Thursday July 27 2017
On 27 July 1967 the Sexual Offences Act, partially decriminalising homosexuality, was given Royal Assent. It is a significant date in LGBTQ history given that the journey towards it had been long, bumpy and full of controversy. The Wolfenden Report, published ten years earlier in 1957, had recommended that homosexual acts between men over the age of 21 should be made legal. The House of Commons debated these recommendations several times, but until 1967 any attempt to change the law was consistently defeated. A vote in favour was finally achieved on 4 July 1967, having been championed by the Welsh Labour MP Leo Abse.
After Royal Assent was granted men over the age of 21 in England and Wales were – in the eyes of the law – able to have relationships without threat of imprisonment, provided they conducted their relationship in private. However, they were scarcely able to be open about their sexuality even after this date, and as Peter Tatchell has pointed out arrests of gay men actually increased significantly after 1967 (as David Shariatmadari puts it in a recent Guardian article the ‘quid pro quo’ for changing the law was more focus on public ‘decency’: acts of ‘gross indecency’ in public became prosecutable with five years in prison). It was to be another 36 years before gay men were given the same protection in the law as heterosexuals, and not until 2014 that they could marry. The support for the change in the law was, furthermore, not necessarily due to liberal impulses but rather a recognition that the law had no right to intrude into private behaviour. As Lord Arran, a supporter of the bill, put it in the House of Lords debate on 21 July 1967:
I ask one thing and I ask it earnestly. I ask those who have, as it were, been in bondage and for whom the prison doors are now open to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity. This is no occasion for jubilation; certainly not for celebration. Any form of ostentatious behaviour; now or in the future, any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful and would, I believe, make the sponsors of the Bill regret that they have done what they have done. Homosexuals must continue to remember that while there may be nothing bad in being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good.
At The Red House we have been marking the 50th anniversary of this partial discrimination with our Queer Talk exhibition. We focus on key works by Britten that highlight his relationship with Peter Pears, who was also his muse, collaborator and recital partner; and explore the wider cultural, political and legal situation the couple faced (along with other gay men) in the 1950s and 1960s. Their relationship began in 1939 and was necessarily discreet for almost 30 years – but even after the 1967 change in law they did not make any public statements about it, although Pears was more open a few years after Britten died in the documentary A Time There Was (1979). And they were not the only ones: perhaps because of the habit of discretion cultivated in the years before 1967, and conscious of the ever-present threat of exposure or arrest, many men of their generation kept their sexuality private, such as Noël Coward, Dirk Bogarde and EM Forster. Despite this, they all – including Britten – in one way or another participated in projects that at least hinted at their personal feelings, such as Bogarde’s film Victim, or Britten’s Billy Budd.
EM Forster wrote the novel Maurice, which is about a gay relationship, in the early twentieth century, and showed it to a number of gay friends, but he felt it could only be published after his death in 1970. Forster had written in a diary entry in 1965, ‘how annoyed I am with Society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal. The subterfuges, the self-consciousness that might have been avoided’. He did live to see the change in the law, but it was a great personal sadness to him that for the majority of his long life he was unable to live freely as a homosexual man, nor to write about loving relationships between men. Even after 1967, there was a long road to true acceptance ahead.
By Lucy Walker, Director of Public Programming and Learning at the Britten-Pears Foundation