Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2002-2003

We may have achieved some social openness, but are we truly socially accepted? Summarising a talk given to the Campaign for Homosexual Equality’s annual conference in October 2002, Antony Grey, a seasoned campaigner for law reform, looks back over 40 years, and concludes that still more has to be done.

Unfinished Business

by Antony Grey

For me, 2002 has been a year of anniversaries. It is 40 years this month, December, since I became secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society and of the Albany Trust (a charity set up alongside the HLRS to carry out research, education and counselling). In July it was 35 years since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised the private consenting behaviour of two civilian male adults aged over 21, became law. And I recently reached my 75th birthday.

The achievement of law reform in 1967, after almost ten years of hectic, relentless campaigning work, was the high spot of my working life. It is difficult for anyone aged under 60 to realise how burdensome, and often frightening, it was to discover that you were gay in the 1950s and 1960s. As Allan Horsfall has written:

“I know of one man who was convicted for a single private act which had taken place ten years previously. Had it been conceivable to produce a gay man’s survival guide at that time it would have urged him never to reveal his name and address, never to discuss how he earned his living or where he worked, never to take anybody to his home or give anybody his telephone number and never to write letters, whether affectionate or not, to anybody with whom he was sexually involved or even to anybody he knew to be gay.” [From Cant and Hemmings (eds), Radical Records (Routledge, 1988).]

In the autumn of 1957, the Wolfenden Committee (appointed by the government three years earlier to examine the laws relating to homosexuality and prostitution) had reported that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults ought no longer to be a crime. Shortly afterwards, my contemporary Tony Dyson (who, sadly, died in July, and whose obituary can be found in G&LH, Autumn 2002) took the initiative in forming the HLRS, and I was one of its earliest voluntary helpers, becoming its treasurer and later full-time secretary.

Our objective was to influence parliamentary and public opinion to change the law as the Wolfenden Committee had recommended. By a strenuous mixture of political lobbying, public speaking and article-writing we succeeded, with little encouragement or help from either Tory or Labour governments – with honourable exceptions such as Roy Jenkins who, luckily for us, was Home Secretary at the crucial moment. And we did it on a financial shoestring, with no secure budget. (For the full story, see my Quest for Justice (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992).)

I hoped that law reform would be the prelude to much more balanced sex education generally and greater social integration for gay men and women. But even the reform Act’s parliamentary sponsors felt that enough was enough, and discouraged further public discussion of such an embarrassing issue. They were unfriendly even to the emergence of such a respectable, middle-of-the-road representative organisation as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), and positively hostile to the exuberant flamboyance of the Gay Liberation Front when it erupted in the early 1970s.

Nor did these two “wings” of the homophile movement (as it was termed in those days) view each other with friendly eyes; and both were scornful of the HLRS/Albany Trust as a timid, conformist outfit of “Uncle Toms” – sometimes belittling what we had achieved and the difficulties we had overcome. Unhappily, this pattern of self-defeating rivalries has continued ever since, and is replicated today in the mutual dislike of Stonewall and OutRage!

These short-sighted feuds are responsible for much of the lack of progress in gay politics since 1967 – a period of anticlimax; for the further law reforms that have been achieved have occurred as much through recourse to the European Courts by individuals as by vigorous organised campaigning at home.

Of course, we have gained a good deal of social openness, if not the degree of social acceptance I had hoped to see by now. Even the occasional Tory MP thinks it’s worthwhile to come out of the closet, although this is still greeted by the humbugging media as a daring “admission”. I have always believed that the most important equality gay people need to have in society is equality of esteem – not just formal legal equality. This has still to be fought for, and earned. As the American activist Larry Kramer said recently (see the Pink Paper, 16 August 2002): “in terms of power we’re still totally invisible. That’s really shocking – we think that visibility gives us power, but it doesn’t; it has to be fought for – for ever.”

I am bound to say I see little evidence of vigorous fighting these days, least of all by the well-heeled “professional gays” who seem under the delusion that cosying up to New Labour (or New anything else) is a meaningful contribution to gay rights. Surely the first rule of successful lobbying today, as in the 1960s, is to conceal one’s personal political preferences, and to cultivate good relations with politicians of all persuasions – not least the vocal opponents: I got on quite well personally with some of those!

Maybe I’m still too trapped in the battles of the past. In these more relaxed days, younger gay folk’s open pursuit of hedonistic pleasure is all very well, but more widespread commitment to passionate campaigning is still required – not just for ourselves, but for the sake of the many adolescents growing up gay who are still faced with homophobia at school, and sometimes at home, too.

Half a century on, there is still much unfinished business for gay rights campaigners.

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Created : Sunday, 2003-01-12 / Last updated : Monday, 2009-07-20
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