The passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 was pivotal, although its effects were mixed and slow to be noticed. Simon Callow, Maureen Duffy and others remember the times before, and after, homosexuality was decriminalised
It’s 11.30pm on 14 June 1967. On BBC2, Late Night Line-Up is starting. A saxophone plays as the camera zooms in on a sober-looking panel of experts – a doctor, a social psychologist, a Conservative MP and a writer. They are there to discuss one of the burning issues of the day – homosexuality – and respond to a groundbreaking documentary shown earlier in the evening. That documentary, explains presenter Michael Dean, “made no judgments and passed no opinions. It let homosexuals speak for themselves about their common condition.”
The only person on the panel with the “condition” is Maureen Duffy, whose novel about lesbian life, The Microcosm, had been published the previous year (she was one of the first women in British public life to be openly lesbian). Now 83, she remembers that night as an important moment for gay visibility, but acknowledges that she was in a position of relative privilege. “I was a self-employed writer. I could not lose my job, as some people did if they were discovered to be gay. I had nothing to hide and so it was easy for me to speak up.” And, as a woman, her private life wasn’t criminalised, because the law ignored lesbians. Male homosexuality was still illegal, with “buggery” technically punishable by imprisonment for life. With many men understandably scared to identify themselves, “Those women for whom it was possible did stand up to be counted, made the case that it was unfair and did what they could,” says Duffy.