The History of Homosexuality: The Wolfenden Report

Screenshot-2017-06-26-22.47.46 The History of Homosexuality: The Wolfenden ReportIn 1954, following the high-profile convictions of Lord Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers, and Peter Wildeblood for homosexual crimes under the infamous 1885 Labouchere Amendment, and more significantly the turn of public opinion against the prosecutors of that case, the Home Secretary ordered that a committee which had been set up in order to look into the matter of prostitution also consider the criminality of homosexuality.

The committee comprised three women and twelve men, chaired by Lord Wolfenden, for whom the report was named. The committee members came from legal, medical, educational, and religious backgrounds, although despite this and the subjects they had been charged with investigating, they were surprisingly coy — Wolfenden suggested at an early meeting that they refer to homosexuals as Huntleys and prostitutes as Palmers (after the biscuit manufacturer, Huntley & Palmers) in order to protect the delicate sensibilities of the ladies in the room. A suggestion which the ladies promptly rejected.

The report took three years almost to the day to complete, during which time the committee met on 62 days, 32 of which were to listen to witness testimony. One of the biggest problems they had, when considering the legality of homosexuality, was finding homosexuals prepared to testify. Given the criminality of homosexuality at the time, and the zealous prosecution of such by the police, they could only find three witnesses, and of them, only one — Peter Wildeblood — was prepared to have his name published in the report. The other two were known as “the Doctor” and “Mr. White.”

Carl Winter (“Mr. White”) was an art historian, formerly of the Victoria & Albert Museum and employed as Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, during the time of the report hearing. “The Doctor” was Patrick Trevor-Roper, an ophthalmologist by training, who was to become one of the first and most influential LGBT rights activists. After testifying for the committee, Trevor-Roper dedicated much of his time to campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and afterwards for an equal age of consent (after decriminalisation, the homosexual age of consent was 21, versus 16 for heterosexuals). During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Trevor-Roper was one of the founders of the Terrence Higgins Trust (its first meeting was held in his house). He also lobbied for better access to ophthalmic care both at home and in Africa.

Screenshot-2017-06-26-22.48.22 The History of Homosexuality: The Wolfenden ReportTrevor-Roper’s testimony before the committee said a lot of things which seem obvious today, but at the time were revolutionary: that queerness was not an illness or disability; that queerfolk led ordinary, mundane lives; that they posed no harm to society, but were being directly harmed by the existing law, which left them open to blackmail; and that suicide rates were high among young queer men because they felt isolated and alienated by society.

Other men did offer to testify before the committee, but were rejected as unsuitable witnesses for much the same reason Winters, Wildeblood, and Trevor-Roper wanted to be included: because the committee, which tended towards sympathy where homosexuality was concerned, was only interested in a very specific, class-based and private expression of homosexuality. The men arrested for procuring sex in the streets were no better (or different) to those associated with the scourge of prostitution, the other matter the committee was investigating. Wildeblood himself drew a direct parallel between the two, stating: “Soliciting, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual, is obviously a social nuisance and will have to be curbed.”

The more visible and public queers — the effeminate “queans” and those who frequented cottages and cruising grounds and the cinemas and bars and other public places were queer men secretly met — were not part of the new narrative that was being deliberately crafted by the three men testifying before the committee. Even now, fifty years later, the narrative still works: great strides are still being made towards LGBT equality by emphasising our sameness to straightfolk and denying those in our community who seem most “other.”

That isn’t to say the narrative doesn’t have truth or merit. When Wildeblood spoke about wishing to lead a quiet life with a partner of his choosing, his words have a poignancy which resonate with many. It’s just that he omitted discussing where he was to meet that partner.

I seek only to apply to my life the rules which govern the lives of all good men; freedom to choose a partner and… to live with him discreetly and faithfully… the right to choose the person whom I love.

The report recommended, by a vote of 14-1, that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”, and recommended 21 as the age of consent. (Of prostitution, they weren’t so generous. They associated an increase in instances of street prostitution with “community instability” and “weakening of the family”, leading to an increase in prosecutions as the police strove to eliminate this perceived social threat.)

Despite the recommendations of the report, it would be another decade — a decade of incredible political agitation — before homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales. As a final point of interest, Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, was gay. When homosexuality was added to the committee’s remit, Wolfenden wrote to Jeremy, suggesting it would be best “if he weren’t seen around him too often in lipstick and make-up” while the committee was sitting.


Further reading: Peter Wildeblood, Against the Law | Matt Houlbrook, Queer London


Born on this day: Rhona Cameron (50, Scottish), comedian; Tim Campbell (40, Australian), actor; Carrie Brownstein (41, American), singer; and Robert Patrick (78, American), playwright.

Died on this day: Keith Prentice (1940-1992, American), actor; and Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956, American), Olympic athlete.

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