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1957 report: Homosexuality "should not be a crime"

Sun 2 Sep 2007 In: Features View at Wayback View at NDHA

On 4th September 2007, 50 years have passed since the United Kingdom Home Office released its ground-breaking Wolfenden Report which urged partial and restricted decriminalisation of male homosexuality. How did this arise? In 1954, the Home Office established a Departmental Commission on Prostitution and Homosexuality under the direction of Reading University Vice-Chancellor John Wolfenden, trying to undo the damage that had been wrought by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The Wolfenden Committee consisted of three lawyers, three doctors, three academics, one Labour and Conservative MP each, and representatives of the Anglican, Scots Presbyterian and Catholic Churches. Over its three year tenure, the Committee met sixty times. Chronicler of that time Patrick Higgins has criticised Wolfenden for the poor quality of evidence on both sides of the decriminalisation debate, and frequent repetition of content in submissions. Both sides made contentious statements based on tiny sample sizes, which lacked professional and academic rigour, and most depicted gay men as 'naturally' inferior to heterosexuals, on the basis that early infant social influences meant we 'couldn't help ourselves.' These flaws led to repetitious and woeful representations of male homosexuality as the consequence of weak paternal influence and strong mums, which might have been expected to occur as a consequence of the social and demographic upheavals that characterised the Second World War. Due to those 'exceptional circumstances,' there would therefore be only a 'tiny minority' of bona fide gay men, preyed on by 'situational perverts' who were 'really' straight. Against this, monogamous and discrete domestic gay couples were viewed as approximating the ideal. Unfortunately, too, there was little recognition of the prevalence and frequency of heterosexual sexual abuse of female children by fathers and other male relatives, and the poor quality of evidence led to a highly discriminatory age of consent at twenty one, which took over forty years to reduce to age of consent equality at sixteen across the board. Contemporary LGBT sensibilities may shudder at references to abusive 'oestrogen therapy' of gay men, and descriptions of highly toxic and inappropriate antipsychotic medication used to 'cure' male homosexuality, even in the face of admissions from the medical profession that no, actually it didn't do so over a long-term period. Still, there were some bright spots. The Church of England Moral Welfare Council thought that homosexuality should be decriminalised with an equal age of consent, much to the shock of fundamentalist bishops in the same denomination. London's Metropolitan Police referred to the broad spectrum of gay men caught in entrapment within public lavatories after surveillance and apprehension, some of whom committed suicide after their exposure. And then there was the question of military service discrimination. Due to previously ascribed gay physical inferiority, gay soldiers and sailors (!) were viewed as 'non-existent,' and as adolescents far from home who were 'corrupted' by debauched affluent men, which was viewed as problematic during this time, as teenagers were obliged to participate in compulsory military service. Meanwhile, Patrick Higgins tells us that London's Guardsmen and the naval fraternity were quite willing to turn their hands and other parts of their anatomy to anyone they fancied... After they heard from their witnesses, Wolfenden was aghast that over half of his committee supported seventeen as the provisional gay age of consent, although due to the work of gay actors like Dirk Bogarde in the 'social problem' film Victim (1961), overall support grew for limited decriminalisation of male homosexuality. That film also focused attention on the issue of antigay blackmail of affluent men who had sex with men, whose careers could be ruined, or who committed suicide after disclosure in the courts or trashier tabloids. Throughout the sixties, there were three attempts to decriminalise male homosexuality along Wolfenden Report lines- in 1962, 1965 and 1966. Finally, under a reformist Labour administration, the House of Commons passed the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, which had a discriminatory age of consent (21), didn't apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland, or the armed forces, and didn't ban continuing entrapment of gay men who had public sex, conviction rates of whom would escalate after ;decriminalisation.' The UK gay community was left to fight on these fronts, and ultimately succeeded in achieving age of consent equality (2001) and an end to military service discrimination (2000), although Scotland and Northern Ireland had been forced to drop their continued criminalisation of gay male sex in the eighties. Problems didn't end there, though, as the Wolfenden Strategy insured discriminatory ages of consent prevailed for decriminalisation of homosexuality in New South Wales (18) and Western Australia (21) when their turns came. Fortunately, New Zealand got it right first ime in 1986, when age of consent equality (16) prevailed for all, and military service discrimination ended here in 1993 after the passage of the Human Rights Act. Recommended: Patrick Higgins: Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain: London: Fourth Estate: 1995 Craig Young - 2nd September 2007    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Sunday, 2nd September 2007 - 6:55am

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