The Sexual Offences Act 50 Years On. Should We Be Celebrating Or Still Campaigning?

27/07/2017 10:27

The gay community does not like coming over as ungrateful. But equally, it does not appreciate being whitewashed.


It's a knee-jerk reaction for me now, but it still happens all too often. This year marks 50 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, and there has been a lot of media coverage, television etc., comparing life then to life now, some but not all of it a little rose-tinted in my view. With that rose tinting always comes a little hyperbole - why spoil a good story with the facts, as they say. But we do need to be clear on the scope of the 1967 Act - it involved only the 'partial' decriminalisation of homosexuality. It did not 'make homosexuality legal'. It's something we have to point out often.

The Sexual Offences Act is a tricky balancing act. There are still many sensitivities about it. While it did effect a partial decriminalisation, so for example there was still an unequal age of consent (which continued until the Blair government) and there were restrictions on elements of privacy under which prosecutions continued until the late 1990s. In fact, after the passing of the 1967 Act, prosecutions rose as a warning to others not to try and emulate that 'lifestyle'. Convictions for gross indecency rose from 420 in 1966 to 1711 in 1974 (thanks to Peter Tatchell for these statistics). And the subject also brought up the inevitable backlash from right-thinking society. While homosexuality was now being discussed, the role models that were given to us were of the John Inman type, where loneliness or a violent end were seen as the norm for us lost souls.

So it is wrong that we should celebrate the 1967 Act as the end of something - there are still inequalities in the law for the LGBT community even today, such as marriage equality in Northern Ireland - but we should celebrate it as the foundation of a trend towards equality.
Remember, for those who celebrate Cameron's marriage equality, that was only possible because of Blair's civil partnership act (and even earlier, Ken Livingstone's partnership registration scheme in London).

We see the battle for equality evolve - from blunt and partial legislation in 1967, to 'hearts and minds'. So the 'not completely illegal' of 1967 becomes the 'must not discriminate' of the Equality Act 2010. But ideas of equality continue to evolve; some of the Equality Act and the Gender Recognition Act 2004 are now being reviewed by the Government as no longer compatible with the current view of what equality means.

What next? Well, equality may not just be about those LGBT people in the UK. Is the LGBT community a national community or international? The UK government should be proud of the work that it does tying international aid to human rights issues. Aid budgets need keeping up and focussed on this point, and as far as possible we should argue for ethical foreign policies (although this concept may be thrown under the bus as the Brexit - 'any deal at any cost to show success' - mindset reveals itself). But should we stop campaigning if this is the case? Why should our efforts for equality - nationally and internationally - be qualified by the likelihood of success? The magnificent achievement of Stonewall, which remember was not anticipated when Sir Ian McKellan took his famous walk along Downing Street in 1991, was built on the shoulders of those who has been ostracised and assaulted by those in power, from the times of the Gay Liberation Front, when the idea of marriage equality would have seemed impossible to even dream about.

Yes, there is much to celebrate, but in these more uncertain times, with the DUP an official government partner and the denuding of equality measures in the UK, we must ensure that the move to equality is a real trend, and that we have not hit one end of a pendulum swing. Raise a glass to the 1967 Act, but throw in a couple more for the later big steps towards legal and social reform, and use that as Dutch courage as we continue to push for real and lasting equality.