Sebastian Buckle’s The Way Out tells the story of homosexuality in the public eye. In this complex and nuanced history of gay movements, society and the media, Buckle gives us a fresh look at how the struggle for acceptance and equality has been fought – from the early images of homosexuality in the 1950s, to the partial acceptance in to the mainstream of queer identities in the twenty-first century.
Out soon, read an extract from The Way Out below
On 27 July 1967, after almost a decade of campaigning, the HLRS celebrated the royal assent of the Sexual Offences Act, partially decriminalising sex between consenting men in England and Wales. However, despite their success the Act was a compromise. It did not apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland; it only applied to men over the age of 21, in private, with no more than two people present; and it did not apply to those in service in the armed forces or the merchant navy. In addition, the main sponsor of the bill (and high-profile advocate of reform) Lord Arran had issued a stark warning to those he had helped emancipate:
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. [. . .] Lest the opponents of the Bill think that a new freedom, a new privileged class, has been created, 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.1
Despite this warning, the Act created an almost instant impetus to campaigners who hoped to achieve legal parity between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The on-going political debate the Act created, rather than ended as its sponsors had hoped, helped structure how homosexuality was understood in Britain during this period of post-law reform.
The early pioneers of the HLRS had been well aware that the realities of individual behaviour were secondary concerns to the perceptions of society. In a world where homosexuality was mostly hidden, innuendo, gossip, and the bigotry of newspaper editors, as well as the overarching power of the statute book, were the principle means for the general public to gather facts about homosexuality. Thus it was their job to ensure that a different view prevailed, one that would be more acceptable to the public, but most importantly to the law makers whom they were attempting to influence.
The post-war social landscape had already provided these men and women with a unique combination of circumstances that provided the space in which to pursue law reform. On 24 March 1954, Lord Montagu, his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers, and the journalist Peter Wildeblood, had been found guilty of ‘conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons’ and were sent to prison. Montagu was sentenced to 12 months, and Pitt-Rivers and Wildeblood to 18 months each.2 When they left court Wildeblood recalled a crowd of people who ‘tried to pat us on the back and told us to “keep smiling”’.3 Crucially, the trial was an example of middle- and upper-class adult men engaged in consensual sex in private, which had only come to light following a police investigation and the testimony of their working-class lovers, on the condition that they would not then face trial themselves.4 Following the conviction of the three men, The Sunday Times published an editorial entitled ‘Law and Hypocrisy’:
The law, it would seem, is not in accord with a large mass of public opinion. That condition always brings evil in its train: contempt for the law, inequity between one offender and another, the risk of corruption of the police [. . .]. The case for a reform of the law as to acts committed in private between adults is very strong. The case for an authoritative enquiry into it is overwhelming. An interim report under the auspices of the Moral Welfare Council of the Church of England has recently given that case clear support.5
At the same time political attention was increasing. The Conservative MP Sir Robert Boothby (whose bisexuality was well-known in Westminster) and the Labour MP Desmond Donnelly had raised the issue of homosexual law reform in the Commons in December 1953, and asked for the Government to set up a Royal Commission to examine the laws surrounding homosexual offences. The then Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, had responded that the matter was under consideration, while offering his personal view that ‘homosexuals in general are exhibitionists and proselytisers’.6 The following year Donnelly again tried to get a commission to examine the law, and on 19 May 1954 the House of Lords held its first debate on homosexuality.7 On 24 August, five months after the Montagu trial had ended, the Home Secretary responded to the demands for a Royal Commission by setting up a lesser departmental committee to examine the laws surrounding both homosexuality and prostitution. Maxwell-Fyfe hoped this would enable him to better control the committee, while serving to move the issue into the long grass.8
In what Weeks describes as ‘a crucial moment in the evolution of liberal moral attitudes’, the Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (Wolfenden) was published in September 1957, and recommended that ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence’.9 In a further sign that the public were closely following these events, the report’s initial print-run of 5,000 sold out within hours and had to be reprinted, unheard of for a government report.10 A year earlier, the Church of England had pre-empted these findings in its own report ‘Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment’, which had recommended a universal age of consent of 17 for both homosexual and heterosexual couples, claiming that,
[t]he fact that certain homosexual acts committed in certain circumstances may be penalized by statute or condemned by religion and morality does not imply that the homosexual condition, per se, is immoral or culpable.11
It would prove to be the cumulative weight of these two influential reports that would add to the growing calls for law reform.
The Way Out: A History of Homosexuality in Modern Britain will be available June 2015
Sebastian Buckle gained his PhD in History and LGBT Studies at the University of Southampton. He is a blogger, writer, and researcher on British queer history.
- HL Deb, 21 July 1967, vol 285, cols 522 – 3.
- Stephen Jeffrey-Poulter, Peers, Queers and Commons: The Struggle for Gay Law Reform from 1950 to the Present (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 17.
- Peter Wildeblood, Against the Law (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999), p. 11.
- Police activity against homosexuality intensified after World War II – see for example Houlbrook, Queer London and Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society.
- The Sunday Times, 28 March 1954.
- Jeffrey-Poulter, Peers, Queers and Commons, p. 16.
- HL Deb, 19 May 1954, vol 187, cols 737 – 67.
- Patrick Higgins, Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Post-War Britain (London: Fourth Estate, 1996), p. 6.
- Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out, p. 64; Home Office/Scottish Home Department, Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957), p. 25.
- ‘On this day – 1957: Homosexuality ’should not be a crime’, BBC News [accessed on 23 November 2009]. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/september/4/newsid_3007000/3007686.stm.
- Church of England Moral Welfare Council, Sexual Offenders and Social Punishment (London: Church Information Board, 1956), p. 27. The report owed its origins to Sherwin Bailey, the Study Secretary of the Church of England Moral Welfare Council, who had been asked to reply to a letter in Theology on homosexuality, and did so in an article entitled ‘The Problem of Sexual Inversion’. He received a stream of private correspondence in response to the article, and took the matter to the Moral Welfare Council where he asked them to study the subject.