On 12 July we brought together parliamentarians, activists and historians to mark 50 years since the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. Here we report back from the event…
We were delighted when the Speaker accepted our suggestion of to organise an event in his official apartments to mark the anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. As many LGBT+ issues emerge in our oral history project interviews, we decided to assemble panels of Parliamentarians past and present to reflect both on their personal experiences as LGBT members of Parliament, and how the institution has changed in its attitude to homosexuality since the Act was passed. Two prestigious panels or speakers led to a wide-ranging discussion, which you can still see on BBC iplayer.
After some introductory words from Mr Speaker and our Chair, Gordon Marsden, the historian Michael McManus, author of Tory Pride and Prejudice, began by noting how the 1957 Wolfenden report, which first advised decriminalisation, only had the support of 48% of the population when it was published. In writing his book he found that the Conservative party had struggled with LGBT+ rights issues (as indeed every party had), but had moved very rapidly once public opinion began to change.
There followed some very personal memories from Chris Smith and Angela Eagle, two of the first MPs who chose to come out themselves in the 1980s and 1990s. Smith remembered that although 1967 was in many ways an “inadequate” act, it did mean he was able to publicly announce his sexuality years later. Doing so meant that debates on legislation, such as the controversial ‘Section 28’ ban on the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, had to be conducted with respect as he stood in the chamber alongside other parliamentarians, as you can hear in this clip:
Angela Eagle discussed how the experience of Maureen Colquhoun, the lesbian who was outed by the press in the 1970s (which led to deselection by her local party), influenced Eagle’s own decision to come out. Having made up her mind to do so after joining the government in 1997, she consulted Chris Smith over dinner and also made sure she informed her superior Minister, John Prescott. She was surprised by his response: “Tell me something I didn’t know already love”. She said that she had felt “if it cost me my seat, that’s what it would have to do”. You can listen to Eagle here:
Gordon Marsden also remembered his decision to publicly announce his sexuality before the debate on equal age of consent, something he felt was necessary in order to contribute honestly.
Lord Michael Cashman, one of the first founders of Stonewall and now a Labour peer, shared his memories of marching with police protection at Pride rallies given the hostility of the crowds. He spoke powerfully on the courage of parliamentarians and others who came out to give leadership to the gay rights movement. Remembering the 1980s and 1990s, he described it as “a mixed bag” for the LGBT+ movement: with a mixture of repressive (e.g. Section 28) and more liberal (e.g. ending the ban on gay men serving in the armed forces) legislation. However, Cashman reflected attitudes had changed and called on politicians to “have the courage to lead public opinion”. Questions from the floor led to recognition that the issue had divided parties, with opponents and supporters on all sides. For example the Conservative Edwina Currie was mentioned by several speakers as one of the strongest supporters of the movement, as well alliances with the miners during the 1984 miner strike. The conversation touched on the role of religion and conscience in debates, with Angela Eagle replying: “why should another’s conscience affect my human rights?”
Our second panel of the evening reflected how far parliament had changed since 1967. The Conservative MP Stuart Andrew described the difference by reference to the 2013 debates on same-sex marriage in contrast to his early years as a gay politician in North Wales. From his point of view however the Conservative party was extremely liberal: “the Conservative party conference was one big gay party to me coming from Anglesey”. Lord Norton of Louth discussed how the Lords had changed since 1967 – describing an institution which was largely in favour of decriminalisation in 1967, to one very opposed to LGBT+ rights in the 1980s and 1990s, only to change again to pass same-sex marriage legislation with a greater majority than the Commons. The change from the 1980s onwards was easy to explain as public opinion moved in the same way, but the initial move against gay rights was a more complicated story.
Angela Mason, the former head of Stonewall and director of the government’s Women and Equalities unit between 2003 and 2007, believed that victories for LGBT+ rights were a combination of circumstances: some socially progressive governments (both Labour and Conservative), the importance of parliament and activism, and the courage of those who came out. She reflected that these circumstances may now be different, and the movement had to work hard to keep the gains they had made. Paul Twocock, the current Director of Campaigns, Policy and Research for Stonewall, concluded with a call to ensure that rights won were kept in place despite possible political difficulties ahead, and called on Parliament and activists to keep the spotlight on these issues both in the UK and worldwide. In this he echoed many thoughts of other panellists.
Overall there were a number of powerful speeches from our two panels, and serious reflection on how much attitudes have changed since 1967 – when, as Gordon Marsden remembered, even those who supported the bill used language in the Commons such as this from Roy Jenkins: “Those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of loneliness, guilt and shame.” Many thanks to all our panellists, both for their scholarly analysis and their personal reflections on the Act’s 50th anniversary.
You can watch the event on BBC iplayer until 21 August 2017.