Gay men prosecuted after ‘decriminalisation’ share their heartbreaking stories

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This year we have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act (1967), which started the process of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales.

But the act did not mean full decriminalisation. It only covered acts in private, between two men over the age of 21. It also not cover the Merchant Navy or the Armed Forces.

Long-time LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell has long underlined the partial nature of decriminalisation and, just as importantly, how the law facilitated an increase in prosecutions against gay men.

Peter Tatchell (BBC)
Peter Tatchell (BBC)

Tatchell explored this history in new BBC Radio 4 documentary The Myth of Homosexual Decriminalisation, which is available to listen now on iPlayer.

“What is perhaps surprising, and indeed outrageous, is that the number of arrests of gay and bisexual men rocketed after 1967,” Tatchell says in the programme.

“I lived through the witch hunts in the early 1970s and campaigned against them. There were police stakeouts in parks and public toilets sometimes using young, good-looking officers as bait to lure gay men to commit sexual offences.

“Gay saunas were raided, disorderly house charges were pressed against gay clubs that allowed same-sex couples to dance cheek-to-cheek.

“The authorities seemed determined to ensure that the limited liberalisation of 1967 did not give a green light to what they still regarded as a vice.”

Tatchell notes that 420 men were convicted of gross indecency in 1966, the year before partial decriminalisation, but this figure rose to over 1,700 by 1974 – “nailing the myth of decriminalisation”.

One of the heartbreaking stories of persecution and prosecution after 1967 explored was that of Stephen Close.

Close, 50, from Salford, was jailed for six months in Colchester Military Prison in 1983 after admitting to having consensual sex with a colleague in the Royal Fusiliers in Berlin, when he was guarding former Nazi Rudolf Hess.

He told the story of when he had consensual sex for five minutes in a bathroom with a?nother fusilier, his first sexual experience with anyone of either sex.

They had thought that a third soldier had been passed out drunk in the room they had been in previously, but he was not and later reported the two men.


Bolton 7 protest
Bolton 7 protest

“I was very, very frightened, scared, they questioned us for a couple of hours, quite aggressively,” Close said.

“We kept denying it, denying it, because we knew if we did admit to it the consequences would be dire.”

Both men were forced to strip and undergo an invasive medical examination in front of other soldiers.

Other soldiers yelled “castrate the bastards” and “queers” at the two men in the meal hall.

Under pressure, the men were forced to admit their “crime” – as their actions were illegal under military law, and also under civilian law as the other man was aged 19.

Close said that he was “unaware” that the legal age of consent for same-sex sexual activity was 21 for men at the time.


Equality Now march
Equality Now march

He was beaten up by other soldiers and both he and the other soldier were sentenced to six years in military prison, where they were forced to wear red ribbons on their shoulders, and discharged from the army in disgrace.

After they left prison, both men never saw one another again.

A recently as 2013, Greater Manchester Police demanded Close hand over DNA because of this 30-year-old conviction.

Close later received an apology in person from the police, who said in a statement that their previous actions were absolutely not part of a “witch hunt” against the gay community.