In the 1950s the British tabloid press found itself crusading against homosexuality. By exposing the extent to which the hitherto unmentionable vice was being practiced, editors imagined that they were saving the nation from a terrible threat. And they knew they were selling a lot of newspapers.
But the ever more shocking revelations came closer and closer to the real centres of British power – the government, the House of Lords, the courts, the church, the secret service.
To head this off the government commissioned Sir John Wolfenden to head up a committee of inquiry into the whole sordid question. For two years Wolfenden and his colleagues quizzed experts, read research, even interviewed one or two real live homosexuals. Finally, their report appeared recommending that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private ought to be legalised.
It would be ten years before the parliament could bring itself to enact the reform, and it was a hard-fought battle. Over the course of these years Wolfenden himself came to be seen as a pathbreaker, a hero for gay rights.
More recent research has challenged this view. Wolfenden, a somewhat colourless middle-ranking public servant, seems to have known right from the start what was expected of him. In the best ‘Yes Minister’ tradition, it was understood that legalisation was the goal and Wolfenden’s job was to provide sound reasons for it.
None of this detracts from his report’s significance, though, in providing firm ground upon which the struggle for reform could be fought.
Brought to you by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives