Socialist Worker

A beginning of the end for shame

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue No. 2565

In influential 1961 film Victim, Dirk Bogarde plays a middle class man who is blackmailed over allegations of homosexuality

In influential 1961 film Victim, Dirk Bogarde plays a middle class man who is blackmailed over allegations of homosexuality

The Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised sex between men in private, was passed 50 years ago this week. The year before it was passed some 420 men were arrested for “gross indecency”.

The law is rightly heralded as a landmark in the fight for LGBT+ rights.

It was part of a much bigger social upheaval taking place—and a harbinger of the mass movements for women’s and gay liberation that followed after 1968.

Two months later the Abortion Act granted women the right to choose. Then in 1969 the Divorce Reform Act that stopped divorce being the preserve of wealthy men.

The Sexual Offences Act had a real, transformative effect on the lives of some male couples.

Antony Grey, one of the founders of the Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS), described what it was like for him and his partner before.

After a drunk ploughed into their car at night he said, “The first thing we had to do was make up the spare bed”.

“We knew from experience that if you called the police and they suspected you were homosexual, they would ignore the original crime and concentrate on the homosexuality,” he explained.

But the gains the Act brought were limited.

After it was passed, criminal convictions actually soared by more than 400 percent to 1,711 in 1974. And homophobic legislation was not fully repealed until 2013.


The law also aimed to keep homosexuality hidden.

As Tory peer Lord Arran, one of the bill’s sponsors, made clear, “I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity.

“Any form of ostentatious behaviour or public flaunting would be utterly distasteful.”

Lord Arran

Lord Arran

These contradictions flowed from how the law came about.

There were groups, such as the HLRS, that had bravely fought for reform throughout the 1950s and 1960s. But it was not wrenched from the hands of the ruling class by a powerful mass movement.

This would only come later. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in Britain was not founded until 1970 and the first Pride march in London took place in 1972.

By 1967 a ruling class offensive against homosexual rights that began after the Second World War was beginning to break down.

As late as 1965 Sir Maxwell Fyfe Tory home secretary between 1951 and 1954 insisted, “I am not going down in history as the man who made sodomy legal.”

Before that Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir John Nott Bower, returned from a stint in the police service in British imperial India to repress people at home too.

Nott Bower pledged to “sweep all homosexuals out of government”—resulting in a purge of thousands from their jobs.

But the sexual repression of the 1950s had been preceded by a period of relative sexual freedom during the Second World War. The right’s postwar backlash couldn’t simply undo the process behind this opening up.

This process is key to understanding how the law came about and its limitations.

Right wing ideas around sexuality centre on the notion that sex is for procreation, not fun or intimacy. This doesn’t just spring from right wingers’ heads—it flows from the needs of capitalism.

From the late 19th century capital had relied on the family to produce the next generation of workers, instead of sending women and children to work.

This nuclear family was a key institution for regulating sexual “morality”.

Far from winning gratitude for limited reforms, the Sexual Offences Act spurred on a battle from below to win much bigger gains.

Anything that deviated, be it women’s autonomy or same sex relationships, was seen as a threat to the nuclear family.

It was during the Industrial Revolution that abortion rights were restricted and the term “homosexuality” first appeared.

But while the nuclear family remains important to capitalism, the form it takes has changed as the needs of capitalism change.

The war undermined the rigid nature of the nuclear family. Large numbers of men joined the armed forces. Women joined the workforce, and evacuating children from the cities alleviated the burden of childcare for many women.

According to a Mass Observation Surveys (MOS) conducted within the Royal Army Medical Corps, sexual activity between male soldiers was openly taking place. The MOS observer noted that some men were already “well versed in these arts”.

Women drafted into the Land Army as agricultural labour also had more opportunities to explore their sexuality.

A probation officer described the scene in an air raid shelter. There were “youngsters in their teens, of mixed sexes, making up their beds together on the floors of public shelters even under parents’ eye”.

After the war all this was viewed as a serious problem by the ruling class.

Historian Joshua Levine’s The Secret History of the Blitz details the growing openness about sex during the war. Reviewing it, the Daily Mail newspaper complained that the “Blitz sent Britain sex mad”.


A similar moral panic was whipped up by right wingers at the time.

David R Mace of the Marriage Guidance Council summed up their fears in the right wing Spectator magazine. “Never in human history has family life suffered disintegration upon a scale commensurate with that which the past six years had witnessed,” he complained.

“We must inculcate, through every educational agency at our disposal, sound values and high ideals.”

The Cold War was also taking hold with the US Senator Joseph McCarthy waging a campaign against “communists” and “deviants”. After the defection of two homosexual British spies to Russia, Winston Churchill’s Tory government also went on the attack.

Not content with searching for reds under the bed, the Tories now went looking for reds in the bed. But as arrests soared to more than 1,000 every year, the official position was becoming increasingly untenable.

One case rocked the ruling class because it involved prominent people from its own ranks.

They were Tory peer Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Daily Mail royal correspondent Peter Wildeblood and the prominent capitalist Michael Pitt-Rivers.

After a beach-hut party, all three were convicted for “conspiracy to incite male persons to commit serious offences with male persons” or “buggery”.

As a result of their trial the Tory government set up the Wolfenden Committee, with the intention of reinforcing the status quo.

Widely known as the “Vice report” it also dealt with the rise of prostitution, which it blamed on a “weakening of the family”.

Another result of Wolfenden was the Street Offences Act 1959 and a crackdown on women who worked as prostitutes.

But despite its original intention, the committee sensationally came out for limited decriminalisation of homosexuality.


The Montagu trial had exposed the hypocrisy of the British state’s position.

Lord Arran was asked why his homosexual reform had passed while another bill to protect badgers had failed. He quipped, “There are not many badgers in the House of Lords.”

A growing section of the middle classes, and some ruling class figures who wanted freedoms for the rich, put their weight behind liberal reforms.

David Astor, the radical liberal editor of the once Tory Observer newspaper, came out for homosexual law reform.

Wildeblood himself, now sacked from the Daily Mail, published Against the Law in 1955 about the trial.

Campaigns such as the HLRS added to growing pressure on the people at the top of society.

These reformers didn’t want to mount a serious challenge to the capitalist status quo, but were sometimes affected by the repression.

Through a private members’ bill, the Wolfenden recommendations were finally implemented in 1967.

The likes of Lord Arran did not want sexual openness. But the stuffy old Toryism, with its deference for a crumbling Empire and aristocracy, seemed more and more out of place with the needs of modern capitalism.

And working class people, told they’d “never had it so good”, were losing patience.

While the new welfare state was partly designed to help strengthen the family, it also alleviated some of women’s burdens in the home and spurred on the wartime changes.

The election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964 was another sign of this mood.

These tensions would spill out in the mass movements of 1968 and beyond.

Far from winning gratitude for limited reforms, the Sexual Offences Act spurred on a battle from below to win much bigger gains.

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