9 JULY 1977, Page 11

Ten years after homosexual reform

Leo Abse

New crimes and stiffer penalties are often speedily approved by legislators; but the abolition of ancient offences, however otiose, meets stubborn resistance. When, twenty years ago, Wolfenden presented his report to Parliament, calling for heavy penalties against street prostitution and the erasure of criminality from homosexual acts committed in private, the Government responded with the predictable mixture of zeal and diffidence.

To the applause of a squeamish public, the more adept prostitutes were speedily driven off the streets into the clutches of a waiting parasitic army of souteneur landlords, night-club owners, escort agency bosses with criminal records, shady taxi drivers and avaricious hotel porters; the less successful prostitutes, the most inadequate, with histories of mental breakdown, attempted suicide, alcoholism, drug dependence, and frequently burdened with a variety of physical disorders and deformities, remain on the streets and are periodically swept into Holloway. At a cost to the taxpayers, now running at £80 per prostitute per week, we have, since the Street Offences Act, jailed thousands, and still the futile, purposeless exercise continues.

But the other call of Wolfenden, to modify the homosexual laws, was met with embarrassment and hostility. Rab Butler, the Home Secretary, provided the House of Commons with the needed elegant justification for inaction. Should we, he asked, if we were drawing up a code for the first cblonists of the moon, make this kind of offence a criminal offence? I am in some doubt whether we should or should not. But he clearly had no doubts of the serious consequences if the probibitions, in existence for so long, were abolished here and now; his historic argument was seductive and sufficiently sophisticated to provide the rationalisations many required. The reformers were compelled to struggle for nearly a decade before the cautious Wolfenden recommendations, made still 'more cautious by Parliament, reached the statute book; my Act in its final form reflected the appeasement required to assuage the fears Which otherwise could have spilled over and totally engulfed the Bill. Now, ten years later, can we assess the consequences of that Act? Does it need amending? Have the arguments of the reformers been justified and have their hopes been realised? Or can the opponents of the Act demonstrate that their worst fears have now been realised?

When the Act was passed it was in response to the plea that a million men should be brought in from the cold; an

unenforceable law was making them criminals, adding burdens to their ineradicable condition, compelling them to live in the shadows as pariahs, subject to blackmail and estranged from society. The alteration of the law, it was said, would lead to their integration into the community and, no longer fearing to live together privately and permanently, would diminish furtive displays of homosexuality in public places; and the promiscuity which, by its transitoriness and anonymity, protected them, from discovery, would no long be endemic to the condition. Behind closed doors, if not behind lace curtains, they would still live discreetly, according to the Churches, in sin, but not in crime; no longer haunted by fear of temporal authority, they could outside their homes play their full part in our ordained heterosexual society. Meantime that society, no longer pruriently preoccupied with punishment of the homosexual, would turn its attention to the creation of the familial and environmental condition of the young which would reduce the incidence of such an unfortunate fate: prevention would supersede punishment.

We were, of course, as necessarily becomes reformers, excessively romantic. That, at a stroke we decriminalised the conduct of a million, and so ceased tq reinforce the sense of guilt felt by many, is indisputable; and that many otherwise doomed to isolation, neurosis, and vain tortuous efforts to suppress their nature, were given relief is a legitimate claim. But although some doubtless have chosen homosexual domesticity and accepted participation in the outside heterosexual society on its own terms, many self-evidently have not. The goal was integration; but the ghetto walls we believed we had knocked down for ever have been rebuilt and, although the hostile heterosexual has sometimes lent a hand, the real construction workers have been the homosexuals themselves.

From the moment the Act was passed, a demand arose from homosexuals that they' must have the right to form their own clubs. The sponsors of the legislation, exasperated that homosexuals should wish, like a prisoner in love with his cell, to lock out the world, drew back from the suggestion; worse, they feared that the vitriolic prophecies of Lord Montgomery who, while wrestling with his own homosexual component, had publicly forecast the creation of `Buggers' Clubs', would appear to be fulfilled, and so place at risk legislation which had left ambiguous the interpretation of privacy within the Act. But the wish and indeed the need was greater than our objections; with scrupulousness and delicacy the clubs tentatively came into existence and then, as the ground rules between them and local police became more firmly established, the clubs, providing a fellowship and mutual support that was clearly and desperately required, spread. Now they are in existence from Aberystwyth to Wigan.

Denying that there was any particular anguish in his predilection, and rejecting the despised patronage of the heterosexual defenders who had described the condition as sad and tragic, the homosexual, overdeterminedly and defiantly, described himself as `gay', and under that banner has now created an alternative society and culture. In the wake of the clubs have come `gay' pubs, `gay' hotels, `gay' tourist agencies, `gay' counselling services, `gay' pornography, `gay' Conservative Party groups, and, in a vigorous and lively 'gay' press, the 'gay' carpenters, architects, plumbers and accountants offer their services to their own fellow travellers, There is now a literature beamed to the homosexual, and films, like the cloyingly sentimental Sebastiane currently being screened, which are viewed by audiences almost wholly composed of `gays'. Meantime political expression is found in the Campaign for Homosexual Equality which has more than one hundred branches and some four to five thousand members.

But there is an ambivalence in the homosexuals' justifications for this unanticipated consequence to the change of the law. They claim the right to form their societies on the basis of their shared interest and their particular vision of life, as does every other minority group, of which this is one of the largest in the land, and so they leave bewildered the do-gooder heterosexual who had in his fuddy-duddy manner believed the idea was to rationalise, not segment still further, our excessively plural society. But along with the gay's apologia comes an accusation: that by discrimination they are forced to create an alternative society, and the main discriminatory armoury of the majority, it is alleged, is to be found in the lacuna of the 1967 Act.

There are, indeed, certainly clauses within the Act which can be described as discriminatory. It is illogical to insist that the age of consent should remain at twenty-one when meantime adulthood has been legally acknowledged at eighteen; but although women have the right to choose at sixteen, there is little doubt that many boys in their teens are able to work through a homosexual phase and become heterosexual. The wooing of such youngsters by older men could lead to some adolescents being peamanently fixated and prematurely committed to living out their lives as homosexuals; the legislators in reducing the age of consent to meet the allegation of discrimination would be bound to move cautiously if any excessive demand was presented.

Some of the other discriminatory aspects of the law have happily, in fact, fallen into disuse. The absurdity that a merchant sea

man can be prosecuted for having homosexual relations with another member of his crew, but be free to sleep With a male passenger has simply led to no action being taken in all circumstances. And in Scotland, where, thanks to the priggishness of the present Scottish Lord Advocate, and the pusillanimity of the majority of Scottish MPs, the law continues to forbid private homosexual conduct between consenting adults, in practice, fortunately, no such prosecutions are initiated. Nor does the fact that the law in Britain permits a heterosexual ménage a trois but not a homosexual one appear to have led to convictions.

It is difficult to doubt that the main complaint is in reality not against discriminatory law but against the laws that do not permit men or women to act out their sexual lives in public places; and the chastening fact has to be recorded that despite the reformers' hopes that ending the prohibition against private homosexual acts would mean the diminution of such acts in public, this has not happened. On the contrary, the 1500 convictions for indecency between males in public in 1975 is a figure more than three times larger than in 1966 before the passing of the Act. This cannot be attributed to police harassment. Although there are some areas where there are justifiable complaints against excessive zeal on the part of some police forces, that charge could not in general be sustained; and the Home Office intervention stamping down upon the use of agents provocateurs in this category of offence would have been likely to have reduced the number of those charged.

It seems there is a small minority of gays who almost compulsively need the frisson of the anonymous encounter on the dark common or in the ill-lit public lavatory. It is more than arguable that, in view of the tragic consequence which a publicised conviction brings upon those driven to gain these regressive thrills, charges should not be pursued against them unless genuine nuisance to others exists: perhaps it is wrong that a hetrosexual ethic, founded substantially upon a physical fidelity meaningless to the homosexual, should be imposed by law. But that is a plea for discriminatory law in favour of the homosexual, and that is not how the shrill and nearparanoiac extreme gay liberation lobbies present their case. It is difficult sometimes not to believe that, despite their declarations of gaiety, they are unconsciously protesting not against a real discrimination but against their own sexual destiny, and that is the rub.

It is one matter to acknowledge that it is just as presumptuous to regret their failure to integrate into the wider community as it is to deplore the failure of the immigrant communities to integrate whilst the host community continues its taboo on miscegnation. It is another matter to condone or ignore the phenomenon of those homosexuals acting out their fantasies, demonstrating by their political expression and personal conduct a manic denial that there is any handicap attached to their sexual disposition. Frenetic promiscuity and leather and denim fetishes are certainly not confined in these seasons to homosexuals; but the extraordinarily high incidence of syphilis and hepatitis among some 'gays' is an index which can only be unhappily interpreted. For many homosexuals our more civilised law has freed them to gain fresh insights, to come to terms more readily with themselves, to gain a personal integration and both they and the community have gained. For others the new freedom to come out has meant only that they have freaked out: their exhibitionism arouses resentment and indeed, in those lacking certainty in their own heterosexuality, it arouses fears which can only be warded off by repressive legislation. Within the last month those anxieties have found expression on both sides of the Atlantic: the House of Lords has overwhelmingly refused to pass a Bill reducing the age of consent and, in a referendum, Miami, lashing out against the paraded homosexuality of more than a quarter of the citizens of San Francisco, has refused a proposal to grant a guarantee of nondiscrimination for homosexuals.

But the poignant histrionics of the exhibitionist homosexual only emphasise that little boys do not automatically grow up to be heterosexual men; and if we make the value judgment, implicitly deprecatory though it may be to the homosexual, that we wish to reduce the number of homosexuals then, as a society, we are doing little to achieve the right end. Manhood, as fatherhood, has to be taught, and the only way it is learned is by e,xample. If by death, desertion, or excessive involvement in the ratrace, the father becomes an absentee father, then the little boy, lacking any model with whom he can identify and prone to become enveloped in a feminine aura, has a particular vulnerability. Yet no real effort to mobilise special help for the child at risk is made. Dust gathers on the Finer Report calling for more help for the one-parent family, and the particular need to have sufficient male child-care workers and probation officers, and male teachers in our infant schools, able to act as father surrogates to the fatherless, is largely ignored.

Meantime, the decay of the authoritarian family and the spread of the democratic one create the possibility of gender confusion. The former definite roles of the father and mother are now smudged as fathers increasingly assume domestic duties and almost half the mothers in the land are out working; the fastest growing sub-population of new labour entrants in the past decade are married women with pre-school children. But the triumphant liberation of women from their thraldom brings with it some side-effects that many would not regard as benign. There is a belief that overt bisexuality is increasing and that particularly among the young it is a phenomenon, if not a fashion, not confined to pop stars. 11 that is the case it would not be surprising. Boyhood experience within a unisex society can lead to bewilderment and, in the confusions Of adolescence, the youngster can lose his way and grows up uncertain of his identity and lacking confidence in his own role.

Some sinister confirmation to the speculation that bisexuality is increasing may be found in the increase in blackmail offences known to the police, currently running at almost twice the rate before the passing of the Act. One former Attorney-General had estimated that 90 per cent of the cases of blackmail drawn to his attention contained an element of homosexual conduct: and a review conducted within a fixed period by the.Wolfenden Committee revealed that of seventy-one cases reported to the police, thirty-two were connected with homosexual offences. It is disconcerting therefore that the passage of the Act, far from leading to the hoped-for decline in the number of blackmail cases, has been accompanied by an increase. Some' highly publicised cases, with blackmail overtones, have led to a view being canvassed that despite,the immunity from criminal charges, married bisexuals may remain particularly vulnerable to extortion.

Yet such a man would not be alone in enduring the human prbdicament, even although his dilemmas, like those enmeshing the committed homosexual, may be greater than many. In our alienated society life is not easily lived for most of us; and whatever corroborations the original opponents of the Act can now claim to discover within our contemporary scene, those who put through the measure know they were engaged in the only politics that matter. They believed that politics were not about power .but about people. They were committed to• the elusive pursuit of happiness for mankind and, whatever else may be uncertain, they can with confidence assert, as long as the old punitive law remained, that pursuit was wholely denied to a million of our fellow countrymen.