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The Sexual Offences Act 1967 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom (citation 1967 c. 60). It decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have attained the age of 21. The Act applied only to England and Wales and did not cover the Merchant Navy or the Armed Forces. Homosexuality was not decriminalised in Scotland until passage of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 and in Northern Ireland by the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982.
In the 1960s, one MP, Leo Abse and a peer Lord Arran put forward proposals to humanise the way in which criminal law treated homosexual men by means of the Sexual Offences Bill. This attempt at liberalisation in the laws relating to male homosexuality can be placed in the context of rising prosecutions against homosexual men. The potential for these prosecutions to bring existing sexual offences legislation into disrepute was seen as acute and is evidenced by an article published by The Sunday Times entitled "Law and Hypocrisy" on 28 March 1954.
In his 1965 Sexual Offences Bill, Arran drew heavily upon the findings of the Wolfenden Report (1957) which recommended the decriminalisation of certain homosexual offences.
The Wolfenden committee was set up to investigate homosexuality and prostitution in the mid 1950s, and included on its panel a Judge, psychiatrist, an academic and various theologians. They came to the conclusion (with one dissenter) that criminal law could not credibly intervene in the private sexual affairs of consenting adults in the privacy of their homes. The position was summarised by the committee as follows: “unless a deliberate attempt be made by society through the agency of the law to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private that is in brief, not the law's business” (Wolfenden Report, 1957).
There was no political impetus after the publication of the Wolfenden report to legislate on this matter; however, by 1967 the Labour Government of the time showed support for Arran's mode of liberal thought. It was widely viewed that criminal law should not further penalise homosexual men for their fixed disposition, already the object of ridicule and derision. The comments of Roy Jenkins, Home Secretary at the time, captured the government's attitude: "those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives" (quoted during parliamentary debate by The Times on 4 July 1967).
Lord Arran, in an attempt to minimise criticisms that the legislation would lead to further public debate and visibility of issues relating to homosexual civil rights made the following qualification to this 'historic' milestone: "I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful… [And] make the sponsors of this bill regret that they had done what they had done" (quoted during Royal Assent of the bill by The Times newspaper on 28 July 1967). The legal consequence of the legislation is often described as partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality as the act introduced a strict exemption from prosecution (distinct from a full decriminalisation) the implication of this being that outside this exemption, technically speaking, homosexuality continued to be a punishable offence in and of itself.
Peter Tatchell in his 1992 book Europe in The Pink claims that the legislation actually facilitated an increase in prosecutions against homosexual men.
No subsequent reconsideration of the issue of male homosexuality in statutory law took place in England and Wales until the late 1970s.
In 1979, the Home Office Policy Advisory Committee's Working Party report Age of Consent in relation to Sexual Offences recommended that the age of consent for homosexual offences should be 18. This was rejected at the time, in part due to fears that further decriminalisation would serve only to encourage younger men to experiment sexually with other men, a choice that some at the time claimed would place such an individual outside of wider society. Subsequent amendments to homosexual offences legislation across the United Kingdom illustrates how this line of thought has moved on rapidly, particularly within the past six years.
- The age of consent of 21 for homosexual males set by the 1967 Act was reduced to 18 by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 after an attempt to equalise the age of consent with that of the heterosexual age of consent of 16 introduced as an amendment by the then Conservative MP Edwina Currie narrowly failed.
- In 2000, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 were invoked to ensure the passage of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 which equalised that age of consent at 16 for both homosexual and heterosexual behaviours throughout the UK.
- The Sexual Offences Act 2003, though subject to some controversy, overhauled the way sexual offences are dealt with by the police and courts, replacing provisions in the Sexual Offences Act 1956 as well as the 1967 Act. The offences of gross indecency and buggery have been deleted from statutory law, and sexual activity between more than two men is no longer a crime in the United Kingdom.
- Tatchell, P Europe in the Pink London: Gay Men’s Press, 1992
- The Times in Microfilm Facsimile Periodical Publications, London The Times 1967 (available in digital form via JISC)
- Wolfenden, J (chair) The Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (cmnd 247) HMSO, 1958
- Coming out of the dark ages, Geraldine Bedell, The Observer, 24 June 2007
- Grey, Antony Quest for Justice, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992
- "Original text of the Sexual Offences Act 1967" (PDF). Office of Public Sector Information. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1967/pdf/ukpga_19670060_en.pdf. Retrieved 2008-03-27.
- "Text of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 as amended and in force today". UK Statute Law Database. http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/content.aspx?activeTextDocId=1186262. Retrieved 2008-03-27.