Geraldine Bedell in The Observer Review (Sunday
explores the British forty year experience of developing gay rights:
Forty years ago in
'Some newspapers reported court cases but they talked of "gross indecency" because they couldn't bring themselves to mention it, so young people were lucky if they could work out what was going on.'
'We knew from experience that if you called the police and they suspected you were homosexual, they would ignore the original crime and concentrate on the homosexuality.'
This was what happened to Alan Turing, the mathematician and Enigma codebreaker. In 1952, he reported a break-in and was subsequently convicted of gross indecency. Though he escaped prison, he was forced to undergo hormone therapy and lost his security clearance; he later committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide.
In the mid-1950s, there was an atmosphere of a witch-hunt (probably not unrelated to what was happening in America with McCarthy), with consequent opportunities for blackmail. Leo Abse, who eventually piloted the Sexual Law Reform Act through Parliament, recalls that, as a lawyer in Cardiff, his fees from criminals suddenly all started coming from the account of one man. He investigated and found he was 'a poor vicar. The bastards were bleeding him. I sent for one of the criminals and told him if I had another cheque from this man, I'd get him sent down for 10 years. I sent for the vicar and told him to come to me if they approached him again.'
Homosexuality was tacked on very late in the day to the business of a committee that had already been set up to look into the legal status of prostitution. (Certainly, its remit covered both; its findings were popularly referred to as the Vice report.) That would make sense of the choice of chairman, although it is also possible that, given the secretive atmosphere of the time, Maxwell-Fyfe didn't know Wolfenden had a son who wore make-up.
The Wolfenden Committee sat for three years and recommended that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should no longer be illegal. Setting the tone for the discussion about law reform that would follow, it made no attempt to argue that homosexuality wasn't immoral, only that the law was impractical.
Geraldine Bedell met Leo Abse at his beautiful house overlooking the
Abse insisted that its importance has been exaggerated. 'People talk sloppily about Wolfenden, which was not by any means a key turning-point. A myth has grown up: the myth of pre-Wolfenden and after. It was only a staging post. When I arrived in the Commons after Wolfenden, the vote against it was overwhelming. Ten years of struggle came after.'
From our perspective of the early 21st century, when the churches seem so afraid of homosexuality, it's interesting that in this period they consistently and visibly backed reform.
Various stabs were made at bringing the matter before Parliament, but the first really promising development came with a bill in the Lords in July 1965. It was sponsored by Lord Arran, an unlikely reformer: known to his friends as Boofy, he kept a pet badger. He had inherited the title because his older brother, who was gay, had committed suicide.
For the opposition, Lord Kilmuir warned against licensing the 'buggers' clubs' which he claimed were operating behind innocent-looking doors all over
Arran's bill ran out of parliamentary time, but its success meant the pressure was now on for the Commons but there too the bill ran out of parliamentary time. Back in the new Parliament, Abse gave notice that he intended to move a 10-Minute Rule bill. By his own account, he was not the man the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins (who wanted reform, fought for it in cabinet, guaranteed parliamentary time and assiduously sat through all the debates) would have chosen to pilot it through. 'We had a reconciliation before he died, but when Roy Jenkins talked to me in those days, he used to shut his eyes, as though he wanted to blot me out.'
Abse believes Jenkins would have preferred Michael Foot, for two reasons. First, he says, Jenkins wanted 'to bog down Michael', whom he saw as a potential rival in any leadership contest; and second, he 'thought I was too dangerous a character. I was too colorful'. He points to a shield on the wall, given to him by the Clothing Federation for being the best-dressed MP in Parliament. 'I used to dress up. My wife - my first wife - used to dress me up. By God, they needed some color in Parliament! It wasn't only my narcissism. It was a part of opening up society. But I think Jenkins found it somewhat... he didn't feel comfortable.'
Current Human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell points out: 'The tone of the parliamentary debate alternated between vicious homophobia on one side and patronizing, apologetic tolerance on the other.' The Earl of Dudley's contribution in the Lords sums up the level of the opposition's argument: 'I cannot stand homosexuals. They are the most disgusting people in the world. I loathe them. Prison is much too good a place for them.'
But, as Tatchell suggests, the tone of the supporters is, from this distance, hardly less cringe-inducing. No one mentioned equality or love. The consistent position was that homosexuals were pitiful and in need of Christian compassion. Abse argues now that much of this was tactical. 'The thrust of all the arguments we put to get it was, "Look, these people, these gays, poor gays, they can't have a wife, they can't have children, it's a terrible life. You are happy family men. You've got everything. Have some charity." Nobody knew better than I what bloody nonsense that was.'
Commentators have argued over whether Abse was sufficiently ambitious with the substance of the bill, but there is no doubt that he was an adept tactician. He managed to keep the required 100-plus supporters in the chamber all night so as to call for closure on the various amendments. On the last of these, he had 101 people there, which was all he needed but which, he says, 'shows how precarious the bill was, and it's why I get so damned annoyed when people say Wolfenden was a watershed. We got that bill through on one vote.'
The result was same-sex relations were legal only in private, which was interpreted, as Tatchell says, as being 'behind locked doors and windows and with no other person present on the premises'.
While sex may have been legal, most of the things that might lead to it were still classified as 'procuring' and 'soliciting'. 'It remained unlawful for two consenting adult men to chat up each other in any non-private location,' Tatchell says. 'It was illegal for two men even to exchange phone numbers in a public place or to attempt to contact each other with a view to having sex.' Thus the 1967 law established the risible anomaly that to arrange to do something legal was itself illegal.
We shouldn't think this provision was quietly ignored either. In 1989, during the Conservative campaign for family values, more than 2,000 men were prosecuted for gross indecency, as many as during the 1950s and nearly three times the numbers in the mid-Sixties.
So the struggle is over?
Stonewall the equality and rights UK organization has produced its School Report finding
Homophobic bullying 'almost epidemic' in
A major survey of Britain's secondary schools has revealed that almost two thirds of lesbian and gay pupils (156,000 children) have been victims of homophobic bullying.
The School Report, the largest poll of young gay people ever conducted in Britain, presents a shocking picture of the extent of homophobic bullying undertaken by fellow pupils and, alarmingly, school staff.
Key findings are:
- Sixty five per cent of lesbian and gay pupils have experienced homophobic bullying.
- Of those, 92 per cent (143,000) have experienced verbal homophobic bullying, 41 per cent (64,000) physical bullying and 17 per cent (26,000) death threats.
- 97 per cent of gay pupils hear derogatory phrases such as 'dyke', 'queer' and 'rug-muncher' used in school.
- Half of teachers fail to respond to homophobic language when they hear it.
- Thirty per cent of lesbian and gay pupils say that adults - teachers or support staff - are responsible for homophobic incidents in their school
Less than a quarter of schools have told pupils that homophobic bullying is wrong.
The survey of 1,145 young people, conducted by the Schools Health Education Unit for Stonewall, also highlights the consequences of bullying for gay pupils. Seven out of ten of those who have experienced it say it has adversely affected their school work. Half of those bullied say they have missed school as a result.
The report does demonstrate significant benefits when schools intervene. In schools that have said homophobic bullying is wrong, gay young people are 60 per cent more likely not to have been bullied. The incidence of anti-gay bullying remains higher in 'faith schools'.
'On three occasions I've been assaulted and had to go to hospital to be examined and get the police involved' Ali, 17, secondary school (Greater London)
'The teachers join in on the joke' Catherine, 13, single sex independent school (South East)
'People call me 'gay' everyday, sometimes people kick me and push me, they shut me out of games during school gym and they steal my belongings' James, 17, secondary school (South West)
'I go to a Catholic school. I would more likely get told off for being a lesbian' Susan, 16, single sex Catholic school (South East)
Includes link to the School Report