On the success of my article on the events of 1954 (see below for new link) I decided to revisit this time in history where we began to see progression towards decriminalising homosexuality in the UK.
In 1954, The Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe commissioned ‘The Wolfenden Committee’ which was to consider reform in the British law relating to homosexual offences and prostitution. This was in part due to pressure from the media and public scrutiny.
‘The Wolfenden Committee’ was appointed with John Wolfenden as head of the committee. He is now considered to be an LGBT hero of Equal Rights. However, it is clear through letters his understanding of his owns son’s sexuality paints a more colourful picture.
Before winning his scholarship to Oxford, John Wolfenden’s son Jeremy had told his father he was gay. Wolfenden was horrified, writing to suggest “we stay out of each other’s way for the time being”. Thinking homsexuality was ‘an abomination’, Wolfenden remained ashamed and fearful of his own son’s homosexuality becoming known, even as he made gay history himself.
It was suggested by the Committee that they interview gay men to help them with the enquiry, but naturally it was hard to get homosexuals to come forward. Even though it was suggested to place adverts in local papers ‘The Committee’ decided to locate gay men by other means, certainly Wildeblood was known to the committee through the recent scandal of his trial.
The men chosen by the Committee to be credited for their own part in the change of the eventual law were Carl Winter, Patrick Trevor Roper and Peter Wildeblood.
Carl Winter was born in Australia, but moved to England in 1928, working as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was married in 1936 but divorced by 1953. He and his wife had two sons and a daughter. After WWII, he and his family moved to Cambridge, working at the Fitzwillaim Museum where he stayed until his death in 1966. Carl Winter died before they decriminalised homosexual acts in England and Wales. It wasn’t until 1980 that it was legalised in his birth state of Victoria, Australia, also a result of the report. He was never able to see the results of his bravery and the others giving evidence, even though he gave evidence anonymously as ‘Mr White’ there was still risk of stigma back in the late 1950s.
Like Winter, Patrick Trevor-Roper had an alias, it was ‘The Doctor’ due to his profession as an eye surgeon. He is thought to be one of the first men to “come out” in Britain. Documents suggest that Trevor-Roper told the Committee that the majority of gay men lived normal lives and did not pose a threat to children. The existing laws encouraged blackmailers and due to this, many youths committed suicide due to isolation and depression caused by society and homophobia. These views would have been seen to be controversial back in the 1950s.
Trevor-Roper was also one of the founders of the Terrence Higgins Trust in the UK and campaigned to lower the age of consent to sixteen, campaigning all his life for equal rights. Not only was he an equal rights campaigner, he also campaigned for the rights of cheaper ophthalmic medicine both in the United Kingdom and abroad, going against the industries lobby and opticians monopoly in the UK.
Peter Wildeblood received an eighteen month sentence in Wormwood Scrubs for conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with other male persons (Buggery Act 1533). He wrote a book based on his experiences that highlighted the appalling conditions of the prison. This contributed to prison reforms and progression in equality for LGBT rights. Later, he wrote another book on gay life in London that also received critical acclaim. Wildeblood moved to Canada, becoming a citizen of the country in the 1980s after working for TV stations in both Canada and in the UK. Wildeblood died in 1999, thirteen years before pardons were given out to anyone convicted using the Labouchore Amendment, and as the law stands because he is deceased he will never have his conviction lifted.
On 4 September 1957 the first 5, 000 copies of the 155-page Report on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution was published by the Wolfenden Committee. This was commonly known as The Wolfenden Report, and sold out within hours of publication..
It read an “adult” as being a person over the age of twenty-one, and that homosexual acts should be decriminalised only if they took place “in private” and with consent. The age of heterosexual consent considered an adult at sixteen.
When the new law was brought into power in 1967 the age of consent was raised to twenty-one, and no public display of affection could occur. This was criticised and fought against by early gay activists, including Trevor-Roper.
These men, and others like them, paved the way in order for others to fight for equality, so everyone can have the same rights as each other, something that has been a long battle and is still continuing to be fought.