The Sexual Offences Act: 50 Years On

It can be hard to believe that it was only 50 years ago that homosexual acts were decriminalised in England and Wales: this July marked the anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. On this anniversary, Impact looks back at the lives of four men who altered the way gay men were perceived in British society. Whether activists or ordinary people politicised by love, without these influential figures, gay people in Britain could not have won the right to freely express their sexuality. 

Edward Carpenter, 1844 – 1929.

The politically minded writer Edward Carpenter would shape LGBT activism through his own hands and the hands of others. Carpenter is best known for his political works, though he dabbled in poetry and undoubtedly influenced the world of literary fiction: E.M Forster’s posthumously published novel, Maurice, which details the life and loves of its eponymous protagonist, was inspired by Carpenter’s relationship with his lover George Merill. Radical and unapologetic in all areas of his activism, Carpenter’s 1908 work The Intermediate Sex, demanded an end of discrimination based upon sexual orientation.

Although born in Sussex, Carpenter would spend much of his life in Sheffield; it was there that he met his partner, Merill, and where they would live their lives together for thirty years. Letters to and from Carpenter, now found in the Edward Carpenter Archive, delve into the often unthought of lives of gay, working class men of the era: “I think of you every night and morning,” wrote Merill to Carpenter, in the days before they shared a home in Millthorpe.

Over 100 years later, Carpenter lends his name to the Edward Carpenter Community. The organisation began in 1985 and aims to bring gay men together. Another organisation, the Friends of Edward Carpenter, hope to establish a memorial to Carpenter in Sheffield.

Alan Turing, 1912 – 1954.

Alan Turing is perhaps one of the most well-known victims of discriminatory persecution, due to the 2014 film The Imitation Game and more recently, the Alan Turing Law, which pardoned men convicted of homosexual acts. Gaining prominence as a World War Two codebreaker, Turing led work at Bletchley Park to decrypt messages sent by German forces using the Enigma cipher machine. After the war, Turing continue to make breakthroughs in computer science and gave his name to the Turing Test, which seeks to determine whether a machine can exhibit human-like intelligence.

Despite the dangers, Turing could be frank about his sexuality. Having proposed to fellow cryptanalyst Joan Clarke in 1941, Turing decided that he could not go through with the marriage after confessing his sexuality to her. It was only a year after this that Turing was charged and found guilty of gross indecency, due to acknowledging his relationship with partner Arnold Murray during an investigation into the burglary of Turing’s home.

“It is unknown for sure how Turing died, although it is widely believed to be suicide”

Turing was given a choice of imprisonment, or probation conditional on chemical castration through injections of synthetic oestrogen – this punishment rendered Turing impotent. Turing, then 41, was found dead in his home in 1954. Though a post-mortem examination confirmed his cause of death to be cyanide poisoning, it is unknown for sure how Turing died, although it is widely believed to be suicide. Although Turing was apologised to in 2009 by then prime minister Gordon Brown, and pardoned by the Queen in 2013, nothing could ever truly make right the injustice endured by one of Britain’s most eminent scientific minds.

Peter Wildeblood, 1923 – 1999.

Due to a kiss with RAF serviceman Edward McAlly, Peter Wildeblood was one of three men infamously charged with the intent to commit gross indecency in 1954. Wildeblood, who admitted his homosexuality during the trial, received a 12-month jail sentence: Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers, received harsher sentences of 18 months due to their involvement. Montagu had offered his friend Peter the use of a beach hut that he owned, but denied his own charges.

The public attention this trial attracted led to the creation of the Wolfenden Committee, which in 1957 recommended that homosexuality should not be illegal or be considered a disease. Wildeblood’s 1955 book, Against The Law, served as important evidence for the committee and was vital in combatting the prejudiced view of gay and bisexual men. In it he states, “I am no more ashamed of [my homosexuality] than I would be of being colour blind.” Wildeblood emphasised that he was a man like any other, and asked humbly not for total acceptance, but simply for the right to express love without persecution.

Antony Grey, 1927 – 2010.

Antony Grey’s activism began quite inconspicuously when in 1954 he wrote an anonymous letter to the Sunday Times which would go unpublished. The letter, which was signed simply with ‘Homosexual,’ criticised society’s attitude towards gay and bisexual men that led them either to psychoanalysts or prisons.

“So scandalous was his work with these campaigns that his mother required him to drop his family surname”

 Despite what Grey described as “a hideous aura of criminality and degeneracy and abnormality” surrounding homosexuality, he became a public face of gay activism: he served as secretary of both the Albany Trust, a charity designed to improve the mental health of gay and bisexual men, and the Homosexual Law Reform Society, which lobbied the government for political reform. So scandalous was his work with these campaigns that his mother required him to drop his family surname, leading to the adoption of the name Grey.

Grey was honoured as Stonewall’s ‘Hero of the Year’ in 2007, and his work has gone on to inspire activists such as Peter Tatchell. His civil partnership with Eric Thompson, a love that lasted 50 years and until Grey’s death, can be seen as a testament to Grey’s work towards equality.

Freya Whiteside

Featured image courtesy of ‘Guillaume Paumier’ via Flickr

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