1967 ‘Homosexual acts’ decriminalised
Following trials stemming from as far back as ten years, 1967 marked the passing of the Sexual Offences Act which decriminalised male “homosexual acts” in England and Wales.
At the end of 1954, in England and Wales, there were 1,069 gay men in prison for homosexual acts, with an average age of 37. Lesbians at the time were not actively criminalised.
In order to curb these rising figures, one Labour MP, Leo Abse, and a Conservative peer, Lord Arran, put forward proposals to humanise the way in which UK law treated gay men by the Sexual Offences Bill.
In 1967 the Labour Government finally showed support for Lord Arran’s proposals. At this time, it was widely viewed that criminal law should not further penalise gay men for their sex lives, given that were already the object of ridicule socially.
Roy Jenkins, who was Home Secretary at the time, said: “Those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives.”
The Bill received Royal assent on 27 July 1967 after an intense late night debate in the House of Commons. Future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was one of just a handful of Conservative MPs who voted to decriminalise male homosexuality.
Lord Arran, in an attempt to curb criticisms that the legislation would lead to further public debate and visibility of issues relating to homosexual civil rights, including equal marriage, made the following statement:
“I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity…any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful…[And] make the sponsors of this Bill regret that they had done what they had done.”
The 1967 Act did not extend to Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, where all male homosexual behaviour remained illegal until the Tatcher government.
The privacy restrictions of the Act meant a third person could not be present and that gay men could not have sex in a hotel. These restrictions were overturned in the European Court of Human Rights in 2000.
Peter Tatchell in his 1992 book “Europe in The Pink” argued that the legislation led to an increase in prosecutions against homosexual men.