February is LGBT History Month and this year is a particularly poignant one as it marks 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK.
Homosexuality, or more specifically in this instance, sex between two men in private, was decriminalised on 27th July 1967.
This may seem a very liberal thing to have happened in the late 60’s considering general public perception and attitudes towards gay people at the time, and you’d be right… to a point.
Though the decision to decriminalise private homosexual acts was indeed groundbreaking at the time, it was not one that came about because the government suddenly came to their senses and realised that love is love no matter what form it takes — rather it was a calculated move by certain members of parliament to attempt to reduce the number of homosexual men that were being convicted of crimes.
The problem was that the Sexual Offences Act (1956) stated that:
It is an offence for a man to commit an act of gross indecency with another man, whether in public or private, or to be a party to the commission by a man of an act of gross indecency with another man, or to procure the commission by a man of an act of gross indecency with another man.
Basically, this meant that just smiling at another man in a public place, in a way that an onlooker suspected to be ‘indecent’, could result in your arrest, as could ‘acting like a poof’ or wearing clothes that made you ‘look like a poof’ (or keeping company with someone that did), even simply being listed in someone’s address book could get you arrested if that person had been deemed to be homosexual!
The Beginning of Change
In the late 60’s, following the publication of the Wolfenden Report (which found that criminal law couldn’t intervene in the ‘private sexual affairs of consenting adults’ behind closed doors), Member of Parliament, Leo Abse, and House of Lords peer, Lord Arran, put forward proposals to amend the Sexual Offences Act for homosexual men.
Abse and Arran wanted to introduce a new ‘Sexual Offences Bill’ with a view to ‘make attitudes towards gays more liberal’ — essentially they wanted the law not to penalise gay men who were “already subject to much ridicule and derision”. The general position of the government at the time was that gay men ‘suffered from this disability’ and ‘carried a great weight of shame’ already.
When the bill was finally passed, Lord Arran, one of the leading advocates for the bill, was quoted in The Times as saying:
“I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly… any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful… [And] make the sponsors of this bill regret that they had done what they had done”
So, while the bill was indeed the first (significant) step in the right direction for LGBT rights and equality, it did little to address the public’s general attitude to LGBT people, and indeed those attitudes would take far longer and prove much more difficult to change than the law.
50 Years On
It took another 40 years (until 2007, if you can believe it) for the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations to pass into law, which made it illegal to discriminate against LGBT people ‘in the provision of goods, facilities, services, education and public functions’.
It was a further 7 years before marriage equality legislation was
passed but, happily, on 29th March 2014 (just over a year before the Unicorn and I planned to get married) the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed.
We’ve come a long way since 1967, hell we’ve come a long way in the 29 years of my short life!
The abolition of Section 28 was happening while I was at high school and now when I see LGBT History Month being celebrated in schools, PSHE lessons highlighting the diversity of relationships, LGBT support groups, and school councillors now able to stock information and guidance for LGBT students, it’s something that makes my heart sing.
To know that kids who are going through what I went through at that age (on top of all the other ‘normal’ teenage angst and hormones) have now got representation and support in school, well that’s something to be proud of.
And while I feel like we’re moving into rough waters, with Brexit on the horizon and that god-awful orange bafoon in the White House, I’m also thankful every day for the rights that The Unicorn and I enjoy here in the UK — and I’m ready to fight for those rights with everything I have…