On this day in July 1967, just under 2 years before the Stonewall Riots in the United States – The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 received royal assent from Elizabeth II, decriminalizing private homosexual acts in England and Wales. The age of consent for homosexual acts was set at 21, compared to 16 for heterosexual acts.
In the 1960s, one MP, Leo Abse, and a peer, Lord Arran, put forward proposals to change the way in which criminal law treated homosexual men by means of the Sexual Offences Bill. This attempt to liberalise the law relating to male homosexuality can be placed in a context of the rising number of prosecutions of homosexual men.
In his 1965 Sexual Offences Bill, Lord Arran drew heavily upon the findings of the Wolfenden Report (1957) which recommended the decriminalization of certain homosexual offences.
The Wolfenden committee had been set up to investigate homosexuality and prostitution in the mid 1950s, and included on its panel a judge, a psychiatrist, an academic and various theologians. They came to the conclusion (with one dissenter) that criminal law could not credibly intervene in the private sexual affairs of consenting adults in the privacy of their homes. The position was summarized by the committee as follows: “unless a deliberate attempt be made by society through the agency of the law to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private that is in brief, not the law’s business” (Wolfenden Report, 1957).
There was no political impetus after the publication of the Wolfenden report to legislate on this matter, but by 1967 the Labour Government of the time showed support for Lord Arran’s mode of liberal thought. It was considered that criminal law should not penalise homosexual men, already the object of ridicule and derision. The comments of Roy Jenkins, Home Secretary at the time, captured the government’s attitude: “those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives” (quoted during parliamentary debate by The Times on 4 July 1967).
The Bill received royal assent on July 27, 1967 after an intense late night debate in the House of Commons.
Lord Arran, in an attempt to minimize criticisms that the legislation would lead to further public debate and visibility of issues relating to homosexual civil rights made the following qualification to this “historic” milestone: “I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… any form of ostentatious behavior now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful… [And] make the sponsors of this bill regret that they had done what they had done”
The Act applied only to England and Wales and did not cover the Merchant Navy or the Armed Forces
In 2000, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 were invoked to ensure the passage of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 which equalized that age of consent at 16 for both homosexual and heterosexual acts throughout the United Kingdom.