As LGBT History Month begins, historian and author Sebastian Buckle looks at ‘gay’ – and how homosexuality went from an act to a way of life in Britain.
On July 27, 1967 the Sexual Offences Act received royal assent, signalling that sex between men was no longer a criminal offence – but only under certain circumstances.
The new law only applied in England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland would have to wait until 1980 and 1982 respectively); it did not include any man working in the armed forces or the merchant navy; and it only applied to men over the age of 21, in private, with no more than two people present.
Female homosexuality was not decriminalised at the same time simply because it had never been a criminal offence.
One of the key Parliamentarians responsible for the new law, Lord Arran, issued a stark warning to those men he had helped emancipate:
“I ask those who have, as it were, been in bondage and for whom the prison doors are now open to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity. This is no occasion for jubilation; certainly not for celebration. Any form of ostentatious behaviour; now or in the future any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful and would, I believe, make the sponsors of the Bill regret that they have done what they have done.”
But despite this, the act instead helped legitimise and offer further impetus to changes that were already underfoot, changes which would have a huge impact on the way modern Britain understood homosexuality in the decades ahead.
Pre-war Britain defined people based on signifiers including gender, class, religion, and ethnicity.
Sex was a private matter which rarely featured in public discourse. Men and women were of course having sex with members of their same sex – as they have been for as long as humanity has existed – but they did so in secret.
Medical professionals may have described them as homosexual, as might have some more well-read individuals, but this remained a medical category.
Others may have called them queer, but this was a pejorative term to label a minority of people. To define men and women by their sexual preference simply did not exist.
Your identity – how you thought of yourself and how others thought about you –could not be based on sexuality in a society where sex was rarely spoken about.
But the Second World War was the catalyst that helped change this. The war displaced families, sent young soldiers across the country (and the world), and gave women new roles in the workplace for the first time.
All while the impending threat of total war hung over a frightened population. People became exposed to new ideas and ways of living, and ended the war fundamentally changed by it, ready to build a new kind of society which they had fought so hard for.
The Gay Liberation Front – born in the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York – emerged in Britain in 1970 and began a political and social campaign which at its heart rested on the premise that gay people should live open lives, free from persecution in what they hoped would be a fundamentally changed society.
Magazines had already begun to use the American term “gay”, which deliberately rejected medicalised terminology in favour of a word which by definition meant happy. Indeed, the rights movements of the twentieth century relied on invoking an identity politics which defined a class of people who sought freedom.
In the decades where sex and gender became topics fit for public discussion, the sixties and seventies saw sexuality enter the lexicon.
In doing so newspapers and magazines began writing about this new type of “gay” person, while men and women began living openly “gay” lives for the first time.
Slowly, people who were sexually attracted to members of their own sex started to define themselves – and be defined by others – as gay. This was more than just a label of sexual preference; crucially, it became a label of identity.
It defined who you were as the foremost category of identity. Gender, class, ethnicity all continued to matter, of course, but now sexuality too, became a signifier of who you were as a person.
The Gay Liberation Front never managed to change society in the way that it hoped, but instead left a legacy in the form of new ways of understanding people. We now live in a world where individuals are categorised by their sexuality. Calling someone gay does not just mean saying that they are sexually attracted to members of their same sex.
It means giving them an identity which invokes a plethora of meanings that at its heart rests on a way of life distinct from heterosexuality. Although these meanings seem constant, they are in fact always changing and dependent upon an individual’s exposure to ideas drawn from the media, the law, and the social lives of those around us.
Without creating this gay identity it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to fight for the legal rights which now offer almost parity with heterosexuality in the UK.
But while those new labels of identity certainly helped liberate generations of men and women who were able to define themselves and their feelings in a way that they and other people understood, they also helped demonise those same groups. HIV/AIDS, Section 28, and promiscuity were just some of the negative associations with being gay in Britain throughout the last few decades.
But society now appears to be on a precipice where, for many, sexuality no longer exclusively defines who you are. In this new world of multiply identities sexuality is only one of many ways to define yourself, and calling yourself gay increasingly carries less and less meaning beyond the gender of your sexual partner.
In this new world the way we understand and use the word gay may shift on its head, losing the meaning and identity conferred on it from the 1970s onwards. But it is only by understanding the origins of the labels we so often use to define ourselves and others that we can begin to think about how we really want to be defined, and how we want to define others.