A Cruel Law

Today’s Story from the Museum Floor, by Maxine from the Visitor Team, is a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act on 27th July 1967, which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. It stands as a reminder of how far we’ve come, but also the hard work that lies ahead for equity for people of all sexual identities.

Amendments to a Cruel Law

I have chosen to write a blog to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, amending the law relating to homosexual acts. I also wanted to highlight how before these amendments, this was a cruel law that caused much heartache and damage to so many men whose only ‘crime’ was to love another man.

Human history includes many great accomplishments. However, for all the good things we have achieved, some of our actions, and laws, have ended up doing more harm than good. One of those laws ostracised and punished men for being who they were. The Sexual Offences Act was one of the cruellest laws this country had imposed on its own citizens and continued to do so until fairly recently. And even today, with all of our freedom to be who we are, in some countries people still do not have these rights. There are still places in the world where you can be imprisoned, beaten or even killed for being homosexual.

Suffering and punishment

Before the law was changed in this country (pre 1967) many men suffered greatly. There were many cruel forms of punishments and “treatments” from being sent to prison and doing hard labour, which the great writer Oscar Wild endured.

teachingIt has been suggested that Oscar Wilde was inspired to write A Picture of Dorian Gray after having seen an exhibition of Faiyum Mummy portraits in Piccadilly. Mummy portrait from Hawara (Acc. No.: 2263), Manchester Museum (Image © Roberta Mazza)

They also were given electric shock treatments and aversion therapy where they would be shown images and given medication to make them violently ill as they were forced to watch images, I presume to put them off men!

They would also be offered chemical castration as an alternative to being sent to prison. Men would be given female hormones in a hope to ‘cure’ them. The law and a lot of people of the time thought it was wrong and disgusting for a man to want to be with a man, and there still many people today who see this as wrong. Up until recently practitioners in the medical profession said things like, “don’t worry we can help, we know what’s wrong with you, we can fix the gay thing,” making them feel that to love someone of the same gender and who they loved was somehow abnormal or wrong, and that they needed to be punished accordingly. Many men committed suicide as a means of escape and saw this as there only alternative.  They needed the law to change!

Time for Change

So how did our country bring about the change to this law? It wasn’t until a member of parliament and a member of the House of Lords used the findings from the Wolfenden report that was published ten years earlier (1957) that the law for England and Wales changed. The Wolfenden committee came to the conclusion that criminal law could not realistically get involved with the private sexual affairs of consenting adults in their own homes.

The Wolfenden committee said that: “Unless a deliberate attempt be made by society through the agency of the law to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private that is, in brief, not the law’s business.”

Maxine 1The Wolfenden Report, Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (Image from: parliament.uk Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/11/579/1527)

However the landmark decision did not come about until an MP, Leo Abse and House of Lords peer Lord Arran offered proposals to amend the law for homosexual men, to change and introduce the Sexual Offences Bill. The bill was a way to make attitudes towards gay men more liberal; they felt that it was time for a change, as it followed a massive rise in the number of homosexual men being prosecuted.  Following the report the government of the time supported Lord Arran’s liberal thinking and put the Bill through parliament. It attained royal assent on 27 July 1967 after a late-night debate in the House of Commons. This brought the legal age of consent to 21.

The new law stated:

‘The Sexual Offences Act 1967 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom (citation 1967 c. 60). It decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have attained the age of 21. (See full amendment here).

The Act applied only to England and Wales and did not cover the Merchant Navy or the Armed Forces. Homosexual acts were decriminalised in Scotland by the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980! In Northern Ireland by the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982!

Maxine 2Sexual Offences Act 1967 (Image from: parliament.uk Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1967/c60)

As you can see in Scotland and Northern Ireland it was a very recent amendment. The law was further amended to the age of 18 in 1994 it wasn’t until 2000 that the age of consent was brought down to equal that of heterosexuals at the age of 16. Since that landmark year in 1967, laws have been challenged; rights have been won, stigmas broken and lives changed. The gay community fought every step of the way for the rights that they deserved as human beings, and some still have to fight but the community is bigger and stronger than ever and will always fight when they need to.

Alan Turing – Genius and Code-breaker

As I work for the University of Manchester, I thought I could not finish this blog without mentioning one man who worked at the University – an outstanding scientist, mathematician and code breaker – the late Alan Turing. He was a talented genius. Not only is he considered to be the father of modern computing, he also developed the idea of artificial intelligence.


Blue Plaque commemorating Alan Turing’s achievements at the University of Manchester. (Image from blueplaqueplaces.co.uk)

In World War II, he worked for the British government at Bletchley Park breaking the enemies’ codes and was instrumental in breaking the enigma code. The Prime Minister at the time, Sir Winston Churchill, said that he helped to shorten the war by two years when he found a way to crack the enigma code. He just also happened to be gay.

Defiance and suffering

Alan Turing was arrested. His trial was on the 31 March 1952. The police had found out about his sexual relationship with a young Manchester man. He never denied or put up any real defence, instead telling all that there was nothing wrong with his actions. He was especially concerned to be open about his sexuality, despite the unsympathetic atmosphere in the field of engineering in Manchester at the time. Instead of going to prison he chose, for the period of one year, to receive artificial hormones under supervision, intended to neutralise his libido. This left him impotent and very depressed.

His cleaner found him when she arrived for work on 8 June 1954. He had died the day before of cyanide poisoning, with a half-eaten apple beside his bed. His mother would not believe he would have killed himself and chose to believe he had accidentally ingested cyanide from his fingers after an amateur chemistry experiment, however it is more plausible that he had successfully engineered his death to allow her to believe this. The coroner’s verdict was suicide.

alan-turingAlan Turing (Photo © University of Manchester)

Many people wonder, myself included, what if back then the law that was imposed on all gay men had not existed? What could he have achieved, invented, helped with?

All I know is we owe him a lot, and we also owe a massive apology to all those men who have suffered in the past and those that still suffer all because of who they love.

Alan Turing was a man ahead of his time and his life was cut far too short. I would like to leave you with one final thought. Think about this, what would our world have been like without Alan Turing? Remember he was the man who helped to build the foundations on the device to which you are now reading this blog on!

Maxine Carson-Byrne

Further Reading:
LGBT History Month – “Greek Love”
Pride of Place: Amelia B. Edwards (Updated)
British Museum Blog: A Symbol of Pride – Raising the Rainbow Flag
University of Manchester – Alan Turing


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