This week has seen the historic happened. Dead gay and bisexual men who have been convicted of now abolished sexual offences will receive a pardon and those still alive will now get one granted automatically if they apply for it. Currently this only applies to those from England and Wales but other parts of the UK are making positive noises.
In 1951 the then Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe called for a “new drive against male vice” to “rid England of this plague”. That plague was gay and bisexual men and his drive was only a part of a post war surge in convictions for homosexual acts. Just 16 years later in 1967 England and Wales decriminalised sex between two men aged over 21 in private. It would be quite a wait until men in Scotland (1980), Northern Ireland (1982), Guernsey (1983) and the Isle of Man (1994) would get full decimalisation. In 1994 the age of consent was dropped down to 18 which was a compromise born out of an attempt to get it down to 16; the same as the heterosexual age of consent. Interestingly this year was also the first time women who have sex with women got an age of consent.
This is recent history so it is quite something that today with the more right wing of the big two parties in power that the government has chosen to offer such a pardon. It follows the royal pardon that was posthumously offered to the World War Two code breaker Alan Turning in 2013. Turing’s works in computing and code breaking shortened the war and saved many lives however in 1952 he was convicted of gross indecency. Two years later he took his own life. Turing’s story was not unique. 50,000 men were convicted under gross indecency laws and Turing was not the only one to take his own life. So after his pardon calls rang out for a pardon for all.
The process may seem smooth after all it is only three years later and now everyone has been pardoned. Well, everyone dead. The living will have to seek out their own pardon which, though automatic, will no doubt involve some less than enjoyable form filling.
This might not have happened as a private members bill put forward would have made the pardon automatic for all who had been convicted with grossly indecent acts that are no long considered grossly indecent or, more precisely, illegal. However just 25 minutes before the deadline on voting on the bill a MP started talking and didn’t stop until the deadline had passed. This, it turns out in our modern democracy, is sufficient to delay a bill. The debate on the bill will not be reopened until December.
The MP justified his actions saying that it could lead to people who crimes are still illegal (like having sex with a minor) being pardoned. Given the bill specified that the pardon could only be given to those whose crimes are no longer crimes it seems less an objection to the law and more a complaint against whoever does the paperwork in the Home Office or, perhaps, a sign of continued homophobia.
Still, this is good news on the whole and looks to be repeated across the UK. The DUP in Northern Ireland have said they would consider proposals to offer a pardon. In Scotland Holyrood has announced it will offer a full pardon and that discussions are underway with the police to see that past convictions of consensual sex do not appear on criminal records. Even the Isle of Man where homosexuality was illegal in the 1990s has said it will introduce a pardon.
It is not perfect. The BBC spoke to George Montague a man convicted with gross indecency in 1974. He doesn’t want a pardon. He wants an apology. He argues he was never guilty of anything so there is nothing to pardon. It is however progress. Britain’s men were not long ago convicted for loving someone, for stepping away from the masculine norms, for expressing themselves, for being who they really are. This is not the end of homophobia but it is a step in the right direction.