Tim Bennett-Goodman assesses the impact on the gay community in England and Wales of the landmark piece of liberalising legislation, the Sexual Offences Act 1967.
Saturday 28 July 2012 marks the 45th anniversary of the granting of Royal Assent to the Sexual Offences Act 1967.
The Sexual Offences Bill 1966, sponsored by Labour MP Leo Abse in the Commons, and Conservative whip the Earl of Arran in the Lords, became law after a long and acrimonious passage through both Houses and much negative publicity. In partially decriminalising homosexual acts between two consenting males over the age of 21 in private, the resultant Sexual Offences Act 1967 is often hailed as a major landmark in the liberalising of laws relating to gay sex in the UK but, for exactly those same reason it is sometimes portrayed as a fudge. Whether it was a momentous piece of reforming legislation or a false dawn has divided, and continues to divide, opinion.
For a start, the Act only applied to England and Wales rather than the entire United Kingdom, and even then not to the armed forces or the merchant navy. Decriminalisation did not reach Scotland until 1980, Northern Ireland until 1982 and the Isle of Man (oh, the irony of it!) until 1992. It also signally failed to equalise the age of consent for gay men to that of heterosexuals, i.e. 16. 21 was the age of majority at the time so, whilst people of both sexes had to wait until the age of 21 to vote, heterosexuals were deemed able to make a decision as to whether or not to have sexual intercourse at 16, whereas gay men apparently required another five years’ life experience to reach the same decision.
The Act further restricted gay men by only sanctioning sex between two consenting adult males (i.e. over 21) in private. A threesome (or more-some) was a definite no-no, but even sex with non-participant/s present was an offence, as was consensual sex in an hotel or other ‘public’ place.
Doubtless for the most honourable of motives, one of the Bill’s sponsors, Lord Arran, went on to pile on the pressure by asking gay men 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.” To act in any unseemly or triumphalist way would, he said “make the sponsors of this bill regret that they had done what they had done”. In other words (or so it appeared) gay men were free to indulge their sexual preferences (to a limited degree) but God forbid they should actually derive any enjoyment from doing so!
Taking all this into account, it could be said that the net result of the Act was a victory scarce worth the winning. And, indeed, Peter Tatchell appeared to be rather of this opinion in his 1992 book, Europe in the Pink, in which he claimed that the partial decriminalisation led to an increase in prosecutions. This may well be true, but it is almost certainly fair to assume that this was a wholly unintended effect of the legislation, which had been proposed in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s precisely as a result of a sharp increase in prosecutions against gay men at that time. In other words, its implementation may well have been mishandled but its intentions were noble ones which should not be belittled.
The sponsors and supporters of the Bill can hardly be blamed for not predicting that the outcome of their liberalising tendencies might be, initially at least, the opposite of what they had intended, nor for not being immune to the social prejudices and conformities of their time.
Peter Tatchell is renowned for his iron will and unwillingness to compromise in the slightest degree when it comes to gay rights, which admirable characteristics make him the inimitable and heroic campaigner that he undoubtedly is. But not everyone is as single-mindedly determined (nor as brave) as he, and many have a temperamental preference for operating through concession and consensus. Whatever one’s personal take on the 1967 Act, and on the motivation of its backers, it should be seen and acknowledged as the breakthrough it was at the time (and a hard-won one at that) which paved the way to further liberalisation.
Of course, it took decades of further lobbying, campaigning and protesting to get to where we are today, with the equalisation of the age of consent to 16 throughout the United Kingdom (although Peter Tatchell, with some justification, argued for a lowering to 14 on the grounds of not unnecessarily criminalising young people), with civil partnerships and the very real prospect of same-sex civil marriage. But the LGBT community has yet to gain full equality under the law and so the struggle continues.
I believe we should as a community at least mark the 45th anniversary of the passing into law of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, if not actively celebrate it, which is another matter and ultimately one of personal choice. Perhaps we could all agree, though, to give it two cheers?
Click here to read the sections of the Act pertaining to homosexuality: 1967 Sexual Offences Act