One of a series of programmes spread across the television networks to mark the 1967 Sexual Offences Act’s fiftieth anniversary, ‘Against the Law’ was a drama-documentary that aired on BBC2 last night. It dramatised the infamous 1954 Montagu Trial, in which Lord Montagu, his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers and journalist Peter Wildeblood were tried on charges of gross indecency and (to simplify matters) ‘buggery’; they were found guilty, with Montagu serving 12 months and the other two 18 months. The dramatised sections of the programme were interspersed with the recollections of gay men who were old enough to have been affected by the laws surrounding homosexuality as they then stood; and men were the exclusive targets of this law. Lesbianism was never illegal in this country.

These fascinating interludes could have been jarring intrusions into the drama, but actually served to strengthen it as their reminiscences gave the viewer a clearer idea of the parallel universe Britain they inhabited and the dangers of that parallel universe colliding with ‘straight society’. In the late 50s, there were more than a thousand men in British prisons serving sentences for ‘homosexual offences’, yet the police continued to make the arrest and prosecution of gay men a priority; the brutal medical treatments offered as a ‘cure’ for the condition mirrored the establishment line that this was a sickness within society and one it was the establishment’s place to eradicate.

However, what one appreciated yet again in watching this programme was the unique classlessness of the gay underworld in the pre-decriminalisation 50s and 60s, when a peer of the realm could mix and mingle with ‘the lower orders’ in a way that had few contemporary equivalents at the time. It could be argued that the establishment’s fear of this social melting pot – existing long before the over-ground breaking down of class barriers that took place in the Swinging decade – played no small part in the ruthless campaign against gay men that seemed to reach its apogee (or nadir) in the years after the war. The Profumo Scandal of 1963 exposed the hypocrisy and double-standards of the ruling class and was crucial in the death of deference, but the Montagu Trial was also significant in that it reflected the antiquated notion of social superiors ‘setting a good example’ (in public, at least); the outcome also demonstrated a distinct divergence of opinion on homosexuality between the classes.

The prosecution, with the full weight of the police force and the then-Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe behind it, imagined the case would unite the nation in revulsion as the trial of Oscar Wilde had sixty years previously; but the assault backfired. It emerged the police were pursuing Lord Montagu in a virtual vendetta; having failed to succeed in an earlier conviction, they may have achieved their aim in 1954, but many members of the general public couldn’t see why their taxes were being spent on locking up what were (in the phraseology of the time) ‘consenting adults in private’. The ramifications of the Montagu Trial led to the setting up of the Wolfenden Committee to look into the laws on homosexuality, and although it took a further decade before the Wolfenden recommendations were implemented in law, the ball had been set in motion.

With his private life made public during the trial, Peter Wildeblood decided there was little point in pretending anymore and openly admitted he was homosexual. Upon his release, he was interviewed by the Wolfenden Committee and aired his belief that his type of gay man should be the main beneficiary of reforms to the law – that is, the type seeking to conduct his business behind closed doors with a man over-21 without fear of prosecution and imprisonment. He made clear distinctions between the camp, effeminate queens, the pederasts and the ‘straight’ gay men like himself. It was to be the third group whose voices were loudest as the campaign to change the law gathered pace in the 60s, the thinking being that the public would accept the more ‘normal’ sort as convincing salesmen for the changes; and the majority within society gradually came round to this way of thinking, ending the ‘blackmailer’s charter’ at last.

When watching ‘Against the Law’, there were undoubted parallels evoked in relation to the police prioritising of this particular offence with the more recent and ongoing pursuit of ‘historical’ sex offenders. Just substitute ‘Pansy’ with ‘Paedo’. Jonathan King himself drew the same parallels when sentenced on charges of dubious authenticity in the first such high profile case of this nature fifteen or so years ago. Comparing his conviction to that of Oscar Wilde appeared a tad egocentric when the claim was made, though subsequent witch-hunts of old celebrities – and the persistent attempts to ‘get’ the ones that were cleared of charges by marching them back into court on new ones – seem to back-up King’s comparison. And, of course, we’re only aware of the famous names doing time for historical crimes.

The 1967 Sexual Offences Act didn’t change everything overnight, however. It may have enabled gay men of the Peter Wildeblood ilk to enter into happy, long-term relationships without having to conduct their affairs in the shadows, but the police continued to crack down on ‘cottaging’ well into the 1980s (especially via entrapment) and raids on gay bars, along with the lingering belief that youth remained susceptible to corruption, was memorably chronicled in Tom Robinson’s seminal protest song, ‘Glad to be Gay’ in the late 70s. As recent as the 90s, what would now be unimaginable language and anti-gay opinions were expressed in media circles, particularly the right-wing press; they must have viewed the onset of AIDS as a God-send to give credence to such beliefs.

Today we do indeed live in a very different kind of society to the one portrayed in ‘Against the Law’, but plenty of men are still imprisoned on charges of sexual offences that a politicised police force and an avaricious legal profession pursue with the same kind of crusading vindictiveness that gay men were once the target of. Indeed, with an estimated half of 2017’s court cases centred around sexual offences and the fastest growing age category in British prisons being the over-60s, there’s no reason to exhibit smugness at society’s supposedly more enlightened attitude towards what men do or don’t do with their willies.

© The Editor

8 thoughts on “A FALL BEFORE PRIDE

  1. It certainly was a cruel world for homosexuals back in the day. As a schoolboy in the 1960s (at an all-boys school), we ‘normal’ boys generally disparaged the ‘queers’ just as we did the gingers, the spotties and the late-shavers – none were actually responsible for their condition, but that didn’t stop the everyday cruelties, lampooning and bullying.
    The passage of the 1967 Act seemed to many at the time, despite it being the ‘swinging sixties, to be a liberalisation step too far, although none of the objectors ever stopped to think why on earth it should have been illegal in the first place. If two (or more) adults mutually consent to any physical activity which affects no-one else, then what business is it of The Law, or for that matter anyone else?

    What happened since then was that we all, over time, in our everyday lives, progressively encountered more openly homosexual folk and found that they were fundamentally no different from the rest of us, just wanting to live fulfilled and productive lives as friends, relations, neighbours and colleagues. The fact that they chose different genital gymnastics didn’t affect whether they were good folk or bad folk.
    The key difference made by the 1967 Act was simply that it enabled gays to be out and open in legal safety: that only took one day. It has taken society much longer to learn that accommodating different sexualities doesn’t hurt, in fact it adds to the wealth of society when more people just feel able to be themselves. The arrival of AIDS in the 1980s certainly didn’t help that process, giving the doubters fresh ammunition to fuel their old prejudices – I suspect without that ‘gay plague’, we would have saved a couple of decades in the learning process.

    It’s quite telling that, as recently as five years ago, a neighbour (a single bloke in his 50s), felt the need to tell me he was gay and that he feared I may be shocked and/or that our relationship could be compromised. I was a little hurt that he could think that but, given both our ages, I understood why he still thought that was a risk. That’s a measure of how far we still have to go.
    I’m happy with my gay friends and for my gay friends, I’ve seen what they’ve been through but I also know that it’s getting better every day. The glacier-speed nature of deep societal change means that it will still be some time before everyone gets there, but it will be worth it. The 1967 Act wasn’t the solution in itself, it was just the necessary trigger for the solution to start evolving.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In my day at school in the 1980s in Ireland, a boy considered to be too feminine and/or insufficiently masculine would be called a puff (not a poof, or a poofter, or a queer) or a bender (possibly because of the music around at the time, where ‘gender-benders’ such as Boy George were in the news and in the popcharts).

      A boy who was considered unduly selfish – not sharing lunch, or not letting anyone else see his comics, or whatever – was called a ‘scabby Jew’ – which was an interesting cultural relic, I suspect, to an earlier era, as there were very few Jews in Ireland at that time.

      A boy considered to be not a ‘puff’ or a ‘bender’, but perhaps unduly concerned with personal appearance (slicked back hair, or whatever) might run the risk of being called a ‘poser’ or a ‘poseur’ – possibly this goes back to the New Romantic music of that time again, the devotees of which were always striking poses.

      And then there were the ‘Cureheads’ – Christ, don’t get me started on them!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I think ‘puff’ was the most common word used when I was a kid, though it almost transcended sexual connotations due to being used so freely and became a generic insult in the way that ‘dickhead’ or ‘knobhead’ would be today.


      1. That timing probably is consistent with Eire’s eventual decriminalisation of homosexual sex in 1993, over 20 years after Britain had done so. At least the government of the day had the sense to learn from the British mistake and implement an equal age of consent.

        While Ireland was in general a cold house for homosexuals until recent decades, there was a sense of ‘a blind eye is turned’ by certain police authorities to people in the artistic/theatrical communities. There were gay-friendly bars in Dublin during the 1970s/1980s, and even as far back as the 1950s a ‘shebeen’ called The Catacombs, frequented by Brendan Behan and other artistic types, was
        considered gay-friendly.


        All before my time, though I do remember a (straight) work colleague who was into the dance scene of the early 1990s mentioning with approval a nightclub called ‘Shaft’ which I had assumed was a gay club In fact, the club had indeed originally being opened as a gay club, but had become so popular among the ravey generation within a few years of its opening that 80%/90% of the customers were straight.



        Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.