When Elizabeth II ascended the throne on 6 February 1952 life for lesbians and gay men in the UK was no bed of roses. Although same-sex acts between women were not illegal, lesbianism was ignored by society. Under legislation dating back to the Victorian era and before, sex between men was illegal: the laws governing this had not been particularly rigorously enforced during World War II but any who thought these were a dead letter would soon receive a rude awakening.
From early 1952 there followed a series of prosecutions of gay men for man-on-man sex (under the umbrella terms of gross indecency, importuning for immoral purposes and indecent assault), ensuring that these terms and lurid descriptions of what had taken place (obtained from reports of court proceedings regurgitated in the press) would enter the public consciousness, giving the populace a distorted view of sex between men and giving an impression that it was corrupt, distasteful and sordid. High-profile names ‘outed’ as a result of legal proceedings included the pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing, found guilty of gross indecency in 1952; Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and journalist Peter Wildeblood, in 1954 convicted and imprisoned for conspiracy to incite acts of gross indecency (the first use of the charge since the trials of Oscar Wilde); actor John Gielgud, playwright Joe Orton, impresario Joe Meek (the man behind the 1962 hit Telstar by the Tornados, the first single by a British group to reach Number One in the US charts), and Wilfred Brambell (Steptoe ‘senior’), all found guilty of ‘cottaging’. Names in the public domain were not the only ones to be convicted: there were numerous local purges on gays in the 1950s such as in Evesham, Worcestershire in April 1956 when eleven men from the ages of 17 to 81 were accused of crimes including gross indecency, all reported in the local press in gruesome detail. Three of the accused never made it to court: one gassed himself, another committed suicide by jumping in front of a train and a third suffered a serious stroke from which he never recovered.
Slowly things began to change. In 1954 the Government appointed a commission under Sir John Wolfenden to examine the laws on male homosexuality and prostitution: this reported three years later recommending a partial relaxation of the laws relating to the former although it took ten years for the passage of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 which instituted a limited liberalisation of the previous position – in England and Wales sex between two men ceased to be illegal, but this had to take place in private (not in places such as hotels) and both participants had to be over the age of 21, and it has been estimated that in some parts of the country the new clarification of laws governing man-on-man sex actually led to an increase in prosecutions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Despite this, decriminalisation in 1967 did lead to an improvement in the position of gay men, shown (for example) in the growth of publications for a gay male readership. This liberalisation indeed had its setbacks, such as the notorious Section 28 (of the Local Government Act, 1988) banning local authorities from the ‘intentional promotion of homosexuality’ and the teaching of it as ‘a pretended family relationship’. The issue of Section 28 (repealed in 2003) proved a minor stumbling block on the road to equality of heterosexual and homosexual practices under UK law, culminating in the Civil Partnership Act 2004 which gave same sex couples the opportunity of having their relationships recognised in a manner similar to marriage. Prejudice against gays still remains, as shown (for example) by the opposition to the proposals of the governments in Holyrood and Westminster in which – regrettably – religious groups have taken the lead, but by any yardstick life for lesbians and gay men in the UK has changed beyond recognition for the better in the sixty years of Elizabeth II’s reign.
This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 64 (Autumn 2012)