The Sexual Offences Act was a landmark for gay rights, but we cannot afford to be complacent as discrimination is still widespread, writes PETER PURTON
THE 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was the theme of LGBT History Month 2017 and many Prides.
For young people it is ancient history, but to ignore what it represented is a mistake: the Act was only the starting point in a long process of social and legal change which has not yet ended, but who in these tumultuous times can predict the future?
Leo Abse MP’s 1967 Bill, given space by Harold Wilson’s Labour government, was intended to implement the Wolfenden report, itself generated by high-profile scandals of prominent public figures prosecuted for homosexuality and anxiety within the Establishment about Soviet blackmail of British secret agents (Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean).
The report lay dormant for 10 years under Tory governments and the Act itself was weakened to get it voted through. It ended by partially decriminalising male homosexual acts.
One perverse consequence was an increase in arrests as police used the law’s provisions about the sex being “in private” and “over 21” to raid clubs and entrap men in toilets.
Another unintended consequence was much more positive. Although supporters in Parliament announced that they had dealt with the unsavoury issue of same-sex relationships for good, the 1967 Act in fact led to a growing and more open social scene for the community, increased campaigning to achieve full equality and the birth of a new liberation movement.
The new law was not only down to friendly heterosexual politicians: it had also been the result of patient lobbying by a few brave homosexual men and lesbians (the word “gay” had yet to be adopted) campaigning in a vicious climate where popular prejudice was everywhere as well as the law being entirely hostile.
A key figure was Allan Horsfall, a trade unionist and one-time Labour councillor from north-west England, whose tiny organisation went on to become the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in 1969.
CHE’s political objectives addressed the many shortfalls of the 1967 Act. It also created support networks for those who had nowhere (literally) to turn for help or contact with others.
But this was also the era of the movements across the West for women’s equality, for black civil rights, against the Vietnam war, a mood of challenge to post-war austerity and individual freedom from suffocating social norms, especially among young people who had not lived through the second world war.
It was therefore not really surprising that two years after the ’67 Act, the Stonewall Riot in New York gave birth to another movement — gay liberation.
From 1970, young lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in Britain embraced the movement and took to the streets to challenge society and the state.
Fifty years on, LGBT (the letters signal recognition of the earlier exclusion of all apart from white non-disabled gay men, exclusions which are now recognised but have not yet been eliminated) people enjoy rights inconceivable in 1967, and popular acceptance the progress of which has gone hand in hand (sometimes ahead of, sometimes behind) legal reforms.
The revolution in social acceptance has been the most impressive. Majority support for same-sex marriage was a dream even 10 years ago.
But social change has multiple consequences. Some of these should cause alarm for the future. Our victories have also created vulnerabilities.
It is a common perception that the battle is won, but it is not. There are still legal issues: exemptions from the ban on discrimination on grounds of religion, full equality for trans people awaits new laws and the inequality in pension benefits has only just now been addressed, not via Parliament but by the Supreme Court.
Even more important is the reality that a third of the British population remains hostile, with (reported) hate crime second only in number to those on grounds of race.
Many pupils thought to be LGBT continue to face bullying at school. Teenagers now come out younger and some get thrown onto the street by their parents.
Lesbian, bi and gay workers faced two-and-a-half times more discrimination than heterosexuals in workplaces (2014).
These are not small problems. Will time bring about continuous improvement? Who knows — the problem is that complacency and austerity have killed most campaigning.
LGBT+ voluntary groups have been massacred by seven years of cuts. The largest LGBT charity, Stonewall, targets employers — all very well, but are employers really interested in anything but their bottom line?
Just how far do (especially smaller) employers take their commitment to equality (compare the gender pay gap)? Do they invest in countries where homosexuality can lead to execution? Of course they do.
Complacency also means that there is now no LGBT+ movement in Britain. Prides have become commercially dominated parties where politics finds it increasingly hard to be heard.
It is not enough to complain. Just as today’s rights were born 50 years ago out of a broader culture of protest and resistance, today’s LGBT+ campaigners cannot work in isolation.
Globally, clumsy support from Western governments is a two-edged sword because their opponents (such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin) enlist hostility to homosexuality as part of their appeal and leaders of some EU countries (Poland, Hungary) call on religion and the family to boost domestic ratings, and who knows what Donald Trump will do?
Whether LGBT communities like it or not, our rights have become part of a highly polarised world and domestic conflict.
The support of the British labour movement was (and is) critical in winning and holding what has been gained and today they represent one true ally, driven by LGBT+ trade unionists. They can, and must, link with others to fight for social justice in Britain and Europe, but also internationally, and recognise that LGBT equality is only possible when there is equality for all who do not have it. Only then can the job begun in 1967 be completed.
Peter Purton was TUC LGBT officer from 1998-2016. His new book, Champions of Equality: Trade Unions and LGBT Rights will be published by Lawrence and Wishart in the autumn.