50 Years Since The Decriminalisation Of Homosexuality, What Has Actually Changed?

Photo: Stephanie Gonot
On the 27th of this month half a century ago, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 reached Royal Assent. It was the first time since 1533, when Henry VIII made anal sex illegal, that any law regarding homosexual acts had been reformed. In practical terms it meant that it was now legal for two men over the age of 21 in England and Wales to have sex behind closed doors.
Some have been celebrating all year, but is it really a cause for celebration? This partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts doesn’t represent any kind of proper freedom if you really think about it. In fact, it was only in 2013 that, legislatively speaking, gay people were afforded the same rights as heterosexual members of society, after we were finally welcomed into the glorious and successful institution that is marriage. Get in!
Of course, the human effort and cost involved in these changes was great, and our community has legions of remarkable and brave LGBTQIA+ activists to thank and celebrate on this day, and always. But 50 years on, how much has actually changed?
“At age 65 I find that finally my gender and sexuality identity is taken seriously by some of the community I have identified with all my adult life,” Hope Winter Hall, femme trans man and lifelong lifestyle activist told Refinery29. “I have been derided and ostracised by many in the past who should have supported me. Non binary is flavour of the decade and I can be myself with less need to pretend I am something I am not. Of course, this battle is also nowhere near won.”
Socially, in parts of the community and among the very rare allies who are connected to our community, there have certainly been some changes for the better, with LGBTQIA+ starting to be represented in more nuanced ways on television, film and in the media. But as visibility increases, so do all sorts of phobia and misunderstanding.
“There can be little doubt that legal reforms and protections have increased the visibility and viability of leading an openly LGBT life,” Jason Jones, the brilliant activist who launched his challenge on the British colonial “buggery” law in his native country of Trinidad and Tobago earlier this year, explains. “In the '80s you could never approach the police for assistance as an openly LGBT person. You ran the risk of being accused of either encouraging criminal behaviour because of your 'lifestyle' or of being a criminal yourself!”
But let’s be clear here: to achieve mere legal equality didn’t take 46 years, it took a lifetime (more like 434 years, but who’s counting?). And while for the government’s PR purposes that’s all well and good, while assimilationist gay folk can wear that wedding band with pride and David Cameron can be named ‘Ally of the Year’ by PinkNews, all we’ve reached is everyone else’s ‘normal’, everyone else’s rights awarded to them literally for being born and not being gay. And that’s just here in the UK, and only for homosexuals.
So yes, there has been legal progress, even though countless gay men were persecuted and prosecuted after the Sexual Offences Act reform, with many recalling how policing became more severe as changes in laws brought increased awareness of gay sexual acts that had been happening for centuries. It was as late as 1998 that seven men in Bolton were arrested after being found having an orgy, as it went against the strict guidelines the 1967 reform had laid out. Section 28 and Thatcher’s 'Family Values' campaign inspired rabid homophobia in the wake of the HIV and AIDS epidemic — and prevented any community, school or person from ‘promoting homosexuality’ (otherwise known as being out). And this was the '80s!
“The ‘progress’ we’ve made is like two ships in the ocean sailing in opposite directions. You have the SOS SOA (Sexual Offences Act) boat sailing into the sunset carrying the section of our LGBTQIA+ community that it was set up to benefit: predominantly white gay cis-gendered middle-class men,” activist and tour guide with Queer Tours of London: A Mice Through Time, Dan Glass adds. “On the other boat you have the rest of the LGBTQIA+ community, who without recognition continue to be silenced and struggle to get a life-ring thrown overboard from SOS SOA. The practical reality is the rise in LGBTQIA+ homelessness, not one permanent bar for lesbians in the whole of London, no fully accessible LGBTQIA+ spaces; and the list goes on, just here in the UK.”
It’s hard not to feel like a Debbie Downer when you consider this history here in the UK, but while laws may have changed, reality is still savagely bleak and unsafe for so many members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Homophobia is on the rise — with attacks increasing by 12% after Brexit, according to figures from the Metropolitan Police (and these are just the attacks reported). Despite the proven success of PrEP (the drug responsible for the first drop in new HIV transmissions in London last year), the government continues to hesitate to make it available, and says it is “not obliged” to provide PrEP to members of the community at highest risk of HIV contraction.
Our LGBTQIA+ siblings are flown by the Home Office back to their home countries to face severe legal consequences and oftentimes death because they aren’t ‘legally allowed in the UK’, even though their sexualities and gender identities are illegal back home. The government continues to contest the rights of transgender people, only last week releasing plans to allow trans people to change their legal gender without medical diagnosis — which is still not good enough. Gay concentration camps in Chechnya slaughter gay men in their hundreds, over which the British government has merely ‘expressed concern’. Our community lies fractured with many desperate to assimilate into the accepted norm, and those who aren’t or can’t face isolation and abuse from both within and without the community. Our spaces continue to shut down and our community suffers silently, plagued with high levels of alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness, mental health issues, misogyny and racism.
If anything is clear on this anniversary it is that the fight for freedom, and not simple legal equality, must continue.
So what does this fight entail? “If we as a minority group cannot address the issues of racism, sexism, ableism etc that scar the LGBT community today,” Jason continues, “how on Earth can we expect ‘freedom’ and equality from the wider citizenry?”
The fight starts within out community: we must know the enemy outside (the government, Tory austerity, white supremacy, patriarchy, Pink Washing, commercialisation… all the bad words) and unite in our common fight against them.
“We need the British government to take the lead in assisting the dismantling of their discriminatory laws that they spread across three quarters of the planet! Firstly, we need an LGBT global envoy, as the Americans and the United Nations have now created,” Jason continues. “This position/office can be the focus for the work of dismantling the laws that criminalise over 74 million Commonwealth citizens. Theresa May said in her speech recently that Britain must lead on LGBT human rights, well no more talk: let us see some ACTION!”
We must hold the government accountable for years of systematic and legal oppression, and hold them to the things they promise in order to win votes. The fight must be both here and across the world, as Jason states. It is the work of grassroots activism and organisers – and in no way the government – that got us as far as we are today, and we must keep doing the same: constantly asking for more. It sounds scary, but you can organise yourself or join brilliant groups like ACT UP!, LGBTI+ Against Islamophobia, or Lesbians and Gays Support Migrants.
Most of all, we must not settle for this, because although it’s better, it’s not good enough. For so many under the LGBTQIA+ banner, every day is a fight to survive, so even if you aren’t aligned with an activist group try to take up space, support your LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters by engaging with their challenges and the nuances of their experience. If you’re a straight person reading this, declare yourself an ally and donate your labour, your platform and your power to helping us get further in the next 50 years: don’t just come to Pride and put unicorn-coloured things on your Pinterest boards.
“The LGBTQIA+ community is the key to our freedom,” Dan surmises. “We have always had a healthy appetite for self-determination. We know that politicians, the police, the military-industrial complex are examples of social order that can change their views overnight – with us at their mercy. As ever it’s the queer soul to thank for our freedom – the spirit of criticality, defiance, questioning, art, and radical love that will help us create a world on our own terms.”
Keep fighting. Resist. Here’s to the next, better, gayer, fifty.

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