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.
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. [
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,
*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 , Speaking of Sex , and Speaking Out .