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    First Published: April 2004
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A new Sexual Offences Bill, will finally repeal Victorian anti-gay sex laws in England and Wales. These are the historic ‘gay’ offences that have been used to criminalise gay men including Oscar Wilde and Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing. It completes the process of reform that began with the Wolfenden Report and the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.
The new Bill will repeal the offence of buggery and the laws which make gay sex involving more than one person illegal. The offence of gross indecency also disappears but the Bill will instead introduce a new offence, outlawing both straight or gay sex acts in any public place, where the participants know that people who are not willing observers may be able to see them. Campaigners like Peter Tatchell will be unhappy that the new laws will not be retrospective, and those already found guilty will remain on the Sex Offenders Register.
A new measure outlawing overtly sexual behaviour in a public place will carry a six-month jail sentence and will apply equally to both gay and straight couples.
The Government is planning for this Bill to go through parliament in spring and summer of this year. If passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, these changes will come into law in summer 2003.

This first comprehensive reform of Sexual Offences since the mid-1950s follows the recommendations of a Home Office Review of sexual offences published in July 2000. The review term was drawn from a wide range of sectors including the police, child care agencies, mental health charities, the Bar Council, the British Medical Association and representatives of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities.

Commenting on the reforms campaign group Stonewall’s Director of Parliamentary Affairs, Sacha Deshmukh says,

"The publication of the Bill is an important step forward, but it is very wrong to think that the battle over sex offences is already won. There are many members of the House of Lords who are going to put up a tough fight to defend the criminalisation of gay men. We want to see all the major parties support these reforms. The Lib Dems and Labour are firmly behind reforming the antiquated gay sex laws. The Conservatives must now decide whether they support sex offences law that is fair to everyone, or whether they see themselves as the defenders of Victorian prejudice."

"Getting rid of these laws is only half the battle ahead. These reforms will only change the law in England and Wales, not Scotland or Northern Ireland. We also want to see fair treatment for the thousands of gay men who have to live with a sex offence record, for committing acts which both government and society now think should never have been crimes."

Until 1885 the only law concerning gay sex was the law of buggery or sodomy. The law applied to the act of sodomy, so heterosexual acts as well as homosexual acts were illegal. Lesbianism has never been specifically outlawed in the UK, but there have been some prosecutions for indecent assault. In 1885 the Labouchiere Amendment was passed. This created the offence of gross indecency that made all sexual acts between men illegal. The criminal law was now focused on the punishment of homosexuality. In 1895 Oscar Wilde was prosecuted for gross indecency and sentenced to two years in prison.

Thousands of gay men were blackmailed, prosecuted, sentenced to prison, pilloried and shamed. Men like Alan Turing, who helped break the Enigma code, committed suicide shortly after his prosecution. In the 1950s a widely publicised case, the Montagu - Wildeblood trial, reawakened the movement for reform.

More on the new Sexual Offences Bill

 

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