Half a century of gay progress

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Today marks 52 years since the process of decriminalising homosexuality began. PinkNews.co.uk takes a look back at over half a century of struggle, despair and adversity.

The Times newspaper reported on April 28 1954 a committee would be set up “to examine the subject of homosexual offences and the parallel problem of the law relying to prostitution and solicitation.”

Prior to the 1950s, homosexual activities were a serious criminal offence under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act which deemed it a ‘gross indecency,’ punishable by a spell in prison.

In 1953 the trial and eventual imprisonment of Edward Montagu (the 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu), Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood for committing acts of homosexual indecency caused uproar and led to the establishment of the committee by Home Office minister, Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth.

The Times article said, “There was a warm welcome in the House to-night for this announcement by Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth, Under Secretary, Home Office in reply to an adjournment debate in which Mr Donnelly and Sir Robert Boothby had pressed for a royal commission on the subject.

“The Under Secretary said that Sir David Maxwell Fyfe was anxious to secure the services of able and experienced men and women to serve upon the committee and it might be some little theme before he was in a position to announce its membership and terms of reference The Home Secretary believed that a thorough investigation by a well qualified body would throw useful. light on the scope and nature of these difficult and controversial problems. and that investigation by such a committee might make a valuable contribution to the problem of how the criminal law should deal with it.”

This led to the establishment of the Wolfenden Committee on 24 August 1954 to consider British law relating to homosexual offences.

The report was published in 1957, it recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”.

It found that “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects”. Adding: “The law’s function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others. Not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.”

However, it took until 1965 for a bill to be first proposed in Parliament to formally decriminalise homosexual sex. It was not until 1967 that the Sexual Offences Bill was laid before Parliament

resulting in a decriminalisation of homosexuality for consenting adults (over the age of 21) in private homes, but only where the two adults were the only people present on the premises.

It was not until 1980 that homosexuality was decriminalised in Scotland (thanks in part to the campaigning of the late Labour MP Robin Cook) and 1982 until a similar act was passed for Northern Ireland.

The 1980s also saw the introduction of Section 28. The law, introduced on the May 24 1988 said a local authorities “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

This law sparked protests and many critics said it made homosexuality out to be abnormal. Gay charity Stonewall was set up in reaction to it as well as protest and human rights group Outrage!

In 1994, the former Health minister, Edwina Currie tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill to equalise the heterosexual and homosexual age of consent to 16. This was defeated by 307 votes to 280.

The Conservative backbench MP, Sir Robert Anthony Bevis Durant, tabled an amendment to lower the age of consent for gay sex to 18, which passed through parliament with 427 votes to 162 and received the support of the Prime Minister, John Major in addition to the Labour leader, John Smith and the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown.

Following the general election of 1997 and the incoming Labour government’s intention to sign Britain up to the European Convention of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed that the unequal age of consent in Britain was discriminatory.

The 1998 Crime and Disorder Bill which aimed to equalise the age of consent was passed by the House of Commons with a majority of 207, it was however defeated in the House of Lords. The subsequent Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill introduced later in the same year, similarly passed in the Commons but was rejected by the Lords.

The bill was passed again by the Commons in 1999 and once again rejected by the Lords in 2000. The government utilised the Parliament Act (which asserts the supremacy of the House of Commons) to pass the bill into law on the 30th November 2000.

The Government lifted a ban on lesbian and gay men serving in the armed forces in the same year.

A further step towards acceptance came with the eventual repeal of Section 28 in 2003 and employment equality regulations which became law on 1 December making it illegal to discriminate against lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in the workplace.

Prior to this, a landmark move towards civil partnerships or so called “gay marriages” began in 2001 with the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone’s introduction of a register of gay couples. The register did not confer legal rights on the gay couples but it was the first recognition of gay relationships by a public body.

In January 2002, the same year that gay couples were given adoption rights in England and Wales, Lord Lester introduced a private members bill, the Civil Partnerships Bill which passed onto a second reading in the House of Lords, this led to a period of consultation and the 2004 Civil Partnerships Act which became law last December.

Nowadays the gay community sits with further acceptance in law. The incoming Equality Act, due in 2007 will make it illegal to refuse goods, facilities and services to anyone based on sexual orientation.

But society and cultural problems will take longer to eradicate. Gay people still face scorn for holding hands in the street or kissing in a restaurant, and while publishers for the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and black community can proudly promote their publications, gay books, magazines and newspapers are often hidden away in dark library corners and doorways of gay clubs.

Gay stereotypes have come a long way in half a century, but there is still a journey riddled with prejudice, bigotry and homophobia which must be passed.