Alex Harvey on the legalisation of homosexuality
If homosexuals are what they are because of birth or through early environment, and are not in themselves deliberately vicious men, they should not be punished. To punish in such circumstances is to persecute, to persecute a minority, to persecute as others have persecuted Jews and Negroes.
Lord Arran, House of Lords, 12 May 1965
Producing a documentary to mark the 30th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality, I was struck by the very Victorian restrictions on the lives of gay men in the Sixties. Victim, the film in which Dirk Bogarde plays a married barrister blackmailed because of his affair with a young man, had once seemed merely melodramatic – and hard to reconcile with more usual images of Sixties permissiveness. Now I can see why it is described as ‘crusading’. Today Old Compton Street in Soho is lined with gay bars, and in the Sixties, too, gay men used to meet in Soho, sitting in all-night cafés, sometimes beside prostitutes to look as if they were accompanied, or ‘cottaging’ in the public toilets – their cast-iron railings made it possible to watch out for approaching policemen. But the centre of activity was Piccadilly, with its toilets and rent boys – there was even a gay bar called the White Bear with an entrance in Piccadilly Circus Underground Station. Policemen sat around drinking tea in the attendant’s room of public lavatories, scratching at the white painted glass to get a better look at the courtships taking place on the other side: some officers were said to take an ‘unhealthy’ interest in their work and were themselves arrested for importuning. Cottaging, like gardening, seems to have brought together a cross-section of the British class system: a retired policeman from West End Central recalls with amusement coming on a peer in full evening dress fellating a tramp.
On the eve of the introduction of Lord Arran’s Homosexual Law Reform Bill in the House of Lords, Lord Moynihan was arrested for importuning and, thinking fast, said he had merely been conducting research to enable him to make a fuller and more informed speech in the Lords. Inside the Houses of Parliament the subject of homosexuality had been largely ignored until Arran proposed his Bill on 12 May 1965, with a speech which in certain sections sounded like an attack: ‘our instinct,’ he said, ‘is to want to stamp them out.’
Lord Arran is now a forgotten figure, rarely given the credit for the change in the law that he brought about – Roy Jenkins usually gets the praise. Known as Boofy, Arran was a red-faced, white-haired little man who seemed to be in a permanent flap, and spoke rapidly with many a what, what punctuating his scattered thoughts. His column in the Evening News, ‘Lord Arran writes’, meandered through seven or eight increasingly inconsequential subjects, bringing his good-humoured lack of concentration to a wider audience. Arran’s other passion was badgers. Trying to drum up support in the Lords, he often said that he had only two really great interests in life – one was to stop people buggering badgers and the other was to stop people badgering buggers. Colleagues who visited his country estate for the weekend to discuss drafting clauses for the Bill had to fend off Boofy’s large pet badger, which would ‘snuffle round our knees in the drawing-room while Lady Arran served us tea’. Arran was responsible for the Badger Protection Act but his ardour cooled somewhat after his wife was attacked and almost killed by a group of badgers on a Scottish island.
Arran announced in his newspaper column that he had decided to call his Homosexual Law Reform Bill ‘William’. This was partly because it was about ‘boys’, partly because it was his custom in restaurants to ask for ‘William’ instead of the bill, but giving the Bill a pet name also seems to have been an attempt to distance it from himself. Although he was often described as camp or effeminate and, in his silk shirt and red braces, as ‘a bit of an old queen’, he was at pains to stress his own discomfort with the subject of his Bill: ‘the wives don’t like it.’
In the Second Reading debate two weeks later, Lord Montgomery of Alamein worried that public school boys, unduly influenced by the knowledge that their masters and tutors were legally indulging in unnatural practices, would join this carnival of homosexual activity the moment they reached 21, the proposed age of consent. When Lord Arran pointed out that no one worried about women in this context, the Field Marshal confessed that he was not ‘very expert on girls’. When Monty went on to make the absurd claim that there had never been a single case of homosexuality in the Eighth Army, Dora Gaitskell replied: ‘The Field Marshal was in brilliant command of millions of men, and he did a wonderful job. I am amazed he did it with so little knowledge of the sex habits of the men under his command.’ The most memorable contributions were made by two former Lord Chancellors, the Earl of Kilmuir and Viscount Dilhorne. Both men seized the chance for a monologue or two about anal sex: ‘Incest and sodomy with animals is so abominable, so disgusting and so degrading that it has become accepted that it should be considered as criminal. In my view sodomy with a human being comes into that same category.’ The tone had been set by Lord Goddard, the former Lord Chief Justice, who had said that ‘all homosexual acts either using the oral method or the form of penetration which is the offence of sodomy are horrible, unnatural and beastly.’ ‘How they loved talking on and on about it,’ remarked a Hungarian psychologist who had attended the debate.
The greatest passion seemed to be aroused by the supposed existence of ‘buggers’ clubs’. Lord Goddard was quite sure they existed: if homosexuality were legalised, he said, ‘they will be able to spring up all over the place and at these coteries of buggers the most horrible things go on. One has to listen to stories which make one physically sick.’ The Earl of Kilmuir added that ‘many of those who keep silent and discreet about their desires will feel free to proselytise. I have in mind the kind of proselytisation which goes out from those sodomitic societies and buggery clubs.’ No evidence of the existence of these organisations was ever produced. But the members of the House went on talking about their experiences as young men walking through Soho, and how they had been warned about what went on behind the doors of certain clubs or how they had seen members of one of the buggers’ clubs ‘shamelessly flaunting the club tie’. All of this had a profound effect on the eventual Sexual Offences Act. Lord Dilhorne proposed a privacy clause designed to ensure that homosexual activity when more than two people were present remained illegal, and, inexperienced in legislative matters, and under fierce pressure from these former Lord Chancellors, Lord Arran was forced to accept the amendment.
Arran had based his sparse wording, and indeed all of what had passed for his arguments, on the findings of the Wolfenden Committee, which had been reluctantly set up in 1954 by Lord Kilmuir in his previous incarnation as the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe. He had assumed that the Report would silence those calling for reform and to that end appointed the ultra-respectable public school headmaster Sir John Wolfenden to chair it. When Wolfenden recommended that homosexual acts between consenting adults over the age of 21 should no longer be considered a crime the Report was shelved by the Home Office.
In the late Fifties, however, the Homosexual Law Reform Society was set up to lobby for the implementation of the Wolfenden recommendations. It lived a hand-to-mouth existence from an office on Shaftesbury Avenue, appropriately overlooking Piccadilly Circus. The money to employ its driving force, ‘Antony Gray’, was provided by David Astor. Despite being staffed almost entirely by gay volunteers, no one disclosed their sexuality. Volunteers remember that the atmosphere was a little strange ‘because homosexuality was never mentioned’. Gray discussed the subject with Lord Arran only once, when he was visiting Arran to help with the drafting of the Bill: ‘Lord Arran said: “You know, why did you become involved in this?” I said: “Well, because I am homosexual myself.” He said: “Oh, I wish you hadn’t told me that.” ’
If Homosexuality was still an uncomfortable subject for those in the vanguard of reform, many of Arran’s critics believed he was sabotaging the whole structure of English society. ARRAN HOMO was regularly painted in large red letters on walls outside his London clubs, and human excrement arrived along with the hate mail. Miss B., his secretary, opened these packages. Refusing to let Boofy see one pile, she said she had thrown it away: ‘After all, it wouldn’t keep.’ Winning the Second Reading had proved a pyrrhic victory for Arran: only two days later the Commons defeated an identical Bill. The House of Lords, not for the first time in the Sixties, found itself leading social change, while the Commons struggled to find someone prepared to sponsor the Bill – and to live with the inevitable personal attacks.
In February 1966, Humphry Berkeley, a Conservative MP who had come high in the Private Members’ ballot, decided to break ranks and sponsor Arran’s Bill. To Lord Arran he was a less than perfect partner because he was a homosexual. Berkeley had to deal with the two Cyrils – Black and Osborne – who were the Commons equivalents of Kilmuir and Dilhorne. Black was a Methodist lay preacher; Sir Cyril Osborne, a self-made businessman, informed the Commons that he had been ‘brought up as a Victorian by a very stern Victorian father’ and knew it was perfectly possible for homosexuals to control themselves if they were sufficiently determined. Although Berkeley won the first Commons majority for reform, he lost his seat at the General Election, blaming his defeat on his advocacy of ‘the cause’.
Until mid-1966 the Bill limped on, kept alive by eccentrics and odd-balls – the British political mainstream did not wish to be associated with it. Roy Jenkins, Labour’s Home Secretary after the 1966 election, is always credited with ushering in a new era of liberal reform, but this underestimates the precariousness of the consensus for social change. Jenkins didn’t manage to persuade the Cabinet to back reform, merely to allow some government time to pilot a Private Member’s Bill through the Commons. Jenkins had already approached David Steel, who had come high in the ballot. Steel refused, on the grounds that he was a son of the manse and such an issue would be unlikely to improve his popularity in Scotland. The obvious choice was Leo Abse, who had not only already taken up the cause but was a shrewd Parliamentarian. Jenkins, bearing an old political grudge, turned instead to Michael Foot, who declined, knowing that Abse was the man for the job. Jenkins finally accepted this.
Abse’s rather florid taste in waistcoats had already made him conspicuous. Tam Dalyell begged him not to ‘wear his funny dresses’ but Abse’s idiosyncrasies seemed to help the cause along. All his speeches assumed that no MP had ever taken part in such depraved activity. Homosexuals were a handicapped species, completely alien to the happily married heterosexuals who made up the Commons. The point, he argued, was not to punish but to cure these unfortunate creatures whom he described as having male bodies but ‘feminine souls’. His main argument was that the law was a blackmailer’s charter. Ever since Victim, blackmail had been cited as a reason for adopting a more liberal attitude to reform. Abse inflated its prevalence, believing that this would sway MPs.
By the summer of 1967, Abse’s sponsorship of the Bill had begun to irritate its supporters. His clever Parliamentary footwork had ensured that the Bill progressed through its committee stage, but at a price: it would not apply in Scotland (largely because of the opposition of the Secretary of State, Willie Ross), Northern Ireland or the Armed Forces; and the age of consent was fixed at 21. Richard Crossman, who was then Leader of the House, was far from popular with his Northern MPs for giving the Bill Parliamentary time. As for Harold Wilson, he hated the whole issue and was angry with Crossman for not getting it out of the way quickly enough.
In 1967, two years after Lord Arran’s original intervention, the Bill approached its Third Reading. The only time the Government would grant was a late-night sitting on 4 July. For the Bill to pass there had to be at least a hundred MPs in the House throughout the night. When the final vote was taken at 5 a.m. only 101 supporters remained, and homosexuality was partially legalised by the narrowest of margins. A few weeks later, as the Bill passed onto the statute books, Lord Arran made a valedictory speech in the House of Lords, lapsing again into a defensive and apologetic tone: ‘Lest the opponents of the Bill feel that some 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 and, at the best, pity.’