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Review: Brian Lewis Wolfenden's Witnesses

Posted in: Books
By Craig Young - 13th September 2016

Review: Brian Lewis: Wolfenden's Witnesses: Homosexuality in Postwar Britain: London: Palgrave Macmillan: 2016

 
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Every ten years or so, since 1967, British LGBT communities commemorate the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which inaugurated the first, hesitant beginnings of decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. Therein lies a tale.

In this book, Brian Lewis reviews submissions made to the Wolfenden Committee on Prostitution and Homosexuality, convened to evaluate the legislative prohibition and regulation of homosexuality and heterosexual sex work across the United Kingdom after an upswing in arrests for 'sodomy' (gay anal sex), 'gross indecency' (gay non-anal sex) and escalated blackmail. One of the most tragic cases of the period had been the suicide of the brilliant World War II mathematician and one of the inventors of the modern computer, Alan Turing, after a gross indecency conviction and treatment with a chemical which made him grow breasts and destroyed his analytical mind. As the 1961 social realist filmVictimrelated, gay men faced a twilight existence in which they were either forced to marry straight women, or were subjected to blackmail if they strayed out of line and sought out sex, relationships and intimacy with other men. Indeed, Victim was one of the films that helped to persuade sympathetic professionals of the neccessity of legislative reform.

By the standards of twenty years or so later and New Zealand's Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986, however, the Sexual Offences Act was a far more restrictive affair. This was because of several factors. Religious institutions still dominated British society and had considerable influence over social respectability and professional practice. Church attendance and biblical literacy were far greater than they are today in either New Zealand or the United Kingdom. Still, the 'established' Church of England was split between two factions in the context of debates over social change. One was a hardline fundamentalist position which denounced all social change, sought to obstruct it, and if it occurred, tried to insure that the ambit of such legislative reform was limited and comparatively restricted compared to modern sensibilities. The other was a hesitant liberal position, hampered by the absence of the volumes of psychological and social scientific research that we have amassed over the subsequent five decades about homosexuality, lesbianism and transgenderism. Therefore, "liberal" ministers of religion, psychologists and other medical practitioners, lawyers and social workers pursued a medicalised, constrained version of decriminalisation that was hedged around with numerous caveats and provisos- male homosexuality should be decriminalised, but with a discriminatory age of consent (initially twenty one, compared to sixteen for straight sex), only within the confines of one's own home (so 'cruising' public areas was out), only with a single partner (as opposed to multiple partners) and not within the armed forces, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, and despite the debate that Lewis sets out within this excellent review just before the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Sexual Offences Act, these timid 'reformers' carried the day and however hesitantly and partially, male homosexuality was finally decriminalised.

The emergent Gay Liberation Front chafed at these series of restrictions, but the ensuing seventies were a frustrating period of economic stagnation, the growth of backlash religious social conservatism and movements for authoritarian criminal justice 'solutions' as well as large scale neofascist agitation. All of the above culminated in the election of Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party in May 1979, which insured that the next decade would also be one of frustrated dreams, backlash and repression, exacerbated by the emergence and spread of HIV/AIDS and the punitive Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which banned secondary school information about lesbian and gay sexualities and council service provision to lesbians and gay men. Thereafter, Britain's LGBT lobby group Stonewall formed, Thatcher fell from power in 1990 after she overreached over the poll tax, John Major faced the consequences of economic stagnation throughout that decade, and the undoing of the restrictive "Wolfenden Strategy" began in 1994, with the reduction of the gay male age of consent from twenty one to eighteen, although it would take another decade to reach sixteen and equality. Armed services antigay prohibitions and restrictions on multiple sexual partners fell by the wayside over the course of the next twenty years and the United Kingdom passed antidiscrimination legislation, inclusive adoption reform, civil unions, transgender rights and marriage equality legislation over the next decades. The Conservative Party modernised itself and silenced its truculent and obnoxious religious social conservative elements and a bipartisan social liberal consensus emerged over LGBT concerns.

This is how it got there. At a time when we are celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of New Zealand's Homosexual Law Reform Act, it is instructive to look even further back and see how different things could have been if it had been "accomplished" (?) earlier here.

Craig Young - 13th September 2016

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