The Sexual Offences Act 1967 received Royal Assent on 27 July, fifty years ago. It was a genuine cross-party affair, sponsored by Labour MP Leo Abse and Conservative Peer Lord Arran, and supported by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, who went on to be a founder of the Liberal Democrats. Coming 10 years after the Wolfenden Report had concluded that criminal law could not credibly intervene in the private sexual affairs of consenting adults in the privacy of their homes, the Act did not legalise gay sex, but introduced an exemption from prosecution for men over the age of 21 having sex in private.
Men who have sex with men continued to be prosecuted for the remainder of the twentieth century, particularly for sex in public places ("cruising" and "cottaging") and under the unequal age of consent. It was not until 2001, after losing a case in the European Court of Human Rights, that the then Labour government were compelled to repeal the criminalisation of homosexual acts.
Looking back at the time of the 1967 Act even those supporting decriminalisation called homosexuality 'a disability' and 'a great weight of shame'. Bisexuals didn't even occur to them. Goodness knows what they'd think of all the diversity of sexuality we share today! It shows us how far we've come, how hard that fight has been, and how much further we still have to go.
However, I think today we can all celebrate a more open liberal society, with same-sex couples able to marry and huge steps forward being made for gender recognition, and I further think we Lib Dems have a bit of a right to blow our own trumpet about it. Yes, we are by no means the only party to have furthered LGBT+ rights: but we were, for example, the first party to host a gay rights fringe at party conference.
We were also the first party to commit in our manifestos down the years to:
- equal age of consent
- LGBT people serving in the military
- same-sex marriage
- gender recognition
- PrEP on the NHS
- ending the spousal veto
- inclusive, appropriate Sex and Relationship Education in schools
- offering asylum to vulnerable LGBT+ people
- ending deportation to at-risk countries
To quote my friend Richard Flowers (Treasurer of LGBT+ Lib Dems): "the '67 Act was not the beginning of LGBT liberation, and its eventual repeal was not the end. But it was a landmark. A step on the road out of oppression to the huge surge of acceptance seen in the last few years. We cannot forget the bravery of the people who walked that path for us."
I am with Richard on that. I salute my LGBT+ forebears who fought so hard, I honour those who are still fighting alongside me today for the justice we still need, and I hope that when the time comes for our generation to hand on the fight to the next there will be a lot less to fight for.