Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2004

Allan Horsfall, at the forefront of the beginnings of gay campaigning in Britain, writes of an important anniversary.

Reforming Spirits

by Allan Horsfall

The sixth of October this year will mark the fortieth anniversary of the inaugural meeting in Manchester that ultimately led to the emergence of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. [1]

The meeting, which was held at Church House, 90 Deansgate, Manchester, created what was to become the first democratically controlled gay-driven movement – a full seven years before the Stonewall riots in America, a similar period before the emergence of the Gay Liberation Front and at a time when all sexual activity between men was totally illegal. The original objectives extended no further than securing the implementation of the 1957 Wolfenden Report on homosexual offences, and the fact that a permanent gay rights movement eventually resulted from the meeting was a good illustration of the fact that the law of unintended consequences does not always produce negative results.

The reform campaign had begun with the formation of the London-based Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS) by the late A. E. Dyson in 1958. Dyson himself was gay and, after his immensely valuable initial spadework, withdrew from the front line. The Society’s executive committee was not gay, nor, with a few exceptions, was its vast and distinguished honorary committee – but that didn’t stop it from being branded as “the lilac establishment”.

The HLRS did valuable work in hacking away at the many obstinate and influential pockets of resistance to reform, but I soon discovered that there were important places that the campaign had not reached and that legislators presumed – as it turned out mistakenly – to be implacably opposed.

My own background was one of having been firmly slapped down by the Labour Party for having had the temerity to try to introduce into their deliberations a motion dealing with Wolfenden.

In the 1930s and 1940s there was a famous Australian cartoonist who worked mainly in Britain called H. M. Bateman, whose drawings always depicted a central figure, usually male, who had said or done the wrong thing and who was surrounded by traumatised people throwing up their hands in horror and dropping their wineglasses or falling off their seats in absolute shock.

My local Labour party made me feel like Bateman’s central character when, in 1959, I indicated that I intended to put down a motion in the ward committee urging progress on homosexual law reform. They responded in the way I imagine a committee would react today if faced with a proposal to legalise paedophilia.

I had written to the man whom I had judged to have the strongest influence on the committee indicating my intentions, and I called at his house a few days later to see if I could expect any support.

He was a man in his thirties, a magistrate and a Guardian reader who I hoped might be on my side, but I was mistaken.

The family had just finished their evening meal and he managed to keep the conversation going without any reference to my letter until his wife left the room to put the children to bed.

He then explained that of course he had not been in a position to talk about my intentions in the presence of his wife, that the subject was not one that could be discussed in mixed company and was quite unsuitable for consideration by the ward committee.

It was not an encouraging start but, not feeling quite as chastened as I apparently should have been, I pressed on. I was by that time secretary of the ward committee, so I put the motion on the agenda for the next meeting. As I expected, the magistrate objected to any discussion of the subject and the committee, being somewhat in awe of him, agreed. So far so bad.

I went to the next monthly meeting of the ward committee fully intending to resign as secretary on the grounds that I could accept being defeated but I was not prepared to be suppressed.

As it happened, the magistrate was not present, having succumbed to the superior attraction of an evening football match, no doubt under the impression that he had banished Wolfenden for good!

Somewhat to my surprise the committee agreed, under further pressure from me, to forward the motion for consideration by the constituency executive committee and a woman member of the ward committee agreed to second it when it was considered at that higher level.

But it never was considered at that higher level. The woman who had agreed to second the motion came to me to say she couldn’t do so, not that she had changed her opinion but because she “no longer felt up to it”. It was very clear to me that she had been nobbled, but I decided to press on. I have little doubt that she had been told by the local party leadership that if she didn’t withdraw she would become the laughing stock of the party and the town!

I persuaded a young (heterosexual) councillor, with whom I had worked closely on other matters, to second the motion, but the executive committee refused to have it discussed on some spurious grounds, which I now forget.

I took the matter back to the ward committee and managed to persuade them that they ought to feel as incensed as I was at the way the motion had been ignored and they resolved to submit it again.

This time I was somewhat grudgingly permitted to set out the case for reform and this was again seconded, but the old Labour Party device of moving “next business”, which was of course carried, avoided a vote.

This was the end of that particular road and I wrote up the whole sorry business for New Left Review, who published it under the heading “Wolfenden in the wilderness”.

When this article was seen by the editor of the local paper, he put it to the local party leadership that there had been a split on the issue, but they vehemently denied it, which I suppose was technically correct. If there is no vote there can be no split!

It was clear to me that I could make no progress through my local party, but, while attending the annual Labour Party conference in Scarborough, I was able to question a number of MPs about the lack of progress on Wolfenden. I found that most of them were sympathetic to the report’s proposals but feared that it would be very damaging to their prospects within their constituencies if they were to show any public support for a relaxation of the law.

My experience seemed to indicate that this would be true of most constituency Labour parties. About the public at large, however, I was not so sure. Remember that the public at that time had not yet been subjected to the poisonous and homophobic outpourings of Gary Bushell and Richard Littlejohn and their like in the popular papers and there was no hard evidence that public hostility to gays was as vehement or widespread as it was suspected to be and as it was later to become.

The only way to find out for certain was to make sure that the so far restricted demand for reform really reached down to the political grassroots.

I thought that this objective could be achieved by persuading the Homosexual Law Reform Society to form provincial branches, but when I approached the joint secretaries at that time, John and Venetia Newall, the idea found no favour at all. The HLRS’s executive committee were determined that the organisation should not be seen as either gay-driven or gay-influenced and Venetia Newell wrote in a letter to me, “I still stick to what I said about local committees. Unfortunately we have always found in this office that – as well as many splendid, able and willing volunteers – we always seem to get a percentage of crackpots and shifty types. I don’t understand why but the office acts like a magnet to them and one has to be very careful and vet everyone carefully. Our work is so valuable – we do not want to endanger it in any way by taking risks.”

I continued to press the idea and eventually the Newalls were succeeded at the HLRS by Antony Grey, who was much more in favour of local groups but unable to convince his executive committee.

There were at that time a small number of heterosexual people who had been trusted by the HLRS to host private meetings for provincial supporters on the clear understanding that, if any of these groups became public knowledge, any connection with the HLRS was to be denied.

One such host was the late Stanley Rowe, who did youth work among Manchester’s Jewish community, and it was reluctantly agreed by the HLRS executive that he could be permitted to form a publicly acknowledged local group.

He agreed to do that, but was so hopelessly pressured by his other work that he constantly had to put off any new move.

By this time Antony Grey had put me in touch with the late Colin Harvey, who was senior social worker for the C of E’s Manchester Board for Social Responsibility. He was a married man who – as far as anybody knew or knows – had no personal interest in gay law reform, but who was anxious to see it happen anyway.

After prompting Rowe on a number of occasions without achieving any progress, Colin and I decided that nothing would develop unless we made it happen ourselves. It was agreed that I should get some notepaper printed and Colin would book a room for an inaugural meeting.

Since our move was in defiance of the HLRS we couldn’t identify with them, so a new name had to be found. This, we decided, would be the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee.

The next problem was finding an address. I felt that using a box number would invest the new organisation with a furtive air and Colin’s immediate superior, the Bishop of Middleton – who was fully in support of what we were doing – said that using a church address would only serve to antagonise the traditional wing of the Church.

So I decided to use my own address, a house I rented from the National Coal Board situated in what was, in effect, a pit village on the outskirts of what became Greater Manchester but in what was then still Lancashire. This decision was to have a significance which neither I nor anybody else appreciated at the time!

The inaugural meeting was convened in two ways. Flyers and word of mouth publicised it around the gay bars and clubs (such as they were at that time) and Colin sent out invitations to all the social work agencies on his mailing list.

It was never intended that the new committee should be exclusively gay, but that is what it very soon became as heterosexuals who had come along to give their support (or maybe in some cases just to see what the hell it was all about!) dropped away as they saw that the new organisation was strong enough to stand on its own feet.

Our first action was to produce ten thousand nicely designed, folding, two-colour leaflets, which we distributed to the press, political parties, social work agencies and as many gays as we could reach.

The first response was a front-page story in the local press under an eight-column banner headline (something they had never used before) proclaiming “Homosexuals and the law” and a subheading saying that a local man was leading the new campaign.

To everybody’s surprise, this brought not a chirp of disapproval from readers and, after waiting some three weeks in the vain hope that some letters of opposition would come in, the paper put up its own regular columnist to attack us!

There was a part of the leaflet for supporters to fill in and return, and one of the first to come in was from the late Alan Fitch, the MP for Wigan, who, it transpired, was sponsored by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a fact whose significance was not immediately apparent, but since he was the first MP to pledge support we invited him to become a vice-president and he accepted.

The next three years were spent speaking and writing and agitating and, although we could get speakers into church groups and youth groups and university societies, we never ever succeeded in getting a local Labour party to accept a speaker!

We even had a woman member who spent much time talking to personnel officers in firms around the huge Trafford Park industrial estate and elsewhere, persuading them to offer support to any of their employees who were facing hostility because of their gay orientation or who fell foul of the law.

When it became apparent during reform debates in the House of Commons that much of the opposition was coming from Labour MPs representing mining constituencies in Yorkshire and Lancashire, Scotland and South Wales – all fearful of constituency reaction – we were able to point out that here we were, having been for some years operating out of an address right in the middle of a mining village and with an NUM-sponsored MP as vice-president and with no opposition at all!

The Homosexual Law Reform Society’s committee remained suspicious of us but decided not to wash their hands of us since – as one prominent member put it – “if we don’t keep in touch, we won’t know what they’re up to”. Their secretary, Antony Grey, was thereby freed up to lend his support, which he did unstintingly right from the start. He actually spoke at our inaugural meeting and at our subsequent big public meeting in Manchester.

The fact that it all happened in Manchester was incidental, really. It wouldn’t have mattered if it had happened in Bristol or Newcastle or Birmingham, just so long as it challenged a public and parliamentary misconception that a London-based campaign represented only the views of a metropolitan elite who were out of touch with the country at large.

The 1967 reform was a travesty of the Wolfenden recommendations – themselves cautious – and, after its enactment, there was evidence that anti-gay social attitudes were actually hardening, under the influence of new, malicious and homophobic newspaper columnists.

There was clearly a great deal of work still to be done addressing an audience much beyond Parliament, so we changed the name, first to Committee, and then to Campaign, for Homosexual Equality (CHE) and, after much heated argument, decided to move the office – by then in central Manchester – to London.

Much of the credit for that expansion into a broader field must go to Paul Temperton, who gave up a secure job to take on the then precarious role of CHE’s first full-time paid secretary; to Michael Steed, who worked out all the financial implications and persuaded us we could just risk it; to Martin Stafford, who wrote most of the early literature; and to all the others from our local groups who worked so hard to make CHE the tremendous success that it became in its time.

[1] Postscript (BH, 2014-11-04): Allan may be mistaken about the date. According to records held by the Hall-Carpenter Archives (reference HCA/GREY/1/1/57), the minutes of the Executive Committee meeting of the Homosexual Law Reform Society dated 2 September 1964 record that

“The Secretary informed the Committee that he would be visiting Manchester to address the inaugural meeting of the North-Western Homosexual Law Reform Committee on 7th October. The Committee had formed itself under the sponsorship of the Church of England North-Western Board of Social Responsibility, and its Secretary was Mr Allan Horsfall. The Secretary said that he would discuss with the North-Western Homosexual Law Reform Committee the question of contributions and its constitutional relationship with the Homosexual Law Reform Society [...]”.

This seems a strong indication that the date of the Manchester meeting was most likely Wednesday 7 October 1964.

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Created : Sunday, 2004-10-17 / Last updated : Tuesday, 2014-11-04
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