Women are the ‘overlooked minority’ in the history of the Sexual Offences Act

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By Katie King on

It’s the statute’s 50th birthday, but should we be celebrating?

It’s 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act 1967 (SOA) partially decriminalised homosexuality, and women’s impact on LGBT+ legal rights is to this day widely brushed over.

How refreshing, then, to attend Portcullis House in Westminster on Wednesday evening to hear an all-female panel’s take on the occasion. In Lib Dem peer Baroness Elizabeth Barker’s opening remarks, she said:

In many ways, women have been very much an overlooked minority.

Female same-sex acts have never been outlawed in the UK. The reasons for this stem from the patriarchal understanding of women as totally disconnected from their sexuality. Panellist Catherine O’Donnell, programme manager at the People’s History Museum, couldn’t help but snicker as she recounted an infamous 1811 libel case involving two women accused of lesbian activity. In it, the judge proclaimed:

The crime of one woman giving another the clitoris… is a crime which is impossible in this country to commit.

Given this, the story of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality found in the SOA is difficult to tell from the eyes of anyone but a man: it was them who found themselves locked away and also them with the political power to change things.

L-R: Catherine O’Donnell, Norena Shopland and Baroness Elizabeth Barker

Lord Wolfenden in particular is associated with the act, having penned a committee report recommending its inception.

He was hardly a beacon of LGBT+ rights himself (he notably distanced himself from his gay son during his time on the committee and told him to stop wearing so much make-up). A sea change came when Wolfenden went for dinner with a group of white, middle class, highly educated gay men, and observed with shock: they’re chaps like us!

The SOA exempted gay men over 21 from criminal prosecution if their sexual activity was consensual and private (i.e. taking place in a building with only them in). But, arranging these acts was still illegal. So was gay adoption, gay men serving in the armed forces, and of course we’re decades away from civil partnerships and gay marriage at this point. Audience members looked shocked as panellist and LGBT+ historian Norena Shopland revealed that in the years leading up to full decriminalisation, over 30,000 gay and bisexual men were convicted of crimes for behaviour that would have been legal had it been with a woman.

In the 50 years since the act’s passing, women’s involvement in the campaign has moved away from background help to vocal, visible protest.

Perhaps the most famous of these involve the notorious ‘section 28’, which banned schools from teaching children about homosexual relationships. It reared its ugly head in the 1980s — a time when anti-gay vitriol persisted despite the SOA’s passing. Lord Denning, at this time, famously said:

We must not allow this cult of homosexuality, making it equal with heterosexuality, to develop in our land. We must preserve our moral and spiritual values.

Enter lesbians: three of whom notably used washing line to abseil into the House of Lords in protest of s28. Another four stormed the BBC’s evening news (video below), one chaining herself to broadcaster Sue Lawley’s desk. Anger over s28 also prompted the formation of the North West Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Equality, which organised a protest of 25,000 people (at the time the largest LGBT+ protest ever).

By 2003 homosexuality had been swept away from our criminal law statute books for good, and s28 repealed too. How sobering it is, in Shopland’s words, that “only people aged 14 and under have lived in this country when there’s been no persecution of gay people [in law].”

A mini exhibition at Wednesday’s event showing key LGBT quotes in the Hansard

LGBT+ rights have come on leaps and bounds since the SOA was passed, but both O’Donnell and Shopland express caution.

O’Donnell is to this day dismayed by the Home Office’s approach to asylum applications from gay men and women. Some applicants have reportedly been asked by authorities whether they’ve read Oscar Wilde. “It’s so Westocentric it’s unreal,” she concluded.

Shopland’s big concern is trans people. After stating trans rights are 20 years behind gay rights, she added:

People talk a lot about equal marriage, but it’s not equal. Trans people don’t have the same marital rights. Heterosexual people don’t either, as they can’t have civil partnerships. Until everyone is treated exactly the same, we can’t call it equal marriage.

Can we get there? O’Donnell hopes so. “Progress is not linear,” she said. “It has its ups and downs, and there are challenges along the way.”

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