Channel 4, and Film On Four, are showing a series of programs and films this week to mark 40 years since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was passed supposedly decriminalizing male homosexuality (lesbianism was never made illegal in UK because QueenÂ Victoria apparently could not believe women would do such things.)
Last night they showed a dramatized documentary about a landmark court case in the 1950s, which started to change public opinion. In those days the situation for gays in UK was horrific. If you were a practising gay living with your lover, the police could break into your home and arrest you.Â The maximum sentence was life imprisonment, althoughÂ in practise most gays got a few months or years, but it meant all gay men lived in constant fear of arrest or blackmail.
The documentary said that, largely due to the change in public opinion following theÂ court case above, the Wolfenden Report of 1957 recommended decriminalizing male homosexuality, although it took Parliament another 10 years to actually pass any legislation. What the program did not mention wasÂ that it took a further 35 years or so for the law to be substantially changed. UK was one of the very last countries in the developed world to have a fully liberated gay community.
What the documentary brought out very clearly was that before the passing of the 1967 Act practising gays were paranoid, afraid to give their real names, using a secret languageÂ (polari)Â to communicate with each other, and that the illegal gay clubs which existed were allÂ part of a very secret underground. What it did not make clear was that this secret gay underworld was hidden, not just from the general public, but from many gay men themselves.
I knew I was gay from the age of 13 back in 1958. I didn’t discover that there was anyone else like myself until 1967, when theÂ publicity surrounding the changing of the law made me aware for the very first time that there were other people like me, and that there was a thriving gay scene in London.
Eventually I found this gay scene, with great difficulty. As there was no gay press in UK I had to get a list of gay places in LondonÂ by writing to an address in California which IÂ found in an American magazine. Even then the gay guide was full of errors. Â And when you found the gay clubs, you could not gain admittance unless introduced by a member. Not knowing any other gays, I was refused entry.
Even if you found a gay bar where membership was not necessary, you had to be ‘in the know’. You hadÂ be aware of a certain gay dress code, how to behave, and be able to make eye contact. I am still unable to make eye contact or pick up subtle or even not-so-subtle signals, and I still don’t look, act, wear my hair or dress like a gay man, so I’m told.
A work colleague who was gay took pity on me and took me to a gay bar in the late 1960s. Next day he said to me: ‘You just haven’t got a bloody clue have you? You’ll never ever pick anybody up in a gay bar dressed as you were last night in a huge overcoat. Your clothes, hairstyle, everything was totally wrong, and you weren’t making eye contact with anyone. You looked like a straight guy who’d wandered in by accident. Gay men wouldn’t come near you with a barge pole.’ Or words to that effect.
I did eventually find places where dress codes and making eye contact weren’t necessary, but I was always breaking the law, as defined by the 1967 Act.Â I have never been able to meet any other gay man and remain ‘legal’ under this Act. It was not until the early 21st century that changes in the law made gays totally legal. In fact friends active on the gay scene before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act say the decriminalization of male homosexuality led, not to gay liberation, but to repression and a big clampdown on the gay clubs and places which did exist.
After the 1967 ActÂ the police and courts had a strict legal guideline to go by, which in fact made all gay sex or even public shows of affection totally illegal unless in the privacy of your own home with no other person present. So after theÂ 1967 Act gay clubs and other places were regularly raided and closed down. Before the Act, so I am told, it was all underground so much more went on and the police tended to turn a blind eye.
Moreover, any possible way of approaching another man with a view to starting a gay relationship of any kind remained totally illegal until the early 21st century in UK. Plainclothes police used to regularly pose as gay men to try to entrap people. If you so much as smiled at a plainclothes policeman in a gay bar or offered to buy him a drink, you were in danger of being arrested for ‘importuning for an immoral purpose’. Of course all cruising in public places such as parks and public toilets was, and still is, illegal. Even putting contact ads in the new gay press was illegal if theÂ ultimate objectiveÂ was gay sex of any kind.
So the only people the 1967 Act protected really were gays already in a relationship and practising in the privacy of their own homes. All ways of meeting other gay men usually fell foul of the law, and the definition of the term ‘in private’ was so restrictive that many gays lived as criminals for nearly another 40 years.Â Certainly when my gay life-partner, George, moved in with me and my mother in the early 1970s, we were breaking the law and liable to arrest.
The 1967 Act put male homosexuals in the same category as prostitutes: the act itself wasn’t illegal, but every possible way of meeting another person toÂ perform the act was against the law.
It is interesting that the court case which eventually led to the changing of the law involved a Daily Mail reporter who met a serving member of the RAF. This remained illegal until the early 21st Century, as members of the military were excluded from the 1967 Act. The way they met also remained illegal until the early 21st Century, since meeting a strangeÂ man outside a Tube station and inviting him back to your flat was clearly ‘importuning for an immoral purpose’ in the eyes of the law. The activity which took place at Lord Montagu’s palace, around which the court case centered, also remained totally illegal until the early 21st century, since more than two people were present on the premises.
Despite the passing of the 1967 Act, Britain lagged behind the rest of the developed world as regards gay liberation until the early 21st Century. Even East Berlin in 1968 was far more liberated than London at the time. Gays were walking down one of the main streets of East Berlin hand-in-hand without anyone batting an eyelid. In London you would have been liable to arrest for such public shows of affection ‘offending public decency’. Also there was a gay bar in this East BerlinÂ street which would have been immediately raided and closed down had it been in London, even a year after the 1967 Act was passed.
With myÂ gay life-partner, George, I visited gay cities like Amsterdam, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s and they were streets ahead of London at the time. All the clubs that existed in these cities would have been closed down by the police in England.Â We told a guy in a Sydney gay club this in 1990, and he said: ‘Well England is still in the age of Queen Victoria. You are the laughing stock of the Western world!’
So finally Britain has been dragged kicking and screaming straight from the 19th century into the 21st century, as far as gay liberation is concerned. But there is very little to celebrate about the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act 40 years agoÂ since it clearly did NOT makeÂ gay men and their clubsÂ legal at all. It simply decriminalized certain gay acts inside a home where only two people were present. How on Earth these two gay men were supposed to meet in the first place put them in danger of entrapment and arrest for another 35 years or so.