The Sexual Offences Act celebrates its 50th Anniversary!

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February in the UK is LGBT History month with events taking place all across the UK to raise the visibility and awareness of LGBT issues, past historical events and with a clear purpose to bring to the surface hidden LGBT lives throughout history.  Cultural events will be taking place in museums, town halls, and universities to bring these hidden LGBT histories to life.  This will include professional talks, exhibitions, cultural walking tours, theatre plays and for once, some positive press and media coverage.

Importantly, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of a cultural and legal milestone – the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised sex between two men over 21 ‘in private’.  This effectively meant that sex between two men was legally permissible, (under certain circumstances) for the first time in 500 years.  It did not extend to the Merchant Navy or the Armed Forces, or Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, where sex between two men remained illegal.

Attempts to reform the legislation has been made in the 1950s in England, however no Act was presented to Parliament and thus no reform was passed. Curiously sex between two women had never been made illegal in England and Wales.  It was rumoured that during the drafting of the most recent anti-gay legislation in Victorian times, English civil servants were too embarrassed to raise the issue with Queen Victoria or to put this into the legal documents.  Thus no legislation was enacted to prevent sexual relations between women.  Sexual relations between men were however punished very severely.  Two men kissing might be sent to prison for two years.  The same sentence might be given for two men simply chatting each other up in a bar or café.  Two men caught trying to have sex could be sentenced to up to ten years in prison and such sentences were still available to the courts up until July 1967 in England and Wales.

From the arrest of Oscar Wilde in 1895 and his subsequent imprisonment, gay men were easy targets for the police.  A gay man who was perhaps ‘obvious’ or just visible or not dressed ‘appropriately’ might be followed by the police leading to false arrests and then false charges leading to imprisonment. Gay men and their society simply went underground.  London and one or two other large cities had secret meeting places or bars, known only to a few gay men,  where gay men could meet or dance, provided a woman was in their company just in case the bar was raided by the police.  Such raids were common even long after the change in the law in 1967.  As late as 1987 the police chief in Manchester would direct his force to raid all gay bars in the city on a regular basis to harass LGBT customers.

The change in the law in 1967 was very much welcomed and long overdue; however it did not lead to immediate emancipation or visibility of this minority group.  In many cases it led to the police cracking down even more strongly on gay men for a period of several years.  The change in law included wording which was very specific and not widely understood, for example sex between men was ‘de-criminalised’ only in private. This meant only two people could be involved.  If a third or fourth person was involved you could still be arrested.  Moreover ‘private’ had a specific meaning – hotels and guest houses were not ‘private’.  Thus two men having sex in a hotel could still be, and very often were, arrested.  Hotels, guest houses, bars, restaurants, shops, etc could still refuse to serve a gay person.  Gay men could be legally fired or sacked from employment if they were known to be gay – this was not repealed until 2003.  Gay men were still treated badly by the health profession and homosexuality or being ‘queer’ often mean psychiatric assessment and medication even into the 21st century.  Such wider social issues and cultural experiences took many years of hard work, pressure and resistance from LGBT communities before this was changed.

Despite this, the de-criminalisation in 1967 should be celebrated as an important landmark moment in LGBT history and recognised as the beginning of a journey of emancipation, which in 2017 means two men, or two women, can now legally marry in the UK (just not in a church!).

One final interesting story has arisen due to LGBT history month.  In the 1930s in Covent Garden, London, an underground queer club called the Caravan Club was a hidden hideout for gay men and lesbians.  At a time when even meeting, or talking to, other gay men was punishable by two years in prison, meeting and socialising was a dangerous activity.  The bar, in a small basement, was called the Caravan because it often had to move its location to a new site.  In 1933 the police set up a covert surveillance operation to view the bar and the clientele from a set of unused offices in a nearby theatre.  Finally they raided the bar and arrested over 100 people, some of whom were sent to prison and given hard labour (breaking rocks).  Now in 2017, and using old photographs, the Caravan Club is back, being recreated in a basement bar nearby to mark the 50th anniversary of the change in the law.

[post written by DIVERCITY partner Middlesx University (MU)]