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The Democratisation of Gender after the Sexual Offences Act (1967) and How It Affects Queer Studies
E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, written between 1913 and 1914, but not published after his death in 1970, is a seminal work providing a moving, personal portrayal of homosexuality and homophobia in 20th-century England. Exploration of its detailed accounts of attitudes about homosexuals and their various reactions to the discrimination they faced—for instance, denying their homosexuality and marrying; embracing their homosexuality, but discreetly; leaving the country for more open-minded cultures—serves as an excellent starting point for exploring the underlying cultural framework and values which will form the subject matter of this essay. Of no small note is that Forster, whose reputation as a literary genius, believed his own homosexuality too powerful a secret to come out, as it were, until after his death, in a way squandering his own social power and the potential to liberate both himself and other homosexuals.
Britain, origin of so much cultural and political vibrancy and of the democratic principles which are now held to be self-evident in modern Western nations, had a particularly difficult time ridding itself of a virulent and persistent form of discrimination: its stubbornly conservative refusal to accept homosexuality and homosexual behaviours into the cultural norm of its society. Indiscreet homosexuals in England of the 20th century could look forward to a life of bigotry and discrimination, to say nothing of financial and personal ruin and imprisonment, as homosexuality was still a criminal offence in England until 1967.
“The limits of the sexually acceptable are still there. Geographical location and economic status significantly affect how free individuals are to choose to be open about their sexual orientation. And some orientations are still problematic.”
As the above quotation suggests, the issue of homosexuality remains a divisive issue. This is in spite of forty years passing since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain; forty years that have also witnessed the gay community (both males and females) move in from the margins of mainstream society in order to occupy more powerful positions of authority. This has been meted out in political office, in popular culture and in the global mass media. Yet, in spite of this, there remains – at the dawn of the twenty first century – a sense that homosexuality is a lifestyle that stands at odds to all that decent society holds dear. Even in the United Kingdom, probably the most secular country in the world, the moral aspect of homosexuality is never far from the surface of the debate over how gay people are supposed to integrate into a predominantly heterosexual sphere. This is the crux of the debate discussed herein.
For the purpose of perspective, the following essay must adopt an integrated approach, attempting to synthesise the theoretical and historiographical debates regarding the experiences of gay people in post war Britain. In this way, we can trace the social, political and legal evolution of the democratisation and liberalisation of sexuality and gender in the UK while at the same time offering a critique of the aims and achievements of the gay movement at this time. Furthermore, the continuities and changes of the homosexual landscape in post war Britain can be more accurately depicted amid the relevant academic literature of the times. A conclusion can then be sought that attempts to place the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 within its correct historical and theoretical context. First, however, a brief overview of this Act of Parliament must be ascertained so as to establish a conceptual framework for the remainder of the discussion.
The Sexual Offences Act that was passed by Westminster in 1967 was a landmark piece of legislation that sought to address the harsh legal inequalities between homosexual and heterosexual people with regards to their private lives and the way in which these private lives were dictated by the public and political sphere. The impetus behind the reform of laws pertaining to homosexuality in the United Kingdom came from the Wolfendon Report, which was commissioned in 1957 to highlight the essential differences between crime and sin. Essentially, while society and the manufacturing of cultural consensus may indeed have deemed homosexuality as a sin (or a sickness) to equate it with criminality was deemed in many circles to be anachronistic and blight against post war British civilisation and its values. This is an important point and one that ought to be borne in mind throughout the discussion: the 1967 Sexual Offences Act marked the first serious attempt at the legal decriminalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom since the Buggery Act of 1533 when the British state first sought to wrest the issue of gay coupling away from the ecclesiastical courts and into the legal courts of the realm. Viewed through this prism, the 1967 Sexual Offences Act can be seen to be a symptom of the broader civil rights movement of the 1960s which oversaw the criminalisation of inequality relating to gender, race, creed and religion in all of the major countries of the western hemisphere. The Act could not have come about without there first having been in place the existence of liberal youth culture that was able to use the tools available within a democratic state in order to lobby the political establishment for social and cultural reform.
Thus, although the Act itself has since been open to charges of hypocrisy (the result of the Act witnessed an increase rather than a decrease in the numbers of arrests of gay men for breaking the new law) and prejudice (the Act clearly and identifiably differentiates between homosexual and heterosexual people with regards to the ‘age of consent’ with twenty one being used for gay people in comparison to sixteen for straight people) it should nevertheless still be seen as an important milestone in the evolution of a more egalitarian British society. Certainly, in legal terms, 1967 must be seen as the starting point of any discussion with regards to the democratisation of homosexuality in post war Britain as before the advent of the Sexual Offences Act homosexual acts were seen as essentially criminal activities and therefore placed outside of the bounds of the rules, regulations and customs of decent, civilised society. Therefore, while mainstream culture and the political establishment may well have both publicly and privately continued to denounce homosexuality in all its forms as a sin (and preferred to keep homosexuality firmly outside of the realms of civilised society), the removal of the spectre of a criminal offence telegraphed a major turning point in the way in which gay people were viewed and treated in post war Britain. Furthermore, without the Act, the subsequent achievements of the gay movement in the UK would never have been able to begin to take place as the legal framework in which the gay movement lobbied for reform during the 1970s and 1980s would not have existed. Democratisation of sexuality in post war Britain thus begins in 1967.
However, as suggested above, the 1967 Sexual Offences Act has left itself open (particularly within the gay community) to claims of being as an essentially conservative measure that was only passed due to reasons of political expediency as opposed to the political establishment in Britain actually wishing to see a tangible democratisation of sexuality. By establishing such a high age of consent for gay couples, the Act only served to cement the social stigma associated with homosexuality because after this point it was seen by law in Britain to be a coupling that was deemed unsuitable (and illegal) for young people to engage in. Considering that the teenage years are the most important stage of sexual development in both males and females, the high age of consent deliberately aimed to restrict the practice of homosexuality amongst the very demographic that would be most likely to engage in ‘experimental’ sexuality. This only increased the sordid image of homosexuals in Britain at the time, implying that adult homosexual men were in some way intent upon ‘grooming’ young males to join their own sexual brand of subculture. Viewed through this prism, the Sexual Offences Act can be seen to be a positive legal step but likewise a negative cultural step. The increase in the number of arrests of gay men in the years that immediately followed 1967 should be seen as testimony to this ultimate perpetuation of inequality pertaining to sexuality which was the socio-political residue of the Sexual Offences Act. In this way, the myth of the permissive society was established to satisfy the libertarian ideology of the left wing of the political elite. The satisfaction and status of gay people, on the other hand, seems not to have been a consideration concerning the passing of this landmark piece of domestic legislation.
In specific terms of the evolution of queer theory, the 1967 Sexual Offences Act can be seen to have helped to create fertile grounds for the blossoming of the domestic and international gay rights movement because of the way in which the Act of Parliament served to legally solidify the differences between homosexual and heterosexual people. This sense of marginalisation from mainstream society was aided by the Stonewall Riots which took place in New York City in 1969 in response to police brutality against homosexual and transgender people at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. This episode provided the impetus behind the formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) which was established in July 1969, quickly becoming a trans-national phenomenon that deeply influenced the gay rights movement in the UK. The cumulative result of the prejudices legalised in the 1967 Sexual Offences Act in addition to the prejudices brutally realised in New York City in the Stonewall Riots was to construct a gay movement that was both durable and international. Furthermore, the perceived injustices of the 1960s also served to ally the lesbian and gay movements so that one tangible homosexual community was evident by the turn of the decade in both Europe and the United States of America. This time period was therefore a crucial moment in the development of queer theory in post war Britain.
However, it can be argued that by forming a global gay movement that judged membership with the movement in terms of sexual identity, international movements such as the Gay Liberation Front succeeded only in affirming the divisions put forward by measures like the Sexual Offences Act. Queer theory, from the outset, was intent upon challenging the mainstream socio-political status quo by using means that were essentially counter productive in light of the gay movement’s arguments that gender and sexual identity was not ‘fixed’ or compartmentalised according to one’s sexuality but was in fact much more fluid and interchangeable. Indeed, queer theorists have since argued that the compartmentalisation of gender is likewise flawed with Anne Fausto-Sterling arguing that “male and female are not enough.” By separating ‘them'(heterosexuals) from ‘us’ (homosexuals and transsexuals) the queer movement merely served to corroborate the fragmented vision of mainstream society and to further alienate homosexuality from mainstream culture and, as a result, to condemn queer theory to a discernible subculture status. Consequently, the 1967 Sexual Offences Act – taken within the broader context of the worldwide civil rights movement of the 1960s – can be seen to be an important milestone within the evolution of queer theory as not only did politicised society initiate a clear dividing line between the homosexual and the heterosexual communities but also the homosexual community itself was largely responsible after this point for perpetuating this divide. In the final analysis therefore, it is difficult to envisage this development as positive or progressive. Indeed, as Michael Botnick demonstrates below, this lack of awareness on both sides of the historical debate resulted in a discernible lack of consensus by the turn of the millennium.
“The lack of open-mindedness toward complex and graduated positions makes it difficult to obtain a full hearing of the issues, especially if those issues are value laden and cognitively dissonant to the audience (generally the public at large, the state, major corporations or other mega-organisations such as the media.)”
At this point in the discussion, attention must move away from the historiographic look at the formation of the gay rights movement within the context of the late 1960s to turn instead towards analysis of queer theory in post war twentieth century Britain. As has already been intimated, the evolution of queer theory in the UK is intrinsically tied to the advent of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. The injustices conceptualised in this Act served to galvanise the gay community amid the broader backdrop of a civil rights movement that was established in order to attempt to attain parity on the grounds of race, religion and gender as well as parity on the grounds of sexuality. This wider multicultural influence is the key to understanding how the doctrine of queer theory in post war Britain quickly became divorced from the social, cultural and political reality of maintaining a subcultural movement within the context of a liberal democracy. It is certainly no coincidence that the guiding principle of queer theory was inherently similar to the guiding principle of the other civil rights movements of the epoch: all highlighted the fallacy of using identity (be it sexual, racial, religious or gender) as a means of organising political society. All of these movements should therefore be viewed as part of a wider post-structuralist theory which advocated the end of identity based upon gender, sexuality, race and religion in favour of adopting a more egalitarian approach. In this way, post-structuralist theory was keen to destroy the link between “dominant western forms of rationality with male power and control over women and nature, which is associated with violence, oppression and destruction.”
Queer theory should be seen as an important part of this desire to deconstruct male-ordered politicised society and to reconstruct this society not along lines pertaining to identity but along lines pertaining to humanity instead. In terms of results, the deconstruction of male-centric society can be seen to have had a positive impact upon the fusion of homosexual and heterosexual cultures in post war Britain, certainly after the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic in the United States quickly became a worldwide manifestation of what Stan Cohen had in the 1970s referred to as ‘moral panic’ disseminated by an increasingly powerful global mass media apparatus. Whereas the 1970s and the 1980s can be seen as a historical period of continuity with regards to the perpetuation of sexuality-based injustices in Britain, the 1990s on the other hand can be interpreted as a period of change – when the barriers constructed by male-ordered mainstream society were slowly, yet clearly being eroded in obvious ways. Politicians, for instance, in the 1990s were no longer punished in any tangible electoral way for being ‘outed’ as homosexual. The briefly successful New Labour career of Peter Mandelson is testimony to this development. Likewise in popular culture where international stars such as George Michael (who was afraid to admit his sexuality in the 1980s) have been able to thrive in both the heterosexual and homosexual spheres regardless of their own sexual preferences since the 1990s. The turn of the millennium also witnessed a legal progression concerning gay people and their civil rights with amendments to the Sexual Offences Act (passed in 2003) in Britain eventually giving rise to parity with heterosexual people with regards to the age of consent. Indeed, it can be argued that the 2003 Sexual Offences Amendment Act is as fundamental and extensive as the changes which were telegraphed when the Theft Act (1968) replaced the outmoded Larceny Act (1916). In the UK in the twenty first century the age of consent for both heterosexual and homosexual people is at last set at sixteen, finally putting to an end the decades-long association of homosexuality with perversity and social abnormality.
Yet, appearances can be deceptive. While the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty first century may appear to be the dawn of a new era of equality with regards to gender and sexuality, the reality may in fact be better understood as a period of continuity with the perceived advances of gay people during this time being nothing more than a mirage as male-dominated society continues to give piecemeal concessions to those marginalised elements of post modern culture in order to maintain the façade of a permissive contemporary society.
“It seems we’re an altogether more open, more tolerant, sexier society – and it’s getting better all the time. Or is it? Is mainstream culture just flirting with a bit of the other in order to keep us all on a broadly straight line?”
This sense of duplicity inherent concerning queer theory and socio-political reality in the contemporary era has served to render queer theory a doctrine of continuing importance in western culture. Contemporary gender theorists such as Judith Butler (who’s book Gender Trouble was published in 1990 selling over 100 000 copies internationally) directly challenged the notion of gender (and indeed sexuality) as a means of cultural identity, going so far as to cite the creation of international feminism as the reason behind women’s continuing experience of inequality. Butler thus called for a re-evaluation of queer theory in light of the mistakes made by the various civil, gender and sexual rights movements of the 1960s.
“The domains of political and linguistic ‘representation’ set out in advance the criterion by which subjects themselves are formed, with the result that representation is extended only to what can be acknowledged as a subject. In other words, the qualifications for being a subject must first be met before representation can be extended.”
Butler’s theory remains a cornerstone for queer theory in post war Britain as the travails of the women’s since the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1964 largely mirrors the troubles of the gay movement since the inception of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967. As a result there is a large body of academic literature available that is dedicated to queer theory and to placing contemporary queer theory within the historiographical context of the gay experience in the past forty years. Much of the commentary bequeathed by this body of literature tends to underscore the essential continuity that characterises the development of sexuality in Britain (and indeed throughout the West) since the 1960s. Jeffrey Weeks, for example, sees this continuity as a symptom of contemporary society’s inability to comprehend sexuality within its correct (and complex) historical context.
“There is a struggle for the future of sexuality. But the ways we respond to this have been coloured by the force of the accumulated historical heritage and sexual traditions out of which we have come: the Christian organisation of belief in sex as sacramental and threatening, the libertarian belief of sex as subversive, the liberal belief of sex as source of identity and personal resource, all rooted in a melange of religious, scientific and sexological arguments about what sex is, what it can do and what we must or must not do. We are weighed down with a universe of expectations. Sexuality could be a potentiality for choice, change and diversity. Instead we take it as destiny, and all of us, women and men, homosexual and heterosexual, young and old, black and white, are held in its thrall, and pay its expensive dues.”
Weeks’ succinct observations quoted above could quite feasibly have featured in his best selling book, Coming Out (originally published in 1977) such is the lack of tangible progress made by mainstream society in the author’s view. This is entirely due to the fact that the vast majority of society has managed to evade the true nature of the issue where sexuality is neither a ‘choice’ nor a ‘cross to bear’ but is instead a complex fusion of the two. Weeks concludes that it is the very absence of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer with regards to the definition of sexuality that makes mainstream society unable to adequately confront the issue of homosexuality even at the start of the twenty first century.
Of course, the issue of homosexuality has been greatly affected by the rise in significance (at least in cultural terms) of bisexuality. Not only has bisexuality served to confuse the majority of mainstream society (in so much as mainstream society has been instructed to think in terms of black and white; right and wrong) about the nature of homosexuality, the advent of bi-theory has telegraphed a schism in queer theory. Indeed, it is a common view of the bisexual community that traditional queer theory “can be understood as a particularly virulent strain of the disease affecting contemporary theory more generally, especially in so far as it addresses sexuality as a central concern in the guise of ‘queer theory’.”
Thus, the very term ‘queer’ is seen, ironically, as an exclusive phrase that implies that bisexual people, on account of their continuing sexual association with heterosexual people, are intrinsically more allied to straight culture than they are to the homosexual community. This schism mirrors the divide in the feminist movement when a more radical ‘second wave’ of feminism “drew, in the first instance, upon the theoretical writings of lesbian feminism in the early 1970’s” only for the lesbian feminist community to later accuse the heterosexual feminist community of ‘betrayal’ on the grounds that straight women continued to participate in sexual activity and engage in what Pateman terms ‘sexual contracts’ with men in the guise of sex, marriage, home and family. Further confusion has been added to this maelstrom with the advent of trans-theory and the increasing legal and political recognition of trans-gender people, which has clearly impacted upon the evolution of queer theory in post war Britain. Jason Cromwell sees this development as “making the visible invisible”, which is in direct opposition to the principles of the gay community which has historically intended to make the invisible visible.
In addition there are – not surprisingly – critics from the straight mainstream culture who see queer theory as a barrier (rather than a facilitator) to a greater democratisation of sexuality in the contemporary era. Critics argue that queer studies places too much emphasis upon differentiation which, in turn, elevates the status of the gay and lesbian experience to a position that is over and above its true worth within the broader sphere of cultural studies. This only serves to increase the gulf between the ‘included’ and the ‘excluded’ members of society. Furthermore, queer theory has been challenged in a more direct way as critics argue the primacy of the queer belief that sexuality is not ‘fixed’. Tim Edwards, for example, has recently argued that sexual identity is in fact much more rigid and compartmentalised than queer theory suggests. Edwards does not agree with the assumptions made by, amongst others, Judith Butler and David Gauntlett who both show how, for instance, the media has helped to solidify the construction of identity based upon gender and sexuality respectively. Instead he argues that in real terms gender and sexual identity does not only exist at the level of discourse (as argued by Butler) but instead exists as “an institutional social practice.”
It can be seen that queer theory and its discontents have historically argued over ideological terrain pertaining to sexuality, gender and identity with a discernible lack of consensus emerging from the ensuing theoretical debates. It is also noticeable that the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 remains largely conspicuous by its absence from the vast majority of this theoretical debate with regards to queer theory in post war Britain. Where the Act is mentioned, it tends to be referred to as a piecemeal political measure that “proved repeatedly unsuccessful, largely because of popular mobilisation against restrictive changes.” Even in legal terms, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 remains open to charges of being a draconian, anachronistic measure by contemporary queer theory as it was still deemed a criminal offence for people under the age of twenty one to engage in homosexual activity. This only served to criminalise the essential experimentalism inherent in young people of both sexes and to perpetuate the association of homosexuality as a sordid and sinful affair.
A more important watershed date according to post war queer theorists was the 1980s and the advent of the AIDS epidemic. Beginning on the west coast of the United States and quickly transferring over the Atlantic to Britain and Western Europe, the AIDS epidemic was an epidemic more in terms of the effect that it had upon mainstream, straight culture than the medical effect that the virus had upon the human race. Looking back on the media texts and images of the time, one can certainly see how the disease was blown out of all proportion to its true danger. Furthermore, it is plain to see that this was due to the sexual nature of the illness and, specifically, the fact that it had begun in the gay community. Once more, therefore, gay men were accused of leading a hedonistic lifestyle – the lack of the practice of safe sex being the starting point for the spreading of the disease. The AIDS epidemic also served to re-ignite traditional Christian doctrine that was – and remains – vehemently opposed to the legalisation and democratisation of homosexuality. Hard-line Christian activists even went so far as to claim that the AIDS virus was God’s punishment to all society for allowing gay people the right to practice their sordid sexuality in mainstream culture. The combined effect of this hysteria served to make the 1980s – as opposed to 1967 – the key date in queer theory in post war Britain. As Jeffrey Weeks declares, “the homophobia that was encouraged by AIDS demanded, and in fact greatly strengthened, lesbian and gay identities.”
With this in mind, attention must now be turned towards reaching a conclusion as to the significance of 1967 within the broader discussion of the democratisation of sexuality in post war Britain.
“That some people have decided preferences does not seem to be in doubt. What is now fast disappearing is the myriad of ways in which various human societies have managed to cope with the fact.”
As Naphy aptly suggests, the rate at which homosexuality has been integrated into mainstream culture should be judged within the much wider context of western civilisation over the past two thousand years as opposed to the forty years that have passed since the inception of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967. Ultimately, although progress concerning the democratisation of homosexuality may have met many obstacles in a variety of different guises – be they legal, political, social, religious or cultural – there cannot be any doubt that the gay community landscape has changed beyond all recognition in Britain since the end of the 1960s. Moreover, it would be difficult to launch an argument against 1967 being the key year within this evolution of queer theory in modern Britain as this was the date that marked the beginning of the solidification of a trans-national gay movement as well as the end of the historical marginalisation of homosexuals within the broader context of mainstream society.
The fact that the fruits of this dual, spontaneous realisation did not immediately materialise in the form of a democratisation of sexuality should not be seen as a great surprise. Like the women’s movement of the same era, there can be little doubt that the legal measures passed by parliament such as the Sex Discrimination Act served only to halt the advance of women’s rights as the movement inevitably splintered on matters pertaining to race, ideology and – increasingly – sexuality. In this way, the lesbian agenda became increasingly divorced from the mainstream feminist agenda in the same way that the bisexual agenda has become noticeably more antagonistic towards queer theory and the homosexual community. It can be argued that this is nothing more than an inevitable by-product of a post-industrial capitalist society that has made a cultural and economic commodity of sex and sexuality to such a degree as to destabilise the solidarity of the global gay and women’s movements worldwide. Thus, being a political as well as a sexual activity, homosexuality has been (and will remain) both historically and theoretically deeply influenced by the social, political and economic environment in which it is culturally defined.
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Homosexualities in Post War Britain:
The Democratisation of Gender after the Sexual Offences Act (1967) and How It Affects Queer Studies
Gender and Society in Britain and Europe, c.1500 to the Present
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