This is a year of anniversaries for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community. It is the 50th anniversary of the Wolfenden report, which provided an enduring framework for legal reform. It is also the 40th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised male homosexuality. And it is the 20th anniversary of the introduction of Clause 28 of the Local Government Bill, which notoriously banned the promotion of homosexuality “as a pretended family relationship”.
As Clause (later Section) 28 underlines, this is not a simple history of effortless progress from the darkness of 1950s oppression to the enlightenment of the tolerant Noughties. But whatever the qualifications, it is important to recognise the dramatic nature of the changes in attitudes, beliefs and behaviours over the past half-century. In the 1950s, Britain had one of the most conservative sexual cultures in the world. Today it has one of the most liberal and tolerant.
In the 1950s, all forms of male homosexuality were illegal. Lesbianism largely escaped legal penalties but suffered under the same general intolerance and taboos. The establishment of the Wolfenden Committee in 1954 to investigate female prostitution and male homosexuality was a compromise, between the desire among conservative elements to do something to control perversion and vice, and a wish by liberals to find more modern forms of regulation than prison or the law. Its task was to navigate between the two extremes while trying to come up with an acceptable framework. The result was not so much a compromise as the outline of a bold new moral economy.
Wolfenden argued that the purpose of criminal law was to preserve public order and decency, and to protect the weak from exploitation. It was not to impose a particular moral view on individuals. So it followed that the law should retreat at least partially from the regulation of private behaviour, while at the same time continuing to intervene, more strongly if necessary, to sustain public standards. Hence the logic behind the two main recommendations: that the law against (female) street offences should be tightened to eradicate the public nuisance of prostitution; and that male homosexuality in private, for consenting adults, should be partially decriminalised. It was ten years before the recommendations on male homosexuality were translated in a modified form into law, in the 1967 Sexual Offences Act for England and Wales (Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands had to wait longer). But the legal and moral framework proposed by Wolfenden was immensely influential.
Most important, it brought the idea of a distinctive homosexual identity and way of life into the law for the first time. Before 1957, homosexuality had been dealt with under legislation relating to “unnatural offences”, gross indecency, importuning and the like. To provide a more modern framework, Wolfenden had to conjure the legal personage of the homosexual into being. Although it hardly endorsed homosexuality, it recognised that for many it was an irrevocable destiny.
The emergence from 1969 of a gay liberation movement changed the terms of the debate. Unlike Wolfenden, the new movement positively affirmed the merits of lesbian and gay lives. Political beliefs, practices and organisations proliferated, often competing or disagreeing with each other and following different national rhythms.
In Britain, gay liberation was at first strongly associated with the political Left. But, ultimately, it provided the cultural context for a mass coming-out of homosexuality. Strong lesbian and gay identities became embedded, and in their wake so did other sexualised identities, based on gender, sexual desire, ethnicity and race, faith, and transgender. Despite the often hostile climate in the 1980s, accentuated by the HIV/Aids epidemic, dramatic change was taking place in everyday lives. Tens of thousands of LGBT people were quietly falling in love, making love, having relationships, building friendships, creating new families — as if they were fully equal citizens, assuming rights and responsibilities often in advance of the law, but forcing the law to respond.
Despite a slow start, the post-1997 Labour Government responded, with equal immigration rights, equal adoption and fostering rights, an equal age of consent at 16, repeal of Section 28, abolition of the specifically gay offence of gross indecency, protection against discrimination in the provision of goods and services, employment protection, the Gender Recognition Act and the passing of the Civil Partnership Act. There was no positive crusade by the Government. It was liberalism by stealth. But the result has been one of the most important batches of reforms introduced by the Blair Government. When the Royal Navy, which until 2000 was sacking about 200 sailors a year for their homosexuality, announced that it was working with gay lobby organisation Stonewall to recruit lesbian and gay sailors in 2005, or the Metropolitan Police sponsored Lesbian and Gay History week in 2006, it was clear that something remarkable had happened.
So what next? The development of the post-1970s lesbian and gay world has been contradictory, both deploring the historic closet that locked LGBT people in isolation but also strengthening a sense of separatism through distinctive communities and ways of life. The key question today is the degree to which this comfortable “ghettoisation” of homosexuality is dissolving under the impact of liberalisation and of the globalisation of sexual cultures. For some, the very idea of the lesbian or gay man is dissolving as formal equality erases the distinctiveness of the gay world. Others point to the minoritising logic implicit in even the most apparently radical of reforms — civil partnerships for same-sex couples.
In many quarters, of course, homophobia remains rampant, from vicious queer bashing to school bullying, from heterosexist jokes to the self-mocking of openly gay television personalities. The charity Galop, which monitors LGBT hate crime, has claimed that 83 per cent of young gay people have experienced verbal abuse and 47 per cent anti-gay violence. What is fundamentally different today, however, is that LGBT people now have the protection of the law. The unexpected success of the Civil Partnership Act — 15,000 same-sex couples took advantage of it in the first nine months of 2006 — underlines the significance of the shift over 50 years. Wolfenden for the first time defined the legal personage of the homosexual. The following 30 years saw a strong affirmation of LGBT identities and ways of life. Today there is a renewed emphasis on the importance of relationships and the right to full and equal citizenship. The final step, surely, is to render the historical distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality meaningless.
Jeffrey Weeks is professor of sociology at London South Bank University. His latest book is The World We Have Won: The Remaking of Erotic and Intimate Life , published by Routledge this month. He and Helen Self will speak at the conference Wolfenden50 , June 28-30 at King’s College London.