50 years ago today, 27th July, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 received royal assent. This partially decriminalised homosexuality and started a long a difficult journey to end discrimination and harassment of LGBT people.
I was 17 years old at the time and very much in the closet as a trans woman. I was also terrified at the thought that I might also be ‘homosexual’. It’s difficult now, I think, for people to grasp just how frightening life was for all LGBT people back then, in the “Summer of Love.” The news about the change in law was definitely not received well by my parents.
Mid 1967 was an amazing time. The Labour Party under Harold Wilson’s leadership had secured a significant majority the previous year and were now actively seeking to bring about social change. The Beatles had just released “Sgt. Peppers” heralding a new era in popular music and hippy, flower power was transforming youth culture around the world. Britain had also officially applied to join the EEC, later to become the EU, which would become the catalyst for the positive changes in LGBT Law we all now enjoy.
But before the positive changes in LGBT law following the election of New Labour in 1997, we would still have to experience a severe hardening of negative attitudes.
First the Sexual Offences Act of 1976 did not decriminalise homosexuality. The offence of gross indecency, which had resulted in Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, remained until 2003. In fact, as Peter Tatchell has clearly shown, arrests for gross indecency increased by 400% by the mid seventies and remained at that level into the 1990’s.
The 1967 Act applied specifically to consenting gay men, over the age of 21, who engaged in a sexual relationship ‘in private’. Courts interpreted ‘in private’ very strictly as meaning, ‘no one else in the building.’ As a result police aggressively persecuted gay men if they met a partner in a hotel room, which was not considered to be in private. Even simple acts of holding hands or winking at another man were likely to result in an arrest.
Between 1967 and 1997, legislation in the UK made life increasingly difficult for all LGBT people. In 1970 the annulment of April Ashley’s marriage meant that transpeople could not legally change gender, and trans women were treated as men and charged with gross indecency and sodemy.
During the 80’s HIV and AIDs were seen by the conservative government as a ‘gay plague’ and in 1988, motivated by moral panic, they enacted Section 28 of the Local Government Act to make it illegal for the public sector to treat homosexuality as normal. As a result all public education about same sex relationships ceased until this was finally repealed in 2003.
You can perhaps understand from this why the LGBT community is celebrating this 50th anniversary so enthusiastically. It’s not just about celebrating what happened 50 years ago – it is celebrating a 50 year battle. The offences of gross indecency and sodemy were still applicable in Scotland until 2013, 46 years after the 1967 Act. Same sex marriage was finally allowed in the same year.
In 2015 over 7000 LGBT people reported hate crimes, but research indicates that over 75% of LGBT people have experienced hate crime though 95% of those crimes were never reported.
Celebrating this 50 years milestone as we have in Hull this past week is great, and a reminder that we have now won most of the legal battles for equality. However, while changing the law has been difficult, changing attitudes is a much more difficult challange we still have to win.