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It took a lot more than the 1967 ‘decriminalisation’ of homosexuality to improve gay men’s lives

Charles Smith July 11, 2017
Gay men kissing at Pride

To re-set the record, homosexuality was not decriminalised in 1967, argues lawyer Charles Smith.

Pride events around the UK celebrate our right as LGBTIQ people to be seen and heard, and to live without fear, persecution and hate.

Yet those events are making a serious mistake when they state that 1967 was the year of decriminalisation of gay sex in England and Wales.

The Sexual Offences Act 1967 – which so many people herald as the act which decriminalised homosexuality – actually did no such thing.

It simply created a caveat, an exemption, which said that it was no longer illegal for two men to have sex in the privacy of their own home. This only applied when the two people were alone in the house – no-one else could be present – not even in a separate room.

This obviously meant that sexual activity in a hotel was still forbidden. The two men had to be over the age of 21.

The Act also had a nasty twist in it. It explicitly said that it was still illegal to have same-sex sexual activity in the merchant navy.

The merchant navy was a huge global association, and so this affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of men. The law prohibiting homosexuality aboard merchant navy ships was only repealed this year, in 2017.

It also remained illegal to have gay sex in the army, with prison sentences as the punishment, up until 1994. And, horrifically, prosecutions against gay men actually rose post-1967 – after the so-called ‘decriminalisation’ act.

It took the European Court of Human Rights, and the UK government from 1997 to 2017 to truly legalise homosexuality.

Charles Smith

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 was the real landmark for full decriminalisation. It scrapped all of the half-measures and made same-sex consensual sexual activity fully legal.

This followed a tough battle to make an equal age of consent, where the Labour government had to force the equalisation through the House of Lords in 1999/2000 using the Parliament Acts.

There were separate battles in Parliament and in the courts to allow gay people in the military, and to get rid of the horrific and punishing Section 28.

We had to step into civil partnerships before full marriage, to placate a society still not ready for full equality and equal citizenship. This doesn’t even touch on the additional struggles of our brothers and sisters in Northern Ireland.

If we do not acknowledge this nuanced history, and winding path to progress, we wipe out 50 years of rich and powerful queer history. We deny all of the incredible work that actually went into decriminalising homosexuality in the 1990s and 2000s.

I don’t for one minute believe any Pride organiser or corporate supporter is setting out to undermine this.

It’s implausible that this would be their intention. But we should ask that they do their best to let people know that there is still a very real struggle for equality in this country and around the world, and that any successes have been won over decades of fighting and perseverance by the likes of Peter Tatchell and Michael Cashman, as well as many other brave women and men.

Knowing that our equality, dignity and humanity has only been so recently won and recognised, might make us realise how much we still need to fight to keep things on the right track. We should be Proud and we should persevere.

Charles tweets @charlie_rsmith.

More: England and Wales, Law, LGBT, Queer, UK

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