The History of Homosexuality: Wolfenden to Legalisation

Wolfenden_report The History of Homosexuality: Wolfenden to Legalisation

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Ten years passed between the publication of the Wolfenden report and the legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. The history books usually gloss over that decade, seeming to assume that’s just how long it takes to implement major social reform. Governments aren’t known for acting quickly.

Yet glossing over that key decade is to do a disservice to the men and women who campaigned tirelessly through it, the people prepared to come out of the closet and demand equality for the first time. That the government was so slow implementing change based on the conclusions of a report they’d commissioned suggests that the Wolfenden committee was charged with looking into homosexuality, not with a view towards changing the existing laws, but upholding them. When the verdict came down in favour of decriminalising homosexuality, a lot of people in power were both surprised and dismayed.

Some men began campaigning even before the Wolfenden committee first convened. Anthony Edgar Gartside Wright, a journalist and lawyer by training, who worked as a lobbyist  and press officer for the British Iron & Steel Federation, began agitating for legal reform as early as 1954, the year Wildeblood, Montagu, and Pitt-Rivers were jailed, and the Wolfenden committee was formed. He started small, with a letter to the Sunday Times, but even that was a daring move. His parents, embarrassed by their son’s outspokenness, requested he stop using his family name or associate them in any way with his campaigning. Wright chose the pseudonym Antony Grey because, he said, there are no black and white issues in life.

In 1958, the year after the Wolfenden report was released, the Homosexual Law Reform Society was formed, a political lobbying organisation determined to make the government heed the advice of its own committee. The catalyst for the group was a letter written to The Times by the academic AE Dyson (himself queer), on 5th March 1958, calling for the reform the report recommended. The letter was signed by a number of distinguished figures, including ex-Prime Minister Clement Attlee; the philosophers AJ Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, and Bertrand Russell; Anglican bishop Trevor Huddleston, and Methodist minister Baron Soper; Sir Julian Huxley, evolutionary biologist; Baroness Wootton of Abinger, sociologist and criminologist; and the authors Angus Wilson, and JB Priestley.

Dyson had accumulated his impressive list of signatories by writing to every notable figure he could think of from the worlds of politics, academia, the church, and the celebrity sphere, requesting their support. On 12th May 1958, the first meeting of the Homosexual Law Reform Society was held. Most of its founding members weren’t themselves queer. They also set up a sister charity, the Albany Trust, whose stated goal was to “promote psychological health in men by collecting data and conducting research: to publish the results thereof by writing, films, lectures and other media: to take suitable steps based thereon for the public benefit to improve the social and general conditions necessary for such healthy psychological development.” As well as providing the hard data required by the HLRS in order to lobby for legislative change, the Albany Trust provided vital counselling services for sexual minorities, a role it continued to fulfill after the decriminalisation of homosexuality (and it is still fulfilling today).

The HLRS also advertised for new members, which is how Antony Grey came to join their ranks. Grey possessed, in the words of one historian, the “rare combination of high-serious commitment, shrewd political effectiveness, and total lack of self-advertisement” which were to make his contribution to the HLRS and Albany Trust invaluable. After joining the HLRS in 1958, he was promoted to Honorary Treasurer in 1960, and Secretary in 1962 (at which point he gave up his career at British Steel to concentrate on the HLRS full-time). In 1970, following the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the HLRS reinvented itself as the Sexual Law Reform Society, with Grey continuing as Secretary, and from 1971-1977 he was Director of the Albany Trust, remaining a patron of the charity until his death in 2010. He also found the time to sit as executive committee member of the organisations Defence of Literature and the Arts Society (now the Campaign Against Censorship), and National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty).

The road to homosexual emancipation which I and a few others embarked upon following the Wolfenden Report has been a long and arduous one. But now here we are, and we can be thankful for what has been achieved. At least, we are able to celebrate our identities in this magnificent building, instead of being thrown off the top of it for being who we are – as some of our enemies would like to happen. But the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and ours is a never-ending struggle not just for our own rights, but for human rights.

— Antony Grey, Stonewall Hero of the Year, 2007

The first parliamentary debate on the findings of the Wolfenden committee was scheduled for 4th December 1957, and in anticipation of that the HLRS sent every MP a pamphlet, Homosexuals and the Law. (The debate was initiated by Frank Pakenham, a curiously eccentric figure who was noted for championing social outcasts and unpopular causes. While he was an instrumental figure to the HLRS in government for working towards the decriminalisation of homosexuality, in later life he had a complete reversal, and staunchly opposed any further equality legislation where queerfolk were concerned.)

Despite the early efforts to get a debate off the ground, the government made clear they had no intention of acting on Wolfenden’s recommendations. Then Lord Chancellor, David Maxwell-Fyfe (he who Montagu believed, as Solicitor-General, to have been behind the “pogrom” which led to Wolfenden; now titled Viscount Kilmuir), declared  “I am not going down in history as the man who made sodomy legal”, putting an end to the debate.

Undeterred, the HLRS continued to garner support from the public at large. Their first open meeting, in 1960, was attended by over a thousand people. Public image was everything at this time, and the Director for a while was the thrice-divorced AJ Ayer, who later noted, “as a notorious heterosexual I could never be accused of feathering my own nest.” Grey’s appointment to Secretary in 1962 was met with some opposition precisely because he was a gay man living with his partner, Eric Thompson, which placed him at risk of being arrested under the law he was campaigning so tirelessly to overturn. Probably in order to avoid making Grey a martyr, the police left him alone. Grey and Thompson met in 1960 and were together until Grey’s death fifty years later. In 2005, they became one of the first couples to enter into a civil partnership.

What was really needed, however, was political allies. Lord Arran, an eccentric peer (aren’t they all?) and Conservative whip in the House of Lords, was invaluable. He inherited his title after his gay older brother, the seventh Earl, committed suicide; an event which surely had a profound effect and influenced his lifelong political leanings. He introduced a bill to decriminalise homosexuality to the Lords in the summer of 1965.

He was related to everyone and was always saying things like, “I’ll have a word with Cousin Salisbury about that.” He was a bit mad – he referred to the bill as William – and he became an alcoholic while he was doing it. He more or less had to be dried out afterwards.’

Antony Grey, about Lord Arran

Lord Kilmuir led the opposition (which must have been galling, considering he was the man who charged Wolfenden with investigating the matter), but Arran secured the influential support of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and his bill won its third reading with 96 votes to 31.

Despite this success, the bill ran out of parliamentary time before it could be implemented, but the pressure was now on the House of Commons to take up where the Lords left off. Another Conservative, MP Humphrey Berkeley, sponsored a bill in the Commons but again ran out of time. The following year, Berkeley lost his seat and was out of government. Another MP, Leo Abse, took up the challenge.

The House didn’t like Humphrey Berkeley. He was gay and everyone knew. He was an enfant terrible who never grew up. I don’t think he could have got [the bill] through.

— Leo Abse

In July 1966, Abse moved for a Ten-Minute Rule Bill. The debate was, from a modern perspective, depressing on both sides. The opposition minced no words (the Earl of Dudley’s contribution was, “I cannot stand homosexuals. They are the most disgusting people in the world. I loathe them. Prison is much too good a place for them.”) and the proponents of the bill deliberately painted homosexuals as unfortunate creatures, deserving pity.

The thrust of all the arguments we put to get it was, “Look, these people, these gays, poor gays, they can’t have a wife, they can’t have children, it’s a terrible life. You are happy family men. You’ve got everything. Have some charity.” Nobody knew better than I what bloody nonsense that was.

— Leo Abse

Abse’s genius was in wrong-footing his opponents on a minor technicality. The debate got sidetracked into the question of whether or not decriminalisation would apply to merchant seamen, and looked at one point as if it would scupper the entire bill. Abse provided a compromise — merchant seamen could have homosexual sex with passengers and foreign seamen, but not each other — which, while absurd, derailed the opposition’s argument and enabled him to continue on with the bill. At the crucial moment, Abse managed to keep 101 supporters in the chambers — the bill required 100 to pass; a count which, in his words, “shows how precarious the bill was, and it’s why I get so damned annoyed when people say Wolfenden was a watershed. We got that bill through on one vote.”

The bill was passed at 5.50am on 5th July 1967, and decriminalised the private sexual contact between two consenting men over the age of 21. It received royal assent on 27th July 1967. It didn’t apply to the military, and only partially to merchant seamen.

In later life, Lord Arran was asked why his bill decriminalising homosexuality got enough votes to pass, but his bill to protect badgers — his favourite animal — failed. “Not many badgers in the House of Lords,” was his reply.

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