On this day fifty years ago, the Sexual Offences Act received Royal Assent. The act partially decriminalised male homosexual acts. I say partially because the repeal only applied to rumpy bumpy between men 21 and over in England and Wales. It excluded the rest of the UK and those bastions of red-blooded machismo, the Merchant Navy and the Armed Forces. The ripe phrase ‘rum, bum and the Navy’ must have seemed even more ironic to randy sailors on a long and lonely tour of duty. By contrast, girl on girl action has never been illegal, perhaps because the (almost exclusively male) elite were rather titillated by the thought of it (well, those who weren’t fiddling with the altar boys or servicing the groom, that is). Reform-wise, the Scots didn’t join the party until 1980 and the Northern Irish brought up the rear in 1982. This may explain the over-representation of ginger queens on the pink streets of London during the seventies and eighties.
If the holier-than-thou pulpiteers, tight-arsed little Englanders, mighty-mouths down the pub or queer bashers on the streets thought the 1967 act was the one and only concession to be made, they were in a for a nasty surprise. It was a call to arms. The eighties and nineties brought the darkest days of AIDS and many hoped we’d all sashay back into our closets and die. No such luck. Despite the violence, the ridicule, the outraged press and pushy coppers in rubber gloves, a growing band of brave souls kept the rainbow flag flying higher than ever. Direct action and the outing of mitred hypocrites became rather fashionable. And it worked. One day, the walls came tumbling down and what followed was a bonfire of the prejudices.
The age of consent was reduced (first to 18 then to 16), the armed forces ban was lifted, the offence of gross indecency was repealed, Section 28* was abolished, gender re-assignment was recognised, fostering and adoption laws were liberalised, employment protection secured, civil partnerships were introduced and, by 2014, full marriage equality was realised across Britain. Then came the royal pardon for past deeds no longer illegal and, in time, so too will come the official apology.
On equal marriage, only Northern Ireland is still holding out, with some dour old dinosaurs desperately trying to hold back the tide, Canute-like. Their days in the sun are numbered, despite their last hurrah propping up Chairman May.
The gestation of the 1967 Act was a long one. It was the Wolfenden Report of 1957 that recommended the decriminalisation of certain homosexual offences and concluded:
“…unless a deliberate attempt be made by society through the agency of the law to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private that is in brief, not the law’s business.”
Some still get hot under the collar in matters sex and sin, stoked up by bigots from across the religious divide. The issue even hit the headlines during the recent general election. Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats and a devout Christian, was repeatedly harangued about whether he thinks gay sex is sinful. The poor man squirmed and wriggled presumably because in his heart of hearts, he probably does. After the election, he resigned because of it. I don’t normally feel sorry for politicians but even I thought it was all too much. I’m well-acquainted with oppression by the majority and it smacked of bullying. And I don’t like bullies whatever their persuasion – left, right or centre. Mr Farron’s personal religious beliefs are his own business and, to paraphrase the Virgin Queen, I have no desire to make a window into anyone’s soul. Mr Farron can think whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t move to impose those beliefs on others. And as far as I know, unlike the orange relics and meddlesome priests of the Emerald Isle, he never has.
So I celebrate the day the rot started to set in. It eventually brought the whole edifice of hypocrisy crashing down. Now we can live happily ever after. Or can we? For some in our sceptre’d isle, life is still a little bit shit – bigotry can lurk just beneath the surface and the pendulum never stops swinging. And what of rainbow life beyond our shores? You only have to look around to see how really grim things are for many – the recent roundup and torture of young men in Chechnya is a case in point. And Allah only knows which way the wind will blow now Turks have foolishly voted sweeping presidential powers to an autocrat with a messianic streak. As for Saudi Arabia and Iran, the sword and the noose are kept on standby just case anyone dares poke a toe out of the closet.
*A shameful and largely symbolic law banning the alleged ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, as if sexuality were a choice.