LGBT+ history month: What was it like before homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK?

by Tim Gibson

With homosexuality about to be recriminalized in Indonesia, activists in India fighting section 377 of the penal code which forbids gay sex, and the death penalty for sodomy still existing in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is important to remember the criminalisation of homosexuality is still a very real thing.

It was only fifty years ago, before 1967, that gay and bisexual men could face life in prison in the UK. Professor Brian Heaphy of the University of Manchester explains that “Homosexuality was often treated as an illness by doctors and psychiatrists, who thought they could ‘heal’ people by treating them. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were often forced to hide their identities from their families, friends, colleagues and in public to avoid the risk of being singled out, harassed or becoming a victim of violence.”

In a BBC special interviewing elderly gay people one man explained that before 1967 “it was very lonely, I only knew one other gay person and I was already 25 at that point. People hid themselves, you didn’t know… Most of us who wanted to lead ordinary lives were aware we might end up in prison, over a thousand of us a year were sent to prison.” 

Anthony Grey, who would later become the secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, now 89, describes what it was like to live with his partner in the 50s. He talks of a time a drunk coach driver crashed in their house in the middle of the night, “the first thing we had to do was make up the spare bed. We knew from experience that if you called the police and they suspected you were homosexual, they would ignore the original crime and concentrate on the homosexuality.”

In the 1950s, a group was set up by the government to consider the way homosexual men were being treated. It wasn’t until 1967 that gay sex was decriminalised, and even then, only partially.


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