As we celebrate this year’s LGBT History month, we should commemorate an important milestone in the struggle for gay rights. 2014 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the setting up of the Wolfenden Committee—or, to give it its full title, the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, chaired by Sir John Wolfenden, Vice Chancellor of Reading University. In 1954, Winston Churchill’s Conservative government was worried about homosexuality for numerous reasons. These included a recent spike in prosecutions for homosexual offences thanks to more vigorous policing; greater public awareness of homosexuality spread by the popular press; increased medical, scientific and religious questioning of sexual deviance over the previous decades; public order concerns about the state of London’s streets, and the prevalence of cruising and prostitution, especially around the time of the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953; ripples from the Cold War, equating homosexuality with espionage and treason in the wake of McCarthyism in America and the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the Soviet Union in 1951; and the high profile trial and imprisonment in 1954 of three prominent men—landowners Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Michael Pitt-Rivers and the Daily Mail journalist Peter Wildeblood—for having sex with men in private.
The Wolfenden Committee, which consisted of fifteen Establishment figures—twelve men and three women—heard evidence over the next three years. The testimonials and written statements of witnesses before the committee, all of which can be consulted at the National Archives at Kew, provide by far the most complete and extensive array of perspectives we have on how homosexuality was understood in Britain in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Those giving evidence, individually or through their professional associations, included: police chiefs, policemen, magistrates, judges, lawyers and Home Office civil servants; doctors, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and biologists (including Alfred Kinsey, the author of the famous Kinsey Reports into male and female sexuality in the US); prison governors, medical officers and probation officers; representatives of the churches, morality councils and progressive and ethical societies; schoolteachers and youth organization leaders; representatives of the army, navy and air force; and three self-confessed homosexuals (two of them anonymous): Peter Wildeblood, Patrick Trevor-Roper (a distinguished eye surgeon) and Carl Winter (Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge).
The range of opinions varied between those (mainly in the law enforcement community) who favoured continued criminalization of gay sex, and those (mainly in medical, religious and ethical ranks) who tended to believe that homosexuality was a medical, not a legal, problem, that it was either innate (as sexologists like Havelock Ellis would have it) or acquired at some stage during childhood development (the Freudian perspective). In addition to these pronouncements, there is much fascinating information in the Wolfenden archive about the multifarious attempts at discovering aetiologies and prescribing treatments, and about the policing of public sex and of cottaging—even a set of instructions on how to conduct physical examinations for sodomy in the Royal Navy. There are also many case studies of homosexuals and how they lived their lives. The focus is on men since the law was silent on sex between women, but occasionally some of these expert commentators shared their thoughts on lesbians as well.
The Wolfenden Report came out in 1957. It recommended that homosexual sex between two males over the age of 21 in private be decriminalized, drawing a very firm public/private distinction, and that (female) street prostitution be more strictly regulated. The latter was acted upon swiftly, but it took another decade before the gay sex suggestions were enacted, in the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. Regardless, Wolfenden has long been recognized as a landmark in moves towards gay law reform. But scholarly opinion has been divided. Some see the report as merely opening up a limited space for respectable, domesticated, straight-acting homosexuals, clamping down upon public expressions of homosexuality and a diverse array of queer acts and identities. Others see it, in spite of its limitations, as helping enable the radical politics of the Gay Liberation Front and the flourishing of a vibrant gay commercial culture in the 1970s. So the debate surrounding Wolfenden is still intense. But, whatever one’s perspective, its significance for British Queer History is beyond doubt.
Professor of History