A Bill that dared not speak its name

Thirty years ago, homosexuality could put you in jail.

The grainy pictures may be re-enactments, but their power to shame is no less for that. Seedy public lavatories, the swift eye contact and even swifter understanding, the hurried encounter in the cubicle, interrupted by policemen in pairs hunting their quarry, as terrifying as Nazi storm- troopers in a wartime ghetto. Was this really the Britain of little more than 30 years ago, when London swung, everyone was having a good time, and a bobby's proper task was to keep the Beatles from being torn apart by their fans?

Sadly, and today scarcely believably, for one British minority it was. Until the House of Commons finally passed the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, 30 years ago this week, legalising consensual sex in private for men over 21, homosexuality was a crime, and its practitioners were persecuted with the righteous ferocity of the mediaeval church rooting out heretics. By the mid-Fifties, 1,000 men annually were being jailed, in one Birmingham case 28 of them for 18 months apiece, all on the strength of the entries in one man's diary. Some country. Some ghetto. To end this it took two brave parliamentarians, Leo Abse in the Commons and Lord Arran in the upper House, and - to borrow the title of a fascinating Channel 4 documentary to be broadcast this Thursday - the passage of a Bill called William.

Arran was a certified eccentric who claimed just two interests in life, "to stop people buggering badgers, and to stop people badgering buggers". No gay himself, he was in truth considerably fonder of badgers than of buggers, and to spare himself discomfort referred to his charge as "William". Abse, the Bill's sponsor in the Commons, was famous for his flamboyant suits. More pertinently, he was a legislator of rare conscience, tenacity and skill. For both, the task was the same, to persuade their colleagues to think about the unthinkable, and speak about the unspeakable. The consequence was arguably the most surreal debate ever conducted by the mother of Parliaments.

"They managed to talk as if they'd never met anyone like that," Maudie Littlehampton famously observed in an Osbert Lancaster cartoon - a line surely provoked by the spectacle of Viscount Montgomery asserting that, of the millions of men under his command in the War, not one would ever have "got up to that sort of thing". In the Commons, right-wing Tory MPs assailed a "buggers' charter" designed to protect "pimps, pansies and queers".

But for gay MPs in particular, William was an excruciating ordeal. There were a few exceptions, such as the brilliant and reckless Tom Driberg. Abse remembers the "great courage" of his colleague. "While all this was going on, he was a member of the NEC and at one point national chairman of the Labour Party. But he kept coming to me asking if he could help, and each time spoke in favour of the Bill." But most were, understandably, less heroic. "Several homosexual MPs ostentatiously voted against me. They were bachelors, they were vulnerable, they were afraid - and you could see it in their eyes."

In this era of Gay Liberation, such backsliding would guarantee instant outing. Back then, however, William's success was anything but guaranteed; in the event it survived a third-reading filibuster attempt by a single vote after an all-night sitting. Had it failed, homosexuality would have remained a crime. Heterosexual supporters of the measure were taking a risk, too - even Abse himself. In his Welsh mining constituency , where values were old-fashioned and religion ran deep, gay sex was anathema.

"I think I was able to ride the storm because they were too ashamed to talk about it."

To keep his fragile craft afloat, Abse had to accept an amendment defining privacy as two adults and no more (thus averting a dreaded plague of "buggers' clubs"). Many of his arguments, he admits now, were "absolute crap", couched in such terms as saving "faulty males" from themselves. But at the third attempt, almost a decade after the 1957 Wolfenden report first urged that homosexuality be decriminalised, a Bill was passed. Admittedly it was imperfect, and most gays would prefer to stay in the closet. But no longer did prison automatically beckon, or the unanswerable gouging of a blackmailer.

In his lurid autobiography Ruling Passions, which is studded with cameo accounts of his own hasty, illicit couplings, Driberg makes but one, melancholy, reference to the measure. "The passing of the sexual offences act, welcome though it was, really made no difference to the problems of the lonely and the promiscuous" (in other words, himself). For them, the best solution would be licensed male brothels, "run by respectable persons, with charges strictly controlled ... such as I have occasionally patronised in New York and San Francisco". Or, he might have added, the underground urinal in central Moscow, whose merits Driberg once pointed out to the exiled Guy Burgess.

Indeed, one unarguable beneficiary of William has been the security of the realm. Given the climate of the time, small wonder so many British spies earlier this century were homosexual. John Vassall, of course, was a straightforward blackmail victim - but for others, such as Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean, dissimulation and subterfuge were seamless. If one is forced by society into a secret sexual existence, then how much easier to embrace an equally secret political loyalty? The second oldest profession still flourishes, but rarely these days for reasons of sexual orientation.

For the rest, however, the legal follow-through has been meagre. In 1994 the age of consent for homosexuals was lowered from 21 to 18. But despite an ever noisier, more confident gay culture, the practising homosexual remains suspect. There may be gay MPs, gay ministers and mainstream gay chic, but according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, almost two-thirds of the population believe homosexual sex to be wrong, a proportion basically unchanged for 15 years.

Then there is Britain's quite peculiar attitude to sex, a strange, tabloid- driven cocktail of prurience and puritanism that leaves the rest of the world in uncomprehending mirth, as it lurches from puerile titillation to supercharged moral outrage at "sex monsters on the loose" - as often as not, homosexuals. Hence, according to Antony Grey, leader of the lobby for reform in the Fifties and Sixties and now elder statesman of Britain's gay community, a piecemeal, inconsistent approach by successive governments. "The public debate is more open, but there's an awful lot to be done. In many ways, the Sixties were a better time than today. The drug culture was in its infancy; the atmosphere was gentler and more idealistic."

But at least William still commands the support of the public, however unenthusiastic. A majority of the population would love to bring back capital punishment, and a substantial minority would outlaw abortion. But apart from pathological queer-bashers, no one seriously believes homosexuality between consenting adults should once again be deemed a crime. And the moment for another reformist push may be ripe.

Labour is back in power, its ranks filled with young and idealistic MPs, just as three decades ago. True, crusading independent backbenchers such as Leo Abse are a breed close to extinction, and the extent of Mr Blair's reformist zeal may be doubted - certainly, he will not want to repeat Bill Clinton's 1993 fiasco over gays in the US military. Even so, a promised free vote should bring a majority in favour of lowering the homosexual age of consent to 16, aligning it with the law for heterosexuals. If parliamentary time is granted, repeal of "Section 28", the infamous 1988 provision barring local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality, looks another sure bet. "Anything we can get to a vote, we'll win," is the bubbling prediction of Angela Mason, director of the gay and lesbian pressure group Stonewall.

And should Westminster fail, there's always Strasbourg. Europhobes and homophobes alike will shudder, but three separate cases currently before the European Court of Justice may prove decisive in the gay lobby's campaign to reduce the age of consent, protect against discrimination in the workplace, and end the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces.

Ultimately, however, not only laws but attitudes must change. "What we really need," says Grey, who led the Homosexual Law Reform Society, which pressed the 1967 Bill, "is proper education about sexual minorities, that homosexuals are not a threat. Being gay is still treated as freakish and exotic, often as an object of ridicule. Young people who discover they are gay still have a terrible fear of isolation and rejection by family and friends if they come out. It can still cost you your job. That's why I was disappointed William Hague said that if he were homosexual he wouldn't have stood for the Tory leadership. It was a pity he felt obliged to say that.

"The fact is, most gays are still in the closet. We're the only minority without visible natural leaders, without our visible equivalent of a grand rabbi. In the homosexual community the leaders are the strident ones, people with nothing to lose." Such views have earned him the scorn of modern, in-your-face activists as a trimmer, even an Uncle Tom. But Grey is unrepentant. "They don't understand what it was like in the Sixties. You couldn't have shouted and waved banners back then. It would have been utterly counter-productive."

Today of course, banners and publicity are the weapons of choice to complete William's unfinished business. Thirty years ago, Stonewall's members might have been "cottaging", slinking around public urinals in the hope of a furtive encounter. Last week they were in front of the TV cameras at a smart London restaurant to unveil an action programme called "Equality 2000", demanding equal treatment in the workplace and for tax, pension and immigration purposes, as well as an end to discriminatory application of the existing gross indecency law.

The word that truly defines this vision is "normality". After a life of almost 70 years, 37 of them spent with his current partner, Grey still yearns for it: "There should be no need for anyone to deny his sexuality; being gay should be no big talking-point, and no one's business." For Leo Abse, the quest was always easier. On the July dawn when the Bill was finally passed, "I went home, and my wife took me in her arms. And at that moment I realised that all of politics is insignificant, compared to deep personal relationships between human beings." What better definition of normality could there be? But, three decades after William, gays still cannot claim it as their own.

'A Bill Called William' will be broadcast on Thursday on Channel 4, at 9pm.

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