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Gay men call for equity following Alan Turing pardon

Following the official pardon for the Second World War codebreaker, other victims of the 1950s anti-gay witch hunts say they deserve similar treatment
  • @cahalmilmo

For Terry, the trauma of being arrested for the crime of being in love with another man is still profound. Some six decades after his entanglement in Britain’s 1950s anti-homosexual “witch hunt”, it remains an experience he would prefer others not to know about.

Now aged 89, Terry (not his real name) was a young man when he was arrested in central London following an admission from his then boyfriend that the pair were in a consensual, private – but under the law of the time, criminal – sexual relationship.

But unlike Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and wartime code breaker, neither Terry nor an estimated 50,000 other men who were convicted under a Victorian law of indulging in “gross indecency with an other male person” have received a royal pardon for being gay.

Terry, a retired civil servant, said: “It was by far the most terrifying experience of my life. The police came to my flat in the early morning. I think they were hoping to find me and my boyfriend in bed together but he happened to be out of town that week. He was arrested later.

“They turned the place upside down and I remember one of the constables saying to his colleague that they’d got ‘another effing queer’. I was given a suspended sentence on the basis of my boyfriend’s statement. They were scary times. A real witch hunt was going on. Even now it’s pretty hard to talk about it – I told no one for years and lots of people still don’t know.

“I think it’s good that Turing has been pardoned. He was a great man and cruelly treated. But if he should have his ‘crime’ officially overturned, then the same should apply to the rest of us. We might not all be of his calibre, but we also did nothing wrong.”

Terry is not alone in holding such views. Gay rights activists and politicians yesterday signalled their intent to now expand the campaign which led to the posthumous pardon for Turing, to obtain the same consideration for other gay or bisexual men prosecuted for offences that would have been perfectly legal had their partners been women.

Peter Tatchell, the veteran human rights campaigner, has written to David Cameron asking for the pardon to be extended to others and seeking a fresh inquiry into the death of Turing, who may have been on a Security Service watchlist when he died in an apparent suicide in 1954.

Mr Tatchell said: “Singling out Turing for a royal pardon just because he was a great scientist and very famous is wrong in principle. The law should be applied equally, without fear or favour. Selective redress is a bad way to remedy a historic injustice.

“At least 50,000 other men were convicted under the same ‘gross indecency’ law from the time it was first legislated. They have never been offered a pardon but deserve one, equally as much as Turing.”

The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which introduced the notorious Section 11 offence of two men committing “gross indecency”, was used to prosecute Oscar Wilde in 1895. But the bulk of prosecutions took place after the 1930s and sharply accelerated during the post-war period as homosexuals became increasingly equated by the Establishment with depravity and betrayal.

Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, who was made Home Secretary in 1951, infamously instructed the forces of law and order to conduct a “new drive against male vice” that would “rid England of this plague”.

Ironically, he also ordered the report by Lord Wolfenden which ultimately recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1957, apparently unaware that the peer had a gay son.

Between 1945 and 1955, the number of prosecutions in England and Wales each year for homosexual acts more than tripled from 800 to 2,500, resulting in about 1,000 custodial sentences a year.

The era has been likened to America’s McCarthyite pursuit of suspected Communists, with undercover police officers deployed to pubs and public lavatories as “agents provocateur”, with the intention of enticing gay men into illegal approaches for sex. A gay slang or “polari” developed, in part to defeat police surveillance, while newspapers openly ran articles with headlines such as a “How to spot a possible homo”.

The result was an atmosphere of paranoia and prejudice in which homosexuals were routinely prosecuted after reporting crimes against themselves – as happened with Alan Turing, who had complained of a theft when he was prosecuted in 1952 – and blackmail was common.

One Cardiff-based solicitor recalled how cheques paying the fees of criminal clients  suddenly started coming from a single bank account. Further investigation found that the money was being paid by a homosexual vicar who was being blackmailed by gangsters.

The effect of police investigations could be devastating. When detectives carried out one of numerous provincial purges in the Worcestershire town of Evesham in 1956, they prosecuted 11 men aged from 17 to 81. One of the men subsequently gassed himself, another threw himself in front of a train, leaving a widow and children, and the oldest suffered a stroke.

As Terry put it: “It was a very anxious, furtive time. We were young men with libidos and yet everything you did to express those urges carried with it the threat or promise of personal ruin. I had a friend who went to prison and he never spoke of it. Silence was his only way of coping.”

It was one of the most high-profile prosecutions of the era – that of the young peer Lord Montagu in 1954, after he was implicated in a gay circle by two RAF men – which sped reform after public opinion in the wake of his conviction began to turn against such heavy-handed policing.

Decriminalisation in 1967 and the subsequent long march to equality which saw homosexuality remaining an offence in the armed forces until 1994 and the equalisation of the age of consent taking until 2001, has produced a changed landscape for Britain’s gay community.

But the stain of criminality remains for thousands of gay men – who also won a right last year to have any criminal record for gross indecency removed, as long as it no longer constituted an offence under current law.

Lord Sharkey, the Liberal Democrat peer who co-sponsored the bill calling for Turing’s pardon, said the formal disregarding of all Section 11 convictions would be the “proper and fitting and final end to the Turing story”.

But that is likely to be another long fight.

The Ministry of Justice said last night that the pardon of Turing did not signal a change to the Government’s policy of granting pardons only in “exceptional” cases. It said no general review of convictions for homosexuality is being considered.