Declassified government files from early 1970s reveal gay issues in civil service

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A government file dating from the early 1970s has been released by the National Archives in Kew, south-west London. Titled “Guidance to Departments About the Employment of Homosexuals in the Public Service” it includes minutes from a 1974 meeting reviewing the rules on promoting “practising homosexuals” to senior civil service posts.

Despite the fact that this was a full seven years after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales, senior civil servants were apparently still voicing concerns over whether gay officials would or could command respect from their staff. The notes say that the chances of anyone gay being promoted to top level were “unlikely”.

It seems officials were concerned that despite the legal status of gay people, public opinion at a grass-roots level hadn’t quite caught up enough for a gay man to hold a high position the government without being open to risk of blackmail.

Later memos however, stated that a blanket ban was not the way forward and that cases should be reviewed individually, if required. One official noted: “If the officer concerned was very discreet about his relationship and it was itself a stable one, and there was no hint of scandalous behaviour, then I personally could see no bar in principle to the officer concerned being cleared for security purposes.

“If however he associated with seedy sections of the homosexual world, or if he flaunted himself in such a way as to cause legitimate offence, then there might be reason to fear blackmail.”

The upshot of these various discussions was summarised in a letter sent by the Civil Service Department to the Campaign for Homosexual Equality early in the 1970s. It stated: “No-one is barred from entering the home civil service because of characteristics which need not prevent him or her from carrying out all aspects of the job effectively.

“This applies to persons with other traits as well as to homosexuals. In considering members of the service for any particular post, many factors affecting their suitability are borne in mind.

“Aspects of their personality or personal characteristics (of which homosexuality would be only one among many) on some occasions mean that someone else is better suited to the job. One example of this is in posts in the area of national security.”