OVER THE RAINBOW

Amidst the celebratory coverage of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act’s fiftieth anniversary, it is certainly worth being reminded precisely how limiting the freedoms contained within the ‘consenting adults in private’ law actually were, and how these limitations made it easily open to abuse by the powers-that-be. After the Act was passed, it’s surprising to realise that more gay men were prosecuted than before it. Perhaps the understandable precautions that had been crucial prior to 1967 were perceived to be unnecessary once decriminalisation came into force; the illusion of legality blinded many to the numerous areas in which homosexuality remained criminal; it also forced the police and politicians to focus on those areas with renewed crusading vigour in the years thereafter.

A timely reminder of this uncomfortable truth came via Peter Tatchell’s excellent and eye (or ear)-opening Radio 4 documentary, ‘The Myth of Homosexual Decriminalisation’, broadcast on Saturday evening; it documented how 1967 was not so much an end as a beginning, the start of the long road to abolishing discrimination, altering attitudes and achieving an equal age of consent with heterosexuals – none of which were dealt with in the imperfect Act that came into being half-a-century ago.

Scotland, Northern Ireland, the armed forces and the merchant navy – all exempt from decriminalisation in 1967; much anti-homosexual legislation remained on the statue book for decades after 1967 and queer-bashing was a legitimate police pastime well into the 1980s. For out and proud young men today, barely old enough to even remember the last century, all of this must seem insane. The prejudices openly unleashed upon gay men and largely unchallenged by the majority of society combined with the AIDS hysteria (AKA ‘The Gay Plague’) and Clause 28 to create a climate of moral panic that would unthinkable to anyone under, say, 30 in 2017. Perhaps the inability to comprehend how we used to live has played its part in a lack of perspective where those too young to remember are concerned.

The sins of their forefathers for allowing this state of affairs to linger for so long without challenge has undoubtedly fuelled a militant bullishness amongst the young; this reaction demands the law and society in general adopt the consensus they’ve developed to serve as a severe redress to the past. It comes partly from retrospective guilt and is not unlike America’s similar response to historical racism via the slave trade and segregation. At its most extreme, the new consensus is imposed with the same level of illogical fanaticism once employed by those who upheld and endorsed the previous prejudices this consensus reacts against, portraying anyone who is white as inherently racist and anyone who is heterosexual as inherently homophobic.

But the ironic outcome can often seem like less of a striving for genuine equality between the different sexual demographics – which is surely what should be aimed for – and more of a determined campaign to ensure the poacher is elevated to gamekeeper and vice-versa. The new consensus cannot alter the past, but the slightest sign of any attitude bearing a passing resemblance to the past – however mild in comparison – dumps the wrongs of the past on the doorstep of the present. The ‘gay cake’ saga in Northern Ireland a couple of years ago seemed indicative of this mindset; a refusal to countenance that there are many out there for whom homosexuality remains a difficult concept has created a climate of intolerance that excludes debate. If you don’t embrace this consensus, you are a homophobic bigot – end of. ‘Inclusivity’ does not include those who deviate from the script.

The clamour to be seen as endorsing the consensus by political parties and other establishment organisations that maybe weren’t viewed as so gay-friendly in the past resulted in the virtue signalling of the National Trust edict stating volunteers dealing with the public at Norfolk’s Felbrigg Hall (whose last resident, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer was recently posthumously ‘outed’) must wear rainbow gay pride badges. Those who weren’t comfortable with wearing them were to be relegated to the backrooms of the property. The case was taken up by certain Fleet Street tabloids and predictably labelled a right-wing cause célèbre by the likes of the Grauniad; but the sudden reversal of the edict so that wearing the badges is now optional rather than compulsory seems a more sensible compromise that recognises inclusivity should mean what it says.

Many of the archive recordings of attitudes towards homosexuality excavated for Peter Tatchell’s Radio 4 retrospective were as gobsmacking to hear as similar excerpts of unashamedly racist language from the same era; but whilst these attitudes survive on a smaller scale in private, the cheerleaders for our liberated society still turn a blind eye to one publically vocal section of it. Some of the vilest and most bigoted opinions on homosexuality expressed today emanate from Islam, yet the ultra-liberal left gives Islam the kind of leeway it won’t tolerate in any other faith, let alone secular discourse. Why? Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Muslims have been designated the left’s persecuted pets; they are above and beyond the kind of criticism others are fair game for.

Of course, not every Muslim is virulently anti-gay any more than every Christian or every person without any religion whatsoever; I think most people aren’t really that bothered, to be honest. It’s just a shame the person who retains a problem with the notion of homosexuality – usually down to simple ignorance and lack of education – is lumped in with the genuinely homophobic in a rainbow that has no shades of grey.

© The Editor

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A FALL BEFORE PRIDE

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

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