Thursday, 27 July 2017

A legislative landmark

Fifty years ago today the Sexual Offences Act 1967 received Royal Assent and it passed into UK law.

Despite its limitations, this was a legal landmark. While it only PARTIALLY decriminalised male-male sex, it did largely put a stop to the 'Blackmailer's Charter' that was the law up to that point. (The 1961 film, Victim, starring Dirk Bogarde, shows how that worked. It was also the first English language film to use the word 'homosexual'.)

It is important to make clear that decriminalisation was partial, because the new law imposed quite strong restrictions of sex between men. It had to take place between two consenting adults in private. That may at first sight seem logical, but most of that was different than for heterosexual sex.
  • 'Two' - and only two. Group sex for men only remained illegal in and of itself. In theory, group sex involving a mix of sexes was not a crime.
  • 'Consenting' - well, duh!
  • 'Adults' - here the bar was set high. Homosexual men were not considered capable of adulting until they reached 21, as compared to the heterosexual age of consent of 16.
  • 'In private' - section 1(2) of the Act made it clear that a homosexual act was not 'in private' if "more than two persons take part or are present". This is the provision that put a stop on gay orgies. The actual meaning of 'private' was quite tricky. For example, am I in private in my own bedroom in my own home, if a friend is staying over and using the spare room?
In addition to that, this Act only applied to England and Wales - UNLESS you were a member of the Armed Forces or were in the Merchant Navy, all of which were excluded.

The other parts of the UK took varying lengths of time to catch up - Scotland 1980, Northern Ireland 1982, Guernsey 1983, Jersey 1990, the Isle of Man 1992. Some overseas territories didn't catch up until 2001!

So, let's celebrate this landmark in UK LGBT history but remember also that it was an incomplete victory in 1967.


Previous posts:
Looks at the start of criminalisation -

"Not many badgers in the House of Lords."

This link is to an article from 2013 in The Warrington Guardian. It gives the response of then 81 year old James Daniels to the vote on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill - "I never thought I would see it in my lifetime." Then, perhaps more interestingly, he goes on to talk about his experience over 60 years ago as a young gay man who was arrested for being  homosexual.

In these posts there are links to slides and notes for my LGBT in Justice presentation which traces the main LGBT-related UK legislation:

And finally, from one of the poster sets I put together to help Merton LGBT+ Forum celebrate LGBT History Month this year:


  1. I like your pointing out that the film 'Victim' used the word 'homosexual' for the first time in english language film. It leaves open the suggestion that on what we now call 'world cinema', and were then called 'foreign language films' they may have used the word 'homosexual' in their native tongue. We don't know. Certainly homosexuality was a theme that was silently picked up on by underground film makers like Kenneth Anger and Jean Genet. Were there other film makers who picked up on homosexuality, or was 'being gay' a characteristic of passive supporting roles in movies generally?