Nathan Hine

Gay men have had to deal with a lifetime of discrimination as a result of convictions made after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. In contrast to the lightbulb moment for gay rights it is perceived to be, the criminalisation of gay men continued, and has ruined some people’s lives ever since. 

The 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalized homosexual acts between two consenting adults over the age of 21 in private in England and Wales. So why was it that gay men continued to be prosecuted after the passage of the 1967 Act? 

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Why did gay men continue to be prosecuted?

The 1967 Act only applied to individuals over the age of 21 in private which meant homosexual acts in public were still criminal acts. For example, gross indecency and importuning were still prosecutable offences. 

It has been estimated in the years after 1967, 15-20,000 men were convicted for ‘gross indecency.’ This was because the limited scope of the 1967 Act meant that it was a criminal offence for two men to have sex in public as upheld under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act

“It is an offence for a man to commit an act of gross between men, indecency with another man, whether in public or private, or to be a party to the commission by a man of an act of gross indecency with another man, or to procure the commission by a man of an act of gross indecency with another man.”

Also, the 1967 Act did not cover public affection, meaning gay men could not flirt with each other in public, and doing so was still criminalised as you could be seen to be importuning another man. 

According to Cambridge Dictionary, importuning is defined as ‘the action of approaching someone and requesting or offering sexual services, especially as a prostitute.’ Importuning was illegal under the 1898 Vagrancy Act which prohibited soliciting or importuning for immoral purposes.   

In addition to this, the holes in the 1967 Act, and a state that continued to oppose LGBT acceptance and equality, meant that police officers were very heavy-handed in continuing to charge gay men for was was deemed criminal activities. 

Often, the police maliciously prosecuted people as they systematically went to areas where they suspected gay men were having sex with the intention of prosecuting them. They used Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to prosecute them for frequenting/loitering with intent. Among the places identified by the police were public lavatories and cottages.

As reported by The Guardian, in 1981, Terry Stewart was arrested by police in a public lavatory for importuning. He said that he went into the toilet to wash oil from a broken bicycle chain off his hands. He was convicted of soliciting or importuning in a public place for an immoral purpose, using the 1824 Act to do so.   

The criminalisation of gross indecency and importuning were not outlawed until the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, some 36 years after the original 1967 Act was passed. It has been calculated by human rights campaigner and member of the gay rights group OutRage! Peter Tatchell, as reported in The I, that between 1885 to 2013, around 100,000 men were convicted of same-sex acts, many of whom after the 1967 act. 

London Pride parade in 2016 (image from Unsplash)

In addition, the 1967 Act did not apply to the armed services, where homosexual acts in private were still illegal, and you could be dismissed for homosexual acts until 2000. If you were caught, it was governed by martial law which was punishable by immediate dismissal and a prison sentence in a military centre. 

As captured in the Channel 4 documentary Convicted for Love, Steven Close describes his experience as a gay man in the army. He was sentenced to six months in a military centre which has since been converted to a criminal offence. This has blighted his chances of getting a good job and his chances of happiness in the years since.  

What changes have been made to address this?

In 2000, a new code of conduct for people serving in the military was issued which gave gay, lesbian and transgender personnel to serve openly and the discrimination on a sexual orientation basis was forbidden. To their credit, in 2012, the coalition government introduced a disregard scheme which allowed individuals to be cleared of the crime if it no longer existed. 

The activity must have been consensual, with a person of 16 or over, and must not be an offence today – sex in a public lavatory is not eligible as that remains an offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 which continues to haunt young men, some of whom were wrongly convicted. In addition, the disregard scheme is complicated and only 132 from thousands of gay men have been successful in getting their crimes removed. 

It has proved to be a failure to correct these wrongs, and all the while, the life chances of these individuals are being harmed by having a criminal record to their name. 

Following this, the 2017 Policing and Crime Act was introduced (colloquially known as Turing Law) – named after prominent mathematician Alan Turing who underwent chemical castration and subsequently took his life. This gave pardons to thousands of men in Britain for homosexual acts that are no longer punishable under the law.     

But in order to be eligible, you had to have been successful in getting your crime removed under the 2012 disregard scheme, which required the individual to relive all those painful memories with no guarantee that their crime would be removed at the end of it. Campaigners felt badly let down by the government and continues to call on them to offer an unconditional pardon to all gay men. It also isn’t the same as being given an offical apology, which some campaigners feel isn’t enough as it sends the message that their actions were still wrong. 

The 1967 Act is seen by some to be the end of discrimination to the LGBTQ+ community and gay men in particular. But the fact of the matter is that they continued to be prosecuted into the early 2000s using laws stretching as far back as the early nineteenth century to do so. These prosecutions have ruined their lives and are continuing to hurt men right now – destroying their chance of happiness, a job, and opportunities as thousands of gay men in 2021 have a criminal record simply for being gay. 

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Last Update: April 24, 2024