1967 – seems so long ago[1]

‘Men who choose to love other men are treated not only with intolerance and contempt but prosecuted and jailed. As a result, they become vulnerable to violence, blackmail, and persecution. … These men are a minority. They receive minority treatment; face prejudice and intolerance; stand accused of depravity and vice. … Most homosexuals must lead a secret, dark existence.’ [2]

I felt my face flush and rested my head in my hands to conceal my acute embarrassment from my parents. The documentary, an episode of a current affairs series called ‘Man Alive’, seemed interminable. It was 7 June 1967, and I was 12. I had very recently become aware that I was physically attracted to some older boys at school, although before that I had been bullied: called a ‘pansy’ by a teacher for failing to tackle a much larger boy in a game of rugby, and ‘queer’ by a schoolmate (who I had thought was a friend). Perhaps they knew before I did? Moments into this TV documentary, I had a new word to describe myself: ‘homosexual’[3].

The documentary was an appeal to pity – a plea for tolerance at most, certainly not for acceptance. The argument was that homosexuals were victims of a cruel twist of nature[4] and their lives were miserable enough without sending them to prison. All sexual acts between men were then illegal[5], although parliament was considering relaxing the law. The documentary offered examples of loneliness, isolation, ‘cottaging’[6], homophobic attacks, and suicide because of fear of disgrace. The only relationship portrayed was of a male couple brave enough to appear on camera who had lived together for 26 years, but were held together by fear of loneliness rather than by mutual love. They both wished that they were ‘normal’ (their choice of word). Like most of those interviewed, they expressed a good deal of internalised homophobia, speaking negatively about the behaviour of ‘most homosexuals’.

When the programme eventually ended, Mum said to Dad ‘It must be dreadful to have a homosexual child’. I wasn’t sure whether this was because of disapproval, potential shame, or compassionate concern (or all of these), and hence I didn’t come out to them until 16 years later.[7] Mum warned me of predatory men who loitered in public toilets. She had brought me up to believe that all sex outside of marriage was immoral and warned of the risks of venereal disease[8] through casual sex. For weeks after the documentary, I cried myself to sleep, praying fervently to God to remove this thorn in my side. God didn’t respond, so I became an atheist at 12 and embarked on a hopeless quest to find a ‘cure’. I was hypervigilant, fearing that I might be ‘outed’[9]. I started to have severe migraines and missed a lot of school that year. I hated my all-boys’ school’s macho ethos in which rugby and the Combined Cadet Force seemed to be valued above all else. I avoided forming close friendships there and sought the company of older people and activities elsewhere. I felt vulnerable in the presence of my peers whenever the subject of girlfriends came up. One of my schoolmates was seeing a psychiatrist for depression, so I wondered whether therapy might work for me. However, I was fearful of coming out – even to a therapist. My journey to and from school took me close to the home of Rose Robertson[10] who ran a support service called ‘Parents’ Enquiry’ for young homosexual people and their families. I had spotted a small advert in a local paper. Several times I walked past her house, but I couldn’t pluck up the courage to knock at the front door: I couldn’t even bring myself to call her from a phone box. The stress of my not being authentic was significant.

How the Sexual Offences Act 1967 came about

It is popularly assumed that homosexual liberation came swiftly to Britain in 1967 with the Sexual Offences Act. This is not so: in Britain ‘gay liberation’ didn’t even get started until sometime into the 70s.

The 1967 Act had its origins in a report[11] published a full decade earlier. In 1954 during Churchill’s final period as Prime Minister, Conservative Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe appointed the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution in Great Britain, led by former Oxford philosophy don and former headmaster John Wolfenden, to review the law in these matters. The Committee began its work in 1954 and its report was published in 1957.

A relentless advocate of existing legislation criminalising male homosexual acts, Maxwell Fyfe embarked on an aggressive campaign to ‘rid England of this male vice … this plague’. Speaking in the House of Commons in 1953[12], he claimed that

‘…homosexuals in general are exhibitionists and proselytisers and are a danger to others, especially the young. So long as I hold the office of Home Secretary, I shall give no countenance to the view that they should not be prevented from being such a danger.’

During the Cold War Era, in the UK, as in the USA, homosexuals were also considered to be a risk to national security. In 1951, British diplomats Guy Burgess, who was homosexual, and Donald Maclean, who has been described as bisexual, defected to the USSR. They were part of a group known as ‘the Cambridge Five’ because they were all recruited at Cambridge University, a third member of which was Anthony Blunt, also homosexual. Historian Dominic Sandbrook wrote ‘Many commentators in the post-war years concluded that there was a clear and indisputable link between social exclusiveness, homosexuality, Marxism, and treason’. In 1952, the Sunday Pictorial ‘broke the silence over the unnatural sex vice which is getting a dangerous grip on this country’, describing these traitors as ‘Evil Men’. Homosexuals within the civil service were increasingly seen as security risks. In 1961, homosexual civil servant John Vassall was compromised and blackmailed by the Soviets into disclosing UK state secrets.

Maxwell Fyfe’s crusade resulted in a dramatic increase in arrests of homosexual men through police surveillance and entrapment via the use of agents provocateurs, blackmailers (the law was referred to as ‘the blackmailers’ charter’), tapped telephones, and seized documents such as address books and love letters, often obtained without warrants. The number of prosecutions at least quadrupled. Maxwell Fyfe’s hope was presumably that the Committee would recommend yet harsher legislation.

There are, however, some indications that public opinion was moving towards greater tolerance. When in 1953 John Gielgud was arrested and fined for persistently importuning in a lavatory, to which he pleaded guilty, he feared that his acting career was over. After the court hearing, he returned to Liverpool where he was starring with Sybil Thorndike. His anxiety was inhibiting him from going on stage, but Thorndike ‘grabbed him and whispered fiercely, “Come on, John darling, they won’t boo me”, and led him firmly on to the stage. To everybody’s astonishment and indescribable relief, the audience gave him a standing ovation. They cheered, they applauded, they shouted. The message was quite clear. The English public had always been loyal to its favourites, and this was their chance to show that they didn’t care tuppence what he had done in his private life … they loved him and respected him dearly. It was a moment never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it.’[13]

Another high-profile case was that of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and several other men who were arrested and convicted for gross misconduct. Peter Wildeblood [14], one of the three imprisoned, including Montagu, described the case in his book ‘Against the Law’[15]. When the three men left court en route to prison after the verdict, there were (unexpected) cheers of support from the crowd assembled outside the court.

A book simply entitled ‘Homosexuality’[16] first appeared in 1955, written by psychiatrist and criminologist Dr Donald J West. I read a later edition in 1971. I hoped that it might provide some ideas for a ‘cure’ for my condition, but I was disappointed. I found the book rather bleak, (as did gay actor Simon Callow). A 1956 review in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis said ‘… the tone throughout is that of the clinician who is discussing problems of which he clearly has extensive first-hand experience in his day-to-day professional work.’ I was exceptionally surprised to learn in 2012 that West had come out as gay and published a frank autobiography at the age of 88,[17] so West had drawn largely on his own experience! I heard him read from his latest book at a meeting of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). Members of the audience, mostly men over 70, questioned West about his pathologising of homosexuality in the earlier book. I was taken aback when he said that he still considered homosexuality to be a ‘condition’, likening it to several mental health issues.

The Wolfenden Report – even if it’s legalized, it remains a sin

Contrary to Maxwell Fyfe’s hopes, the Wolfenden Report[18] argued that the criminalisation of homosexuality was an infringement of civil liberty; that the law should not intrude into matters of personal morality, although it should provide safeguarding for young people and other vulnerable individuals. It argued that consensual homosexual acts between consenting adult men in private should no longer be an offence.

Filmed interviews with Wolfenden give the impression of an avuncular, liberally minded man. He was thoughtful, pacing his responses to questions by puffing on his pipe. He had a brilliant, ‘ostentatiously homosexual’[19] son, Jeremy. However, in an interview he expressed his moral reservations about homosexuality.

‘I don’t think that any of us who signed this report … want to be thought to be approving of or condoning in a moral sense homosexual behaviour. … [The Committee does not] approve of it morally, just as we don’t approve of … adultery and fornication. [However,] we don’t see why this particular form of sexual misbehaviour, as distinct from adultery, fornication, lesbianism, [etc.] … which most of us regard as morally repugnant, why [this] and [this] only should be a criminal offence.’ [20]

The message was clear. The Wolfenden Committee refused to endorse the morality of sexual acts between men but argued that there should be consistency with other sexual ‘misdemeanours’ or ‘sins’ that were not criminal acts.

His relationship with his son Jeremy disintegrated. Wolfenden considered his son’s overt behaviour a serious embarrassment, especially while he was engaged in the above work. Jeremy died of alcohol-related illness at the age of only 31.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, supported the Wolfenden Report: ‘There is a sacred realm of privacy… into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude. This is a principle of the utmost importance for the preservation of human freedom, self-respect, and responsibility.’[21] The recommendations were also supported by the British Medical Association, the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the National Association of Probation Officers. However, the Cabinet in 1957 opposed the implementation of recommendations from the Report.

In 1963, the Religious Society of Friends (‘Quakers’) published a booklet entitled ‘Towards a Quaker View of Sex’[22]. This was written in direct or ‘plain speech’ by a group of Quakers. It discussed many aspects of sexual morality, including homosexuality. The approach was quite liberal and progressive, in contrast to the position of the established church.

The documentary that I reluctantly watched with my parents had a predecessor. In 1964, ITV broadcast the first British television documentary on homosexuality, researched and presented by philosopher, broadcaster, politician, and author Bryan Magee.[23] Magee had conducted extensive, empathic interviews with more than 200 homosexual men, mainly contacted via the Albany Trust. He had also visited and spoken to members of homosexual organisations and social clubs in Amsterdam, where private consensual sex acts between men over 21 were not a crime. Several of these interviews were included in the documentary. The tone was neutral, apart from a brief suggestion that homosexuality was a mental health issue.

The first edition of Magee’s book ‘One in Twenty’ was published in 1966 (i.e., before the 1967 Act) and the second edition in 1968.[24] The latter was available in paperback It presents a very open-minded view of homosexuality. It was translated into eight languages and continued to sell well into the 1970s.

The Conservatives remained in power until the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in October 1964.

Discussions began in 1965 about reform based on Wolfenden’s recommendations. However, many MPs and members of the House of Lords aggressively opposed any relaxation of the law, and it was not until 1967 that changes were made.

1967 – The Summer of Love – for some, not for all, and only in private

We think of 1967 as the peak of the swinging sixties, with New Age philosophy, flower power and love-ins, and hippies ‘going to San Francisco with flowers in [their] hair’[25]. On 1 July 1967, BBC2 launched Europe’s first colour television service. The documentary I had watched was transmitted a few weeks earlier in monochrome, and for me monochrome was the best way to represent my closeted experience of the late sixties and beyond. Fifty days after the broadcast, the Sexual Offences Bill received royal assent on 27 July 1967. It was sponsored by Leo Abse in the House of Commons and Lord Arran[26] in the House of Lords and supported by Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary.

With friends like these…

Left to right: Leo Abse, Lord Arran and Roy Jenkins

The supporters of reform used the same arguments as Wolfenden a decade earlier. Leo Abse said

‘It is not a criminal offence to commit adultery. It is not a criminal offence to fornicate. These are not criminal offences according to our law, but the fact that the House of Commons does not make these criminal offences does not mean we approve of them, and we do not condone homosexuality. What the House of Commons has decided is that the homosexual has enough troubles without in addition having the fear and the insecurity and the blackmail that arises from the existing law.’ [27]

Speaking in the House of Commons, Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary, said

‘It would be a mistake to think … that by what we are doing tonight we are giving a vote of confidence or congratulation to homosexuality. Those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of loneliness, guilt and shame. The crucial question, which we are nearly at the end of answering decisively, is, should we add to those disadvantages the full rigour of the criminal law? By its overwhelming decisions, the House has given a fairly clear answer, and I hope that the Bill will now make rapid progress towards the Statute Book. It will be an important and civilising Measure.’ [28]

In the House of Lords, Lord Arran said

I ask those who have, as it were, been in bondage and for whom the prison doors are now open to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity. This is no occasion for jubilation, certainly not for celebration. Any form of ostentatious behaviour; now or in the future, any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful and would, I believe, make the sponsors of the Bill regret that they have done what they have done. Homosexuals must continue to remember that while there may be nothing bad in being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good. Lest the opponents of the Bill think that a new freedom, a new privileged class, has been created, let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity. We shall always, I fear, resent the odd man out. That is their burden for all time, and they must shoulder it like men—for men they are.[29]

Criticisms of the 1967 Act

The Act fell far short of equality for homosexuals. The age of consent for homosexual men was 21 while it was 16 for straight people.[30] Sex between men had to take place in private. ‘In private’ was interpreted very narrowly to mean that no other person could be present in the building.[31] (In 1974 my first male sexual partner and I, both 19, broke the law on both counts.) Group sex was allowed for straight people, but not for homosexual men. The Act made penalties even harsher for any acts not occurring in private. It did not apply to the Merchant Navy[32] or the Armed Forces[33], nor to people in Scotland[34] and Northern Ireland[35].

In the decade after 1967, the number of prosecutions for gross indecency between males trebled. It was clear that the police wanted to clamp down on homosexual activity. More recently I was a volunteer at the SpeakOut London project at the London Metropolitan Archives, a component of which was cataloguing arrests for sexual offences in magistrate records from London post-1967. I worked through some registers and noted that some police officers made several arrests in a particular public toilet each week. Perhaps they were specifically tasked with this; perhaps they were agents provocateurs; perhaps they were over-zealous (driven by ambition, or the frisson of anonymous homosexual sexual encounters). As in earlier times, many of those arrested pleaded guilty to avoid a court case.

Political discussions leading to the 1967 Act had often been vitriolic. In the House of Lords, the Earl of Dudley said

‘I want to make it quite clear that I am wholly against the Bill. I cannot stand homosexuals. They are the most disgusting people in the world, and they are, unfortunately, on the increase. I loathe them. Prison is much too good a place for them; in fact, that is a place where many of them like to go—for obvious reasons.

‘If noble Lords will only consider for one moment the filthy habits these people have in private, I do not believe that one of them will vote in favour of this Bill; and particularly not the Bench of Bishops and the most reverend Primate, who are supposed to set a good example against sin. I think the blackmailing angle of this subject is very much exaggerated. Blackmail exists in all parts of the world; and, after all, a blackmailer can operate where a married woman and a married man have sinned—not, of course, getting them into prison, but perhaps ruining their lives.’ [36]

Many politicians and journalists in the 60s referred to sexual ‘sin’, as had Wolfenden, presumably assuming that the morality of Judeo-Christian beliefs was universally accepted in society. The expression ‘morally repugnant’ went unchallenged. It seems likely that supporters of the 1967 Act believed that negative attitudes such as these were reasonably prevalent in society, hence the only way they could move towards reform was to adopt the ‘Wolfenden argument’ endorsing partial decriminalisation without endorsing the morality of sex between men.

Looking back

LGBT+ people enjoy vastly more liberty and equality than they did in 1967 (54 years ago). We live in a hugely different world. The current headmaster of the school I attended hit the headlines at the beginning of February when he came out to the school in an online assembly. All the media coverage I could see was supportive. Many schools in the UK now have LGBT+ peer support groups. I must add a caution here: remember the retrograde steps arising from Section 28. Hard-won liberties can be quickly lost if we don’t remain vigilant.

From a personal perspective, the repercussions of the events of 1967 negatively affected me for much of my life until I came ‘fully out’ in my personal and work life in about 2005 (aged 50!) Only then could I feel fully authentic in my relationships and genuinely valued for who I am. I became closer to my family as a result.

Peter Hitcham, whose blog appears on here, and I were born in the same year (1955), and we had very contrasting experiences of growing up gay. I wish I had had the courage to come out to my parents sooner, as he did, and ‘get on with life’. However, I am extremely grateful that I now have a large supportive ‘LGBT+ family’, mainly through the Kingston LGBT Forum and also through other organisations to which I belong. For several years I worked as a volunteer with Stonewall in tackling homophobic bullying in schools and engaged in work promoting diversity in the scientific community. I hope that this has enabled younger LGBT+ people to have happier personal and professional lives.

Mark Stenhoff (March 2021)

    Happier times! Mark Stenhoff (right) with friend Ronni and Kingston LGBT Forum at Pride London


[1] ‘1967 (So Long Ago)’, Tom Robinson. from Cabaret 79, released June 1, 1982. Written by Tom Robinson (Notting Hill Music).

[2] BBCtv: Man Alive – ‘Consenting Adults 1 – The Men’. Broadcast 7 June 1967. Recording available on The Gay Rights Movement – BBC Archive.

[3] I mostly use the term ‘homosexual’ in this article because that is how I identified at this time. It was also then much more commonly used than ‘gay’. ‘Queer’ was then generally considered pejorative.

[4] Homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) partly removed this classification in 1973, and the American Psychological Association in 1975, while the World Health Organization (WHO) as recently as 1992.

[5] Until 1861, the crime of sodomy carried the death sentence, although no executions for sodomy happened after 1835. After 1861, it carried the penalty of life imprisonment, but because of this heavy sentence and the difficulty of proving anal penetration, prosecutions were rarely successful. The ‘Labouchère Amendment’ (Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1850) made ‘gross indecency’ a crime in the United Kingdom. Gross indecency was used to criminalise sexual activity between men that fell short of sodomy. The offence was never defined in any of the statutes which used it, leaving the scope of the offence to be defined by court decisions. In Victorian society, homosexuality was referred to as an ‘unspeakable vice’, or, as Lord Alfred Douglas described it in his poem Two Loves, ‘… the Love that dare not speak its name’. Douglas’s lover Oscar Wilde, and mathematician Alan Turing were prosecuted under this law.

[6] Sexual contact in public toilets, which remains illegal.

[7] When I eventually came out to them (1983), they were completely supportive, although concerned about sexual health and whether I could be happy.

[8] An obsolete term for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

[9] I resonated with the scene in the film ‘The Great Escape’ in which two of the British escapees, posing as Frenchmen, attempt to board a bus. One of them is tricked when a Gestapo officer addresses him in English, and he makes the mistake of replying in English, blowing their cover.

[10] Rose Robertson obituary | LGBT rights | The Guardian

[11]Report of Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution.

[12]Sexual Offences (Hansard, 3 December 1953) (parliament.uk)

[13] Huggett, Richard (1989). ‘Binkie Beaumont – Éminence Grise of the West End Theatre, 1933–1973.’ London: Hodder and Stoughton.

[14] Wildeblood later volunteered to be interviewed by the Wolfenden Committee.

[15] Wildeblood, Peter (1999, ©1955), ‘Against the law’, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The book was the subject of a 2017 TV drama-documentary with the same title.

[16] West, D J (1955), ‘Homosexuality’, London: Duckworth. This was submitted to the Wolfenden Committee.

[17] West, Donald J (2012): ‘Gay Life, Straight Work’. Great Britain: Paradise Press.

[18] Wolfenden Report (glbtqarchive.com)

[19] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/31852

[20] Press Conference – Sir John Wolfenden – The Gay Rights Movement – BBC Archive

[21] Wolfenden Report (glbtqarchive.com)

[22] Barnes, K C, et al. (1963) ‘Towards a Quaker view of sex’. London: Friends Home Service Committee.

[23] ‘This Week’ – ‘Homosexuals’, with Bryan Magee, 1964 – BFI Player

[24] Magee, B (1966, 1968) ‘One in Twenty – a study of homosexuality in men and women’. London: Corgi Books. The title (and claim on the front cover of the Corgi edition) is derived from statistics from the Kinsey Reports.

[25] ‘San Francisco’ – Scott McKenzie (1967) https://youtu.be/kZcyRLtwUVY

[26] Lord Arran’s gay brother had committed suicide.

[27] Today – Leo Abse – BBC Archive Originally broadcast 20 December 1966.

[28] Clause 8.—(RESTRICTIONS ON PROSECUTION.) (Hansard, 3 July 1967) (parliament.uk)

[29] SEXUAL OFFENCES (No. 2) BILL (Hansard, 21 July 1967) (parliament.uk). Lord Arran also sponsored a bill for the protection of badgers and was once asked why this effort had failed, whereas [partially] decriminalising homosexuality had succeeded. Arran is reported to have replied: ‘There are not many badgers in the House of Lords’.

[30] Made equal at 16 years of age in 2000.

[31] Restriction removed in 2003.

[32] Restriction fully removed only as recently as 2017.

[33] Restriction removed in 2000.

[34] Extended to Scotland in 1981.

[35] Extended to Northern Ireland in 1982.

[36] SEXUAL OFFENCES BILL [H.L.] (Hansard, 16 June 1966) (parliament.uk)


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