1967: The myth of gay decriminalisation

Anti-gay laws remained on the statute book, arrests rocketed  

By Peter Tatchell

London, UK – 23 May 2017

The criminalisation of homosexuality in the UK did not end until 2013. So don’t be fooled by the celebrations this July to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. It was just a start; being the first gay law reform since anal sex was made a crime in 1533, during the reign of King Henry VIII, and since all other sexual acts between men were outlawed in the Victorian era, in 1885.


My new research reveals that the liberalisation of 1967 was not as liberal as many people believe. An estimated 15,000-plus gay men were convicted in the decades that followed. Homosexuality was only partly decriminalised. The remaining anti-gay laws were policed more aggressively than before, by a State that opposed gay acceptance and equality.


In total, from 1885 to 2013, I calculate that around 100,000 men were arrested for same-sex acts during those 128 years.


The 1967 legislation was progress. It repealed the maximum penalty of life imprisonment for anal sex and ended the blanket outlawing of all homosexual acts. But it was a limited reform and it still discriminated. Pandering to the homophobic notion that young men are seduced and corrupted by older men, the age of consent was set at 21 for sex between men, compared to 16 for sex between men and women. The punishment for a man over 21 having non-anal sex with a man aged 16-21 was increased from two to five years.


Gay sex remained prosecutable unless it took place in strict privacy, which meant in a person’s own home, behind locked doors and windows, with the curtains drawn and with no other person present in any part of the house. It continued to be a crime if more than two men had sex together, if other people were in the house at the same time or if men having sex were filmed or photographed by a third person. Seven men in Bolton were convicted of these offences and two were given suspended jail terms and put on the Sex Offenders Register in 1998 – over 30 years after 1967.


The 1967 reform applied to only England and Wales; not being extended to Scotland until 1980 and to Northern Ireland until 1982. It did not include the armed forces or merchant navy, where sex between men remained a criminal offence. Gay military personnel and merchant seamen could still be jailed until 1994, for behaviour that was no longer a crime between gay civilians. Legislation authorising the sacking of seafarers for homosexual acts on UK merchant ships was repealed only last month.


The centuries-old anti-gay laws were not abolished in 1967. They remained on the statute book under the heading “Unnatural offences.”

The two main gay crimes continued to be anal sex, known in law as buggery, and gross indecency, which was any sexual contact between men other than anal sex, including mere touching and kissing.


There was also the offence of procuring; the inviting or facilitating of gay sex. Bizarrely, the 1967 reform decriminalised anal sex in certain circumstances but banned men from procuring lawful anal sex for other males, such as arranging a gay sex date for a friend.


The law against soliciting and importuning remained in force and was interpreted to designate homosexuality as an immoral purpose. It criminalised men chatting up men or loitering in public places with homosexual intent, even if no sexual act took place. Men were convicted under this law, pre- and post-1967, for merely smiling and winking at other men in the street.


There were other arrests under ancient legislation against indecency, such as the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 and the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860.


Gay and bisexual men, and some lesbians, continued to be prosecuted, right up until the 1990s, under public order and breach of the peace laws, for public displays of affection, such as kissing and cuddling.


The 1967 decriminalisation meant merely that the long-standing homophobic laws were not enforced in some circumstances. But many aspects of gay male life remained criminal. In fact, the repression got much worse. There were police stake-outs in parks and toilets, sometimes using ‘pretty police’ as bait to lure gay men to commit sex offences. Gay saunas were raided. Disorderly house charges were pressed against gay clubs that allowed same-sex couples to dance cheek-to-cheek.


In 1966, the year before partial decriminalisation, 420 men were convicted of gross indecency. To my shock, I found that the number of convictions soared by over 400 percent to 1,711 in 1974. The authorities were determined to ensure that the limited liberalisation of 1967 did not give a green light to what they still regarded as a vice.


The Law Lords ruled in 1973 that gay lonely heart adverts in IT magazine were a “conspiracy to corrupt public morals.” Despite the reform of 1967, homosexuality was declared by their lordships to be only partly legal, not moral and contrary to the public good.


In this era, homophobic discrimination in housing, employment and the provision of goods and services remained lawful by default. Until 2003-2007, there was no legal protection against it. People were denied employment or sacked from their jobs because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Others were refused rented accommodation or evicted from it. Some were turned away from pubs and restaurants. Gay fathers and lesbian mothers lost custody of their children in divorce cases. They had no redress in law.

In the 1980s, the Conservative government’s “family values” and “Victorian values” campaigns whipped up hysterical levels of homophobia; aided by the moral panic over AIDS, which was dubbed the “gay plague.” At the 1987 Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used her keynote speech to attack the notion that people had a right to be gay.


Coinciding with this intolerant anti-gay atmosphere was a massive rise in arrests of gay men for consenting victimless behaviour. Delving into Home Office archives, I found that there were 1,718 convictions and cautions for gross indecency in 1989. The 2,022 recorded offences of gross indecency that year was almost as many as the 2,034 recorded in 1954, when male homosexuality was totally illegal and when Britain was gripped by a McCarthyite-style anti-gay witch-hunt.


There was also a huge increase in queer-bashing violence. From 1986-91, I identified at least 50 murders of men in circumstances that pointed to a homophobic motive. Police investigations to catch the killers were often derisory. We were still seen by many law officers as less deserving of the protection of the law.


Full legal reform did not happen until 36 years after 1967. The gross indecency law of 1885 had been used to convict the computer genius Alan Turing in 1952 and, before him, to jail the playwright Oscar Wilde in 1895. Together with the criminalisation of anal sex, it was finally repealed by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. As a result, for the first time in 470 years England and Wales had a criminal code that did not penalise gay sexuality.


In Northern Ireland, the ban on anal sex was finally repealed in 2008. Scotland’s anti-gay laws were abolished in 2009 but, in the case of sodomy, did not take effect until 2013. Gay sex ceased to be a crime in the UK only four years ago. Unbelievable but true!

Peter Tatchell
Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation