1957: Wolfenden

In 1957, a watershed in the history of homosexual law reform was crossed when the British government’s inquiry into homosexuality and prostitution published its report.

Established under the shadow of a homophobic panic in the mid 1950s, the committee was chaired by Sir John Wolfenden, after whom the report is usually known. Twice a month for three years the fifteen members heard witnesses, trawled research reports, considered position papers from every discipline that had a view to express. They even heard from some actual real life homosexuals – the only witnesses who had anything even remotely positive to say about their condition.

In the end the committee called for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private. This recommendation looks, today, fairly unexceptional and, indeed, the phrase has entered into the language. If anything, it looks rather conservative – ‘adults’ were defined as being twenty-one years old and ‘private’ meant that there could be no more than two people present at the time of the sexual act. The quality press endorsed the recommendation, as did the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches.

And yet, opposition was there – the tabloids ranted against the threat to the nation’s youth, and to the nation’s wives (whose husbands could be now legally enticed away). The police commissioners rejected it. The government department that had commissioned the inquiry suggested that it be shelved till public opinion could be primed. And so it was that it took the British parliament ten years and half a dozen attempts to carry thorough the reform.

Brought to you by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Posted in History Bites.