The sponsor of the private member’s bill which decriminalised adult male homosexual activity was the Labour MP Leo Abse. He reminded MPs that it was a decade since the Wolfenden Committee has recommended the abolition of this offence. He estimated the number of homosexual men to be about 750,000 and pointed out that ‘the law gives them a brutal choice. It offers them either celibacy or criminality, and nothing in between.’ He revealed one surprising statistic, that the number of convictions of adult men who commit homosexual acts in private was about 100 a year, thus ‘there was a 30,000-to-one chance of an illicit act leading to a conviction’ (his maths are a little shaky but his point is still valid).
He continued ‘therefore, we have an unenforceable Act, and it would require a massive recruitment of police and an invasion of privacy which all of us would find quite intolerable before the law could begin to be enforced. It is bad law because it is unenforceable law, and it is bad law because it is utterly random in its application.’ This criticism would apply to many laws today, not only those involving sexual relations, but also illegal drug possession, most notably cannabis. But there is no debate over whether such an invasion of privacy would ever reach the stage of becoming ‘intolerable’, or any concerns about randomness, although of course it still remains the case that laws of this kind, because of the sheer numbers involved, largely remain unenforceable.
Mr Abse drew attention to the effect of the law to ‘stigmatise thousands of our citizens as being outlaws and pariahs, large numbers of people who, apart from this particular aberration, are totally law-abiding.’ He pinpointed a concern of many MPs that there is ‘a dastardly effect of the present law which cannot be under-estimated. It is the fact that blackmail is the ambience which wraps itself around the existing law.’ Some MPs questioned whether blackmailers would disappear given the general abhorrence of homosexuality in wider society at that time, and the wish of many homosexuals to keep their behaviour a secret from their families. Others believed than men who were being blackmailed would now be able to go to the police without the fear of being prosecuted themselves.
The climate of the time was wholly hostile to the practice of homosexuality as demonstrated by Mr Abse’s belief that society ‘should focus on the question of how we can, if it is possible, reduce the number of faulty males in the community. How can we diminish the number of those who grow up to have men's bodies but feminine souls?’ There are shades here of the current transgender debate, but the message is clear from his speech that he considered homosexuality to be an aberration against traditional ideas of masculinity, and that more needed to be done to encourage correct notions of manhood in the raising of boys. Mr Abse concluded that the ‘continuance of the existing law fosters the illusion that solely by punishment we can prevent homosexuality. In my view, the passage of this Bill would free society from much of its morbid preoccupation with punishment. It could release its energies to the more constructive task of fostering family relations in which children can grow up certain of their identity and confident of their own role’. The current agenda for the undermining and confusing of sexual identity, through the promotion of ‘transgenderism’ in children, which dangerously gives encouragement to the delusional belief that the sex they were born into can be changed, was still a long way in the future.
One Conservative MP raised the often asked question ‘we have been told by many people that homosexuals are born. Surely the removal of the deterrent in the form of punishment, such as imprisonment, cannot cause more of them to be born. The reason is, in my view, that the majority of homosexuals are made and not born’. There was a widespread fear at the time, by those opposed to decriminalisation, that this measure would release a pent up desire by many men to engage in homosexual practices. In fact all the evidence since decriminalisation suggests that homosexuals are born not made, although a small minority of heterosexual men may engage in short lived youthful experimentation. As one MP put it ‘there is a hidden assumption among some of the opponents of the Bill that homosexuality is inherently very attractive and more enjoyable than normal sexual relations. They seem to think that once the present law is abolished a lot of previously law-abiding heterosexuals will shout "hurrah" and become homosexuals.’
Some MPs feared there might be some unintended consequences to changing the law, one observing that ‘I think it is worth considering the side effects of the Bill. We should, I presume, get a succession of plays on television and on the stage on the subject. We should get more books on it. We should get more clubs. I believe that the vice would be looked upon as a normal and natural part of our daily life, and all checks would be gone.’ His concerns about this development would in time be realised in full as the gay pride bandwagon rolled ever onwards with the enthusiastic support of the emerging politically correct establishment.
Another Conservative MP, a future cabinet minister, in support of the legislation observed that ‘the present law seems to have almost everything possible wrong with it. It is unjust, unenforceable, hypocritical, illogical and an invitation to further crime. It is unjust because it singles out, quite arbitrarily a particular set of people for their particular habits. It is unenforceable because there are too many of these people to enable the law to be enforced. It is hypocritical because everyone knows homosexuals and everyone knows that there are homosexuals in all walks of life. The law is illogical because it treats male homosexuality as more damaging to the social fabric or the nation's bloodstream than female homosexuality or adultery, as though it is uniquely anti-social.’ This summarised the conflict between the private behaviour of individuals and the collective values of wider society. It raised the question to what extent should the law invade the sphere of private life to police the concerns, often exaggerated, of those with a moralistic, ideological, scaremongering or controlling agenda on appropriate sexual expression.
This fear of a backlash by wider society was voiced by a Tory MP opposing the change in these terms ‘the trouble is that the law is accepted by the community, rightly or wrongly, as representing the moral standards and the strength of the social fabric. This House cannot right a wrong just by changing the law. It has to consider the psychological implications on society of this House coming forward, as the public will see it and saying that we are giving our blessing to sexual licence, and to a practice which you regard as abominable.’ With the arrival of gay pride as a pillar of the politically correct establishment, anyone rash enough to denounce the practice of homosexuality today as ‘abominable’ would be immediately branded ‘homophobic’, and could risk having his collar felt by the police for a ‘hate crime’. Society has moved from one form of state repression to another that is equally pernicious.
Some MPs feared a change in the law could lead to the public promotion of homosexuality (which is what soon happened), one doubting that ‘even the most doughty champion of the Bill would deny that many male homosexuals are of the proselytising type. Even they have very great misgivings about the propensity of homosexuals to try to spread their practice among others. I do not think that that can be denied. To make such a denial would be to go back on the principle on which the clauses increasing penalties for corruption of young people are based.’ The Bill included a provision to increase the prison sentence from two years to five years for those engaging in homosexual acts with males under the age of 21. The now sainted Alan Turing’s conviction involved a 19 year old, but although there is no talk now of the ‘corruption’ of young people by behaviour such as his, all MPs during the debate supported the increased penalties for acts of this kind which were then seen as predatory. This only goes to prove that paranoia over sexual expression and behaviour can change over time, depending on which groups are most vocal in promoting their agenda, and without necessarily being based on evidence or investigation into whether any harm is caused.
One Labour MP, a doctor, raised the concern ‘we all condemn the fact that many homosexuals contract venereal diseases’. Just over a decade later the rampant promiscuity of homosexuals would see thousands dying from Aids with many more needing permanent costly treatment to tackle the effects of being HIV positive. The BBC programmes celebrating the change in public attitudes to homosexuality rarely question whether homosexuals should accept responsibility for the adverse consequences of their behaviour, focussing instead on the traumatic effects that were tragically, unpredictably and unfairly visited upon the gay community by these kinds of infections.
A Conservative MP supporting the Bill raised the issue of privacy pointing out that the law ‘can be made effectively and universally enforceable only at the price of a police state, of a degree of supervision of private life which this country, even in its most puritanical periods, has never been prepared to accept.’ Whilst this observation is undoubtedly true, there are many parliamentarians and opinion formers today who are quite content for the state to micromanage private and personal relationships of the increasing numbers deemed to be ‘vulnerable’, and believed to be at risk of becoming a ‘victim’ of ever widening definitions of ‘sexual abuse’. But they never describe this intrusion into personal behaviour as a move towards a police state, which in effect is what this kind of crusade is now in danger of becoming.
The legislation allowing the change in the law was a private member’s bill but was supported by the Labour government. The Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, spoke during the debate, firmly supporting the view that ‘homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should no longer be subject to the penalties and processes of the criminal law’. He continued ‘I believe that whatever our views about particular forms of conduct, there has to be a very clear social purpose served before it is right to subject private conduct to the rigours of the criminal law. The present law is manifestly unsuccessful and capricious in its incidence. It certainly does not deal with homosexual behaviour, let alone stamp it out. There is certainly no evidence whatever that homosexuality has increased in those countries which have relaxed the law. The present law certainly does not discourage homosexuality. I believe that homosexuality cannot be described as a disease in the sense that it can be cured; it is a disability. The capricious way in which the law operates, ruins the lives of a relatively small number of homosexuals by subjecting them in a quite irrational and arbitrary way to the terrifying penalties of the law, terrifying not because of the criminal penalties, but because of the ruinous consequences.’
The Home Secretary’s views chimed with the humane outlook of the time based on the civilised notion that the state should stay out of the role of policing private behaviour, harassing its citizens and ruining their lives in pursuit of a political or religious agenda. In recent decades we have seen the rise of a zealous ideological stridency, this time led by self styled ‘progressives’, in which the target has moved from homosexual to heterosexual men, who now find themselves having to defend themselves against the ever increasing reach of legislation and propaganda that stigmatises normal male sexual attraction and behaviour as a dangerous pathology. There always seem to be elements in society who crave the need to target, demonise and humiliate artificially created scapegoats, against whom self righteous individuals can parade their superior moral virtues, this time through a crusade against exaggerated victimhood.