2017 marks 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain. Or so the media would have you believe. The nation’s most edgy and controversial broadcaster has made much of the anniversary with lots of programming exploring the turbulent and at times violent journey that lesbian, gay and bisexual people have been on collectively since 1967. The eagle eyed amongst you may have noticed the Great British Bake off began with contestants making rainbow cakes – it was no coincidence, but a symbolic gesture that the show is now hosted by a channel that is proud of its diversity and inclusion.
Well, I’m here to explain why the 50 year anniversary is a bit of a myth, although it’s true that Britain’s gay civil rights movement started to gain momentum in the late 60's. Female homosexuality has never been illegal in Britain.
First, a bit of a history lesson. I hear you yawn… but bear with me. Homosexuality is nothing new – and there are records going back to the 1st Century and the Roman Empire. Some extremely well known and notable monarchs in British history have been gay or bisexual, and given their extremely privileged positions have been relatively open about it, or at least haven’t been bothered to hide it. Emperor Hadrian, Richard the lion heart, Edward II, Richard II, James I (Who united the kingdoms of Scotland & England) and Queen Anne are all noted by historians as having had same sex relations with courtiers, clergy and other royals. The Catholic Church began a campaign in the 12th Century to educate the public that homosexuality was sinful. Back then the Church exerted real power and influence and this is probably when the taboo and stigma really started to gain prominence. It was outlawed for men by Henry VIII in 1533 and it was punishable by death all the way through to 1861. In 1861 the death penalty was removed by the creation of the 1861 offences against the person act, which we still use to this day; although the crime of ‘buggery’ remained part of the act until 1967 – when it was partially repealed. In 1885 a law was passed to outlaw gross indecency between men – to enable the state to prosecute gay men where the more serious offence of buggery could not be proven. Witch hunt much? In 1895 Oscar Wilde was tried for gross indecency over a relationship he was in with Lord Alfred Douglas. He was sentenced to 2 years hard labour and upon his release went to Paris where he died destitute at the age of 46.
In 1950’s, The Met Police commissioner Sir John Nott-Bower, began a campaign of weeding out homosexuals from the British Government, the same time that Joseph McCarthy began conducting a federal homosexual witch hunt in the US (during the cold war, homosexuals in the US Government were branded as communists, smearing their reputations and destroying many careers – leading to the term ‘McCarthyism’). During the 50s, as many as 1000 gay men were locked up in British prisons amid a widespread police clampdown on homosexual offences. Alan Turing – the inventor of the Enigma machine and credited with shortening World War 2 by at least 3 years was prosecuted in 1952 for being homosexual. He was chemically castrated by the state and committed suicide a year later.
1967 is hailed as the year that homosexuality was decriminalised. But was it? The new law allowed two men in private to have an intimate relationship. However it specifically banned men from doing so where a third person was present – even if that third person wasn’t in the same room. Therefore hotels were out of bounds. Legislation took a dark course in 1988 with the introduction of section 28 of the local government act which banned the promotion of homosexuality by educators. It specifically banned teachers from talking about it in school. This was in response to the AIDS crisis, where inaction by Government was coming under scrutiny and their response was to further demonise a minority group and put the blame on the spread of it firmly at the door of gay men. We were to live with Section 28 in our schools until it was repealed in 2003.
Men were still being convicted under the 1967 legislation until the late 1990's. In 1998 ‘the Bolton 7’ were convicted under age of consent and gross indecency laws after police seized videos of the 7 engaging in group sex. One of the men was 17 and a half years old and therefore under the age of consent at the time. At the same time, the British Military discharged 3 senior members of the armed forces because they were discovered to be gay. The Bolton 7 and Stonewall fought these convictions and dismissals in the European Court of Human Rights and won, leading to a change in the law in 2001 where the age of consent was made equal to that for heterosexual people, and sex between more than 2 men was decriminalised. The Government lifted the ban on homosexuals serving in the military in 2000.
Try telling men who were convicted in 1998 that homosexuality has been legal for 50 years. I myself, at high school during the early 90's, struggled with my sexuality – not really understanding what it was, but knowing I was different. It was a really difficult time and school offered no support or guidance. I didn’t know back then that it was forbidden from doing so by law. Section 28 screwed with an entire generation of young gay and bisexual men’s mental well-being. David Cameron publicly apologised for the introduction of it in 2009 shortly before he became Prime Minister. At the same time, Gordon Brown publicly apologised for the treatment of Alan Turing.
Of course, in all of this history, the police play a huge part. To an extent, the police are merely puppets of the state. Enforcing the law of the land. But the incredible tenacity of the police in pursuing and persecuting gay and bisexual men from the 50's onward has contributed massively to the mistrust, fear and lack of legitimacy that we are dealing with today. In 2016, a branch of the NUS in the North voted to protest against police taking part in Pride events. These are students of generation snowflake, who will never have encountered any of the kind of discrimination and persecution that older generations will have experienced. Yet such is the strength of feeling around this collective part of LGBT history that we are still dealing with it to this day.
In 2007 the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations came in to play, which made it illegal to discriminate against lesbians and gay men in the provision of goods and services (you may have heard of the cases where Christian B&B owners lost a case against them as they barred a gay couple from staying with them, or the bakers who refused to make a wedding cake for a same sex couple). Before then, it was perfectly legal for someone to deny goods or services based on a person’s sexuality.
However it wasn’t until 2010 when the new Equality Act was enacted that LGB and T people were granted the same employment rights as everyone else. 7 years ago. Now maybe you’ll see why I think it’s a bit of a misrepresentation to say that it’s been 50 years since decriminalisation.
50 years is a bit of an historic milestone, I agree. But it’s important to acknowledge that the journey only really began 50 years ago. And legislation can be repealed as quickly as it’s enacted.