What so important about 1967?

This year the LGBT* community is celebrating the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised male homosexuality. There are a large number of events across the country, it will be a central focus of Pride in July, and Opening Doors London is contributing with an exciting programme of events under the heading of ODL50. Yet the 1967 Act was very limited in its immediate impact, and for many lesbians and gays little changed in the immediate aftermath. Are we over-hyping its importance?

It took a long time to get to 1967. Oscar Wilde had spoken of the ‘monstrous martyrdoms’ caused by the notorious Labouchere Amendment of 1885, which created the offence of ‘gross indecency’ and made all forms of male homosexuality illegal, whether in public or private.(It did not refer to lesbians and attempts to include them failed). This became the main vehicle for criminalizing homosexuality, and became widely known as the ‘Blackmailers’ Charter’. Thousands of men were to suffer the direct impact, and many more had to live under its shadow. Reformers knew it had to go but it was a long and tortuous road to get there. The Wolfenden Report in 1957 had suggested a modest decriminalisation, but it took another ten years before the Sexual Offences Act passed through Parliament.

The reform was largely a parliamentary drama. There was no great mobilisation of queers to push it through (after all, we were all illegal). The Homosexual Law Reform Society which campaigned for reform was ostensibly a pressure group of the great and the good, and while most of the work was done by gay people, led by Antony Grey, discretion was inevitably the rule. The law as it passed in July 1967 reflected the compromises that had to be made. It was extremely limited in its scope: male homosexuality in private was partially decriminalised for men over 21, in England and Wales only (Scotland and Northern Ireland had to wait until 1980 and 1982), as long as there were no more than two people in the house, and they were not in the Armed Services or the Merchant Navy. Homosexuality as such was not legalised as a court decision soon made clear, and the number of prosecutions for homosexuality in public actually increased fourfold in the succeeding years. It had no impact on lesbian life whatsoever, while the growth of facilities such as clubs and meeting places was discouraged. So it was hardly a great moment of liberation and it would take another forty years for full legal equality to be achieved.

And yet, in retrospect, its importance was enormous. It was the first crack in the huge fortress of homophobia, and it had a vital symbolic importance. After 1967 queer people began to act as if they had greater rights than they actually did. It gave a new sense of confidence to LGBT* people, and modest reforms was soon followed from 1970 by the rapid growth of the gay liberation movement and new reform organisations, of, for and by LGBT* people. There were years of struggle ahead though AIDS, new waves of setbacks such as Section 28, and continuous discrimination and homophobia before a new wave of reform began in the late 1990s. Today the rights and recognition of LGBT* people are dramatically different from what they were in the so-called liberated 1960s. Members of ODL are part of the generation that made those changes, and have benefited from them. We live in a different world.

But every movement for change has small beginnings, and from the perspective of the present we can see that the 1967 reform was a crucial breakthrough. Yes we are right to mark it, and to celebrate at the same time how far we have come beyond it.

Jeffrey Weeks
Chair of ODL