Comment: The journey since homosexuality was partially decriminalised is ongoing

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The Chief Executive of the Human Dignity Trust, Jonathan Cooper, writes for PinkNews on how far we’ve come since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality on this day in 1967, but highlights how far we still have to go.

How did you feel when you woke up this morning? Nothing out of the ordinary? Same old, same old? Yet, to wake on 27 July is a momentous moment for English and Welsh gay men. On 26 July 1967 we went to bed as unapprehended felons. We woke on 27 July and our identity was no longer criminalised. From 27 July 1967 we could finally have sex without breaking the law.

To wake up and know that you are no longer the target of the criminal law must have been euphoric. To be able to have sex without criminal consequences. For the first time to be able to kiss your lover, to be affectionate and intimate without committing a crime. To shower with him and know that it was lawful. To hold hands over breakfast and embrace as you head off to work knowing that the State no longer has power over your relationship. It is extraordinary that generations upon generations of gay men lived under the tyranny of criminalisation. Their liberation should feel impossible to imagine. We should take it for granted, yet we can all imagine it. The roots of our oppression run deep. We empathise with the horrors of their persecution. We can imagine their elation on no longer being criminalised. We know. Do straight people know? I doubt it.

Of course we weren’t actually liberated in 1967. All the crimes that we could commit for being gay remained on the statute book and would continue to be enforced. What happened with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 was that a defence to those offences was created. Gay men now would not commit the crimes of gross indecency and buggery if they both were over 21, they had sex in private and there were only two people involved. Any deviation from this and crimes were committed, which at the time would likely involve custody. Only consenting men could commit the so called offence of gross indecency and shared tenderness was all that was needed to break the law.

And whilst the ’67 Act was gratefully received, it was (literally) a bit of a fairy tale. Where were the majority of men going to find a private space? Social norms of the time meant that only a few had access to such luxury. Gay men under 21 would still commit these crimes (just imagine not being able to have sex until you were 21!), and how bizarre to even contemplate that lawful sex should be limited to just two people. The ‘67 Act appears to be an idealised vision of what acceptable homosexual sex might look like from the perspective of 1950s heterosexual orthodoxy.

It was of course virtually impossible for most men to comply with and, what feels almost out of spite, prosecutions for gross indecency doubled in the years after partial decriminalisation. Gay men in search of intimacy continued to be tormented by the police. The offence of gross indecency was finally done away with only in 2003, but between 1967 and then there were 35,000 convictions. This figure does not include the use of other criminal laws to ensnare gay men. As recently as the early ‘90s men were convicted of public order offences for kissing – even after dark.

Arguably the problem was the ‘67 Act itself. It was not intended to liberate. It was designed to tolerate at best. Homosexuals continued to be unacceptable and homosexuality remained a matter of contempt and immorality, unless it was locked firmly behind closed doors. The words of the sponsor of the ‘67 Act, Lord Arran, are worth repeating. Should he be shamed?

“I ask one thing and I ask it earnestly,” he told the House of Lords on the passing of the Bill. “I ask those who have, as it were, been in bondage and for whom the prison doors are now open to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity. This is no occasion for jubilation; certainly not for celebration. Any form of ostentatious behaviour; now or in the future, any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful and would, I believe, make the sponsors of the Bill regret that they have done what they have done…  let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity. We shall always, I fear, resent the odd man out. That is their burden for all time, and they must shoulder it like men—for men they are.”

So much for our so called emancipation. The real trouble with homophobic bile like this, whether benignly intended or actively hostile, is that gay men read it and all too often believe it, however objective and logical we want to be. So much pain and sadness resides in us still because of all of this and so much loss too. Friendships that fall away, families that can’t connect, such dependency on stuff to get us through the day and the night. And then there are those who could no longer see the point.

’67 happened and it took us on a journey where we find ourselves now. The path has not been easy and nor was it predictable, but we have moved from torment to toleration and from being tolerable to being acceptable. Finding ourselves with certain rights, privacy for example and a right not to be discriminated against, the road to equality felt possible. None of this could be achieved whilst the criminal law hung over us. Oscar Wilde knew that. Arguably a mis-placed optimism (certainly premature), but his words ring out,  “Yes: I have no doubt we shall win, but the road is long and red with monstrous martyrdoms. Nothing but the repeal of the [gross indecency law] would do any good.”

Have we won? It feels like a battle and so the language may be appropriate. We wake today on 27 July and take ourselves for granted. I kiss my partner of 24 years and head off to work. I still like to think of him as my boyfriend, but we are in a civil partnership and I am sure one day we will marry – there is no hurry. I am oblivious to my sexuality. But Wilde was right in one respect, we can’t win without the repeal of the criminal laws that plague us. They may no longer entrap us in the UK, but across the globe millions are ensnared by them. And whilst gay men and lesbians are criminalised because of who they are, none of us can be truly free. If nothing else, the arguments to justify their criminalisation rebound on us and we all remain trapped by that homophobic tirade.

I am so grateful to the multitudes of martyrs who gave me my freedom, but that road gets redder by the day. As we wake on 27 July gay men and lesbians will be being persecuted. Their freedom is our freedom and our freedom is everyone’s freedom.

Jonathan Cooper

Chief Executive

Human Dignity Trust