The Sexual Offences Act 1967

Flawed but revolutionary

Sexual minorities have long suffered across the world however, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 has been somewhat revolutionary in starting the change of attitudes to LGBTQ+ rights. Of course, the act was nowhere near perfect. The act only extended to England and Wales, did not cover the navy or armed forces and only decriminalised homosexual acts between two men over the age of 21 in private. Similar acts were not introduced in Scotland and Northern Ireland until 1980 and 1982. The privation law also meant that two men could not have sex in a hotel. Despite this, the act began to change attitudes and helped accelerate a liberal age in Parliament.

By the end of 1954 1,069 gay men were in prison in England and Wales for homosexual acts. Just two years before Alan Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” and the previous year Edward Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood were imprisoned for committing acts of “homosexual indecency”. This had caused a stir in the establishment and led to the formation of a committee to explore the laws in relation to “homosexual offences”.

On the 24th August 1954, the Wolfenden committee was set up and reported on homosexual offences and prostitution in September 1957. “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence,” was recommended as well as finding that it should no longer be considered a disease. Though it did claim that it can still be a symptom of a disease, it recognised that being gay is “compatible with full mental health”. Archbishop Geoffery Fisher supported the report in 1957 stating “There is a sacred realm of privacy… into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude.” There was a growing movement at this time to decriminalise homosexuality, though it must be remembered that it by no means had overarching support. Hence the first parliamentary debate on the report in December 1957 was risky. Eight out of seventeen of peers who spoke in the debate were in support but the Lord Chancellor, speaking for the government, doubted there would be much public support and called for further research.

The case for legalising homosexuality grew over the following years and in 1965, the Conservative, Lord Arran proposed decimalisation in the House of Lords. After an attempt by Humphry Berkeley in the House of Commons a year later, it was Labour MP Leo Abse who took up the issue in 1967. The Sexual Offences Bill was read before Parliament to implement some of the Wolfenden Committee’s recommendations after almost ten years of campaigning. The Bill was passed and received Royal Assent on 27 July 1967 after a late-night debate in the House of Commons that proved intense. Homosexual acts still had to meet three requirements. They had to have consent from both participants, the act had to be in private and the age of consent for homosexual acts was set at 21 when heterosexuals only needed to be 16. The courts strictly enforced these and a gay couple could not have sex in a hotel or with another participant.

Through amendments in 1994 and 2000 and finally through the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 has been, rightfully, overturned. However, the importance of this act should not be forgotten. Though certainly not the first country to legalize homosexuality in the modern era (It has been legal in France since 1791), it did help encourage the growth of a new worldwide gay rights movement with West and East Germany legalizing homosexuality by 1969, Austria in 1971 and Portugal in 1983. England was a long way behind many other countries in legalizing homosexuality. However, the act helped bring in a liberal mindset within Britain. London’s first Gay Pride march was held on the 1st July 1972 and since then there have been many more improvements in people’s rights. The 1967 abortions act and 1969 Divorce reform act, in turn, helped Britain become a liberal centre in Europe. Because of these acts, gay people, divorcees and those who wanted an abortion began to be seen as a part of society again rather than a social disease. Though the fight has been long and continues, this period was a revolution for people’s rights and freedoms.

The people who fought for decriminalisation should not be forgotten, the fight is still not over. There have been further improvements in LGBT rights, especially gay marriage being legalised in 2013. Nevertheless, modern politicians should take on the bravery that inspired their colleagues in the 1960s to make further improvements. This bravery should not only extend to LGBTQ+ rights but everyone in society from the refugee and the homeless to those suffering from drug addiction or poverty. The liberal, caring attitude of the 1960s should be brought back today for the benefit of everyone in society, especially those who need it the most. The 1967 act was revolutionary and, despite criticism, should be viewed as a proud point in British history.

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