unfounded, and a malign fiction stemming from the grotesque ‘paedophile panic’ that has disfigured sensible debate around teenage sexuality for the past twenty years.


I am surprised, and of course pleased, that civil partnerships are now available to gay couples as well as to unmarried heterosexual ones. This is something I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime, and augurs well for the greater social acceptance of single-sex relations as just another unremarkable facet of personality. I don’t, though, go as far as some gay commentators, such as Matthew Parris in yesterday’s Times, who believe that the need for any more gay rights campaigning is finally over. Despite the vulgar cavortings of the stinking-rich Gay Glitterati [no names, but you know who I mean!], there is still abundant ignorance, prejudice, and homophobic bullying out in the sticks, and even witch-hunting prosecutions continue for trivial episodes – some allegedly committed years before they are brought to court. The reinstatement of a time limit on stale prosecutions is just one of several urgently needed further reforms.


I am also dismayed by the widespread ignorance of many younger people – including gay ones – of what life was like for us before 1967, and even that behaviour which they now take for granted was a crime until so recently. Some of the articles, broadcast programmes, and discussions of the 1967 reform have been poorly researched and factually inaccurate. All this serves as a warning that those who forget their history may be condemned to repeat it. Lord Arran, who was the chief sponsor of the reform Bill in the House of Lords, once said to me that there is no tradition of reaction in British politics. I disagreed with him then, and still do. Only remember that in the 1920s and early ‘30s, Berlin under the Weimar Republic was the freest place in the world for gay people. But soon after the Nazis came to power in 1933, homosexuals started being sent to the death camps for elimination as the lowest of the low – despised even more than Jews. Even today, there are countries where homosexuals are being stoned to death on religious grounds. Such bigoted cruelty must never be allowed to happen here. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.


*Antony Grey was Secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society and its successor, the Sexual Law Reform Society, for most of the period between 1962 and 1977. He is the author of Quest for Justice [1992], Speaking of Sex [1993], and Speaking Out [1997].


13 comments:

Jose said...

A very interesting article, Anticant, as all of yours. I observe, though, you centre your comments on sex while there is an even more important facet in homosexuality: love. Love is as much important as sex in any couple, love is fundamental while sex is complementary. As happens with heterosexuals prostitution, being as it is a natural inclination in persons, is a different question to that posed by love and its derivatives where sex has an important part.

anticant said...

Jose, the article is about the legal and social progress achieved since 1967. Love is an entirely different matter - which was the subject of an earlier post, and which will doubtless be further discussed in future ones.

While the law has too often aspired - wrongly, in my view - to control the physical expression of desire, it is powerless to prohibit love.

Thank goodness!

Jose said...

Love is the basis of marriages in religions and is not in civil weddings - if I am not wrong -, therefore why love isn't mentioned in all these legal matters is something that patently shows how little our legislators work on the human feelings. Laws seem to have no spirit, just cold expressions of what must or mustn't be done.

Emmett said...

AUNTY, I am whelmed by your passionate life-long devotion to this cause -- it is a tremendous example of the idea that, sometimes at least, ones own interest and that of others /can/ coincide for all practical purposes in a seamless way.

AS To the spirit of the laws, that is a just-so -- law is all-epimethean, of necessity. What we often must lament therefore is that the law has so often little /soul/, or none.

AND, /There/ is the danger against which spirit & law would guard us -- the night-deep realms of soul & Dionysos. It is these that give rise to both the most affectionate /and/ most appalling & violent dreams, of relationship between creatures.

WHEN I read of these most-devoted struggles to set all free in the broad light of Day, it does make me weep for the inconstancy of the World.

anticant said...

Thank you, Emmett and Jose, for your very kind words. I sometimes wonder in retrospect whether, if I had known beforehand all the garbage that would be slung at me - some from unexpected directions - I would do the same again? The answer is, that if I had not done it I would not be me.

I felt impelled to make a stand against injustice and cruelty. As they say, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do!" I ended my book about it by quoting Martin Luther [an unlikely choice, you may think]: "Here I stand. I can do no other."

Richard W. Symonds said...

This week, interestingly and very unusually, there is a small feature - & photograph - in the Crawley Observer (July 25) - "Remembering Bosie"..Crawley (nr. Gatwick) is where I live by the way.

A few excerpts "...Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie as he was known, was one of Oscar Wilde's lovers...Bosie was buried alongside his mother Sybil, Marchioness of Queensberry, at St Francis's & St Anthony's Church on Haslett Avenue ('The Friary', Crawley-Ed) in March 1945...

"Bosie was a poet in his own right, but became more famous for his scandalous relationship with Wilde...

"One of Bosie's poems that talked about homosexuality, as "the love that dare not speak its name", was used against Wilde during the trial...

"Father Tony Barry at the Friary church said : 'I know he is buried there, and I always feel rather sorry for him, because he's remembered for someone he was friends with, rather than for his own work.

" 'Others have talked about his relationship with Oscar Wilde, but I'm not sure he's even been full credit for what he did in his own right' ".

Richard W. Symonds said...

Just to add..the reason why this 'Bosie' feature appeared in the Crawley Observer might have something to do with this :

http://www.crawleyonline.org/viewtopic.php?t=499

anticant said...

Richard: Bosie was a talented poet but [like so many of his family] a spiteful person who loved pursuing vendettas - most notably against Robbie Ross, Oscar Wilde's most devoted friend and literary executor. Bosie managed to get himself sent to prison for libelling Winston Churchill!

anticant said...

There is an excellent article by Will Young in today's 'Times' [28 July] making some good points against Matthew Parris's over-complacent views.

Also two interesting articles and comment threads on today's 'Guardian' CiF by Paul Flynn and Simon Fanshawe.

trousers said...

Briefly - but hopefully succinctly -

Respect to you.

Richard W. Symonds said...

Thanks AC

lavenderblue said...

A good post............but how ridiculous,and how sad, that problems STILL rear their ugly heads..
I echo trousers on this.

pela68 said...

Hello AC

Excellent article. Hope life is treating you well (under the circumstances). Thank you for popping by.

Today seems to be a wonderful day. I hope you have one too!