by: Rob Field
From the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 to contemporary legal cases, British Library Public Policy Manager Rob Field discusses the development of policy relating to LGBTQ and what the future may hold.
On 27 July 1967 the Sexual Offences Act 1967 received Royal Assent, decriminalising homosexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21 in England and Wales – although it excluded members of the Armed Forces and the Merchant Navy. The Act was partial; it did not fundamentally decriminalise homosexuality. Viewed through a contemporary lens, its shortcomings are immediately apparent.
It was however a vital moment in public policy terms, particularly in crystallising the idea that the state had no place intervening in the private sex lives of consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes. It gave tangible form to the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report published 10 years prior, which itself was established following high-profile trials in the 1950s of homosexual men including Alan Turing.
The report found that ‘homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases, it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects’. Furthermore, that ‘the law’s function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others… It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.’
That it took 10 years for the Report’s recommendations to come to fruition within the Sexual Offences Act’s provisions is perhaps a clue as to the complex, indirect relationship between policy debate and real-life improvements to the lives of LGBTQ people in the UK.
Even in the ‘swinging sixties’, under a Harold Wilson government considered to be socially reformist in nature, the historic 1967 milestone hardly represented a radical embrace of diversity. During Parliamentary debate in July 1967, then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins spoke in support of the Bill, saying ‘those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives’ and it was for that reason they should not be penalised by the state. A society that could make the cognitive leap to accepting that people could walk on the moon (an event that happened just two years later), was still unable to wrap its head around the notion of public, loving, and equal queer relationships.
Indeed, campaigner Peter Tatchell has highlighted that, despite the apparent step forward in 1967, other anti-gay rights laws continued to be used by the state, with a huge increase in convictions by 1974 (such as a 300% increase in gross indecency convictions). That backdrop acutely demonstrates the limitations of public policy debate without the catalysing influence of the accompanying radical social movements that followed.
Campaign literature from organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front, OutRage!, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and Stonewall illustrate how bold and vibrant those movements became.
It is impossible to do justice to the brave and radical actions of a myriad of campaigning individuals and groups in the decades that followed 1967. The movement was broad, diverse and complex in character. For every act that succeeded in grabbing a headline or notoriety, there were countless other undocumented acts of defiance and challenges to the status quo. These acts ultimately succeeded in changing social attitudes towards a more widely-accepted assumption that equality under law should prevail.
The HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s put gay sex under the full spotlight of public debate, inflaming longstanding prejudices and birthing new myths and misconceptions about gay men in particular. For a time, it was reported as a ‘gay plague’.
The public policy response to HIV/AIDS is widely held to be a success. Then-Health Secretary Norman Fowler succeeded in convincing Thatcher’s government to go ahead with an unprecedented health information campaign. In 1986/87, a leaflet drop to every household in the UK along with a remarkably stark TV campaign (featuring the famous John Hurt narrated ‘Tombstone’ ad) formed the world’s first major government-sponsored AIDS awareness drive.
The Government spent an estimated £5 million on a series of television commercials to combat AIDS. This advert, ‘Tombstone’ is one of the most remembered.
The strategy risked stoking fears in its attempt to raise understanding, but ultimately new diagnoses fell by a third and plateaued for the remainder of the century.
Local Government Act 1986 – Section 28
In 1988, Parliament amended the Local Government Act 1986. Section 28 prohibited local authorities from ‘intentionally promoting homosexuality’ or the ‘teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. It stayed on the statute books for 15 years and became another rallying point for the LGBTQ movement, with key moments including:
- Sir Ian McKellen coming out in a Radio 3 debate on the issue
- Three lesbians abseiling into the House of Lords during debate on the ruling
four campaigners invading the BBC studios the day before the section became law, while Sue Lawley read the news.
- Clause 28 was eventually repealed in 2003. In 2009, then-Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron, despite having opposed the 2003 repeal, issued a historic apology for the policy.
The modern landscape
The acceleration of legislative changes since the turn of the century makes it tempting to believe in a linear story of irreversible social progress. For the current generation, the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 might appear as a definitive closing act, without the context of the battle to get there.
And this is why it still matters; why the 2017 year of commemoration – marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality – was so essential not just for the LGBTQ community but for anyone concerned for the state of civil rights today. It is why the Pride movement is as important and relevant as it ever has been – offering a reminder, not just of the battles waged and ultimately won, but of the ever-shifting nature of the battleground itself.
Public policy debate isn’t over
The ‘big-ticket’ legislative changes (same-sex adoption, marriage, gender recognition) might have been won, but policy debates are still being fought on inequalities that remain. Regrettably, Northern Ireland still does not have equal marriage.
In July 2017, the UK Supreme Court ruled in favour of John Walker, who sought equal spousal pension rights for his same-sex partner. Walker challenged an exemption in the Equality Act 2010 that allowed firms to exclude same-sex partners from providing pensions prior to the introduction of Civil Partnerships in 2005. Earlier in that same year, the Policing and Crime Act pardoned historic offences of gross indecency (known as the ‘Alan Turing law’) for consensual sexual activity between gay men.
And there remain continuing points of contention in how broader public policy is implemented. For example, guidelines on blood donation have been changed to enable gay men to donate three months after having last had sex, compared with 12 months previously. The Government has also signalled its intention to consult on proposals that would make it easier for transgender people to choose their sex legally, removing the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and making the transitioning process less bureaucratic. This follows 2017’s first ever national LGBT survey carried out by the Government.
Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged that ‘when it comes to rights and protections for trans identifying people, there is still a long way to go.’ In areas such as the rights of transgender prisoners, this is literally a matter of life and death, starkly illustrated by two high profile suicide cases in 2015.
The need for vigilance
John Walker’s successful legal challenge to the UK Government was ultimately made possible by EU equal employment rights. The UK’s decision to leave the EU (and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice) therefore raises the need for vigilance over the ongoing protection of hard-won LGBTQ protections. The newfound influence of the Democratic Unionist Party in determining the balance of UK Parliament is an early indicator of the risks. Many in the LGBTQ community have been appalled by the UK Government’s willingness to enter into a formal agreement with a party that has repeatedly blocked equal marriage in Northern Ireland and which is notorious for expressing anti-LGBTQ sentiment.
The sudden volatility in the United States’ political landscape is a cautionary example. After one of the most remarkable shifts in public opinion in US history – from a 68/27 split against equal marriage in 1994 to a 60/37 split in favour of equal marriage by 2015 – the LGBTQ community suddenly faces a Vice President with links to ‘gay cure’ therapy, a President attempting to ban transgender service in the military, and an Attorney General whose stated position is that anti-LGBTQ discrimination on the grounds of religious freedom is legal under federal law.
Furthermore, the lifetime appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court vacancy tilts the balance of the seven Supreme Court judges in favour of social conservatism. The current experience of the US is a timely reminder for the UK that the victories won over the past 50 years are far from immutable.
Access to public services (and the social impact of growing up LGBTQ)
There is also a very live challenge in ensuring that LGBTQ are able to access the public services they need and are entitled to. That’s often not about addressing active or intended discrimination, but more about ensuring that the lived experiences of LGBTQ people are understood by service providers. According to LGBT Foundation statistics, LGBTQ people are:
- twice as likely to experience suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide
- two to three times more likely to experience depression
- seven times more likely to engage in some form of substance abuse and far more likely to have an eating disorder.
In addition, over half of young gay people have self-harmed (compared to somewhere between 1 in 10 and 1 in 15 for young people generally).
Former Attitude editor Matthew Todd has written eloquently on this:
What’s wrong is not our sexuality, but our experience of growing up in a society that still does not fully accept that people can be anything other than heterosexual and cisgendered (i.e. born into the physical gender you feel you are). It is the damage done to us by growing up strapped inside a cultural straitjacket – a tight-fitting, one-size restraint imposed on us at birth – that leaves no room to grow. It makes no allowances for the fact that, yes, indeed, some people are different and we deserve – and need – to be supported and loved for who we are, too.
Despite the extraordinary advances made since 1967, it is clear the experience of growing up LGBTQ in the UK can still be traumatic and create long-term health and behavioural issues. It is to be hoped that the long-term impact of recent advances will be an improvement in the shocking figures currently reported. But there remains an immediate and pressing set of issues for LGBTQ people in the UK and every aspect of public service provision needs to be sensitive to these.
A personal perspective from the author
Matthew Todd’s vivid metaphor of a ‘cultural straitjacket’ is exactly why the role of cultural heritage institutions is so important. I am 32, growing up as a gay man during a period of often exhilarating public policy advances in LGBTQ rights. But those advances were pretty abstract for someone growing up in the closet in suburban Essex in the nineties and noughties. I was starved of stories about people like me. My notion of what it meant to be gay was profoundly two-dimensional: the sanitised innuendo so prevalent in British entertainment at the time, and a taboo world of pornography that existed on the fringes of my consciousness.
Access to culture is access to stories that resonate. For me it was a book that first opened my eyes; War Boy by Kief Hillsbery, published in 2001 is the story of a deaf-mute queer skater punk in San Francisco, told in a freeform stream of consciousness. As a narrative perspective, it was about as far removed as possible from the realities of my life.
Yet for the first time I was immersed in multi-layered, complex stories about love between gay men, and a portrayal of sex as intimate rather than comedic, forbidden or dirty. It was a profound and utterly formative experience.
That’s why I believe it’s vital that cultural institutions, from libraries to galleries, theatres to museums, and everything in between, are proactive in their efforts to represent queer lives in the UK.
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