A History of “Respectful Debate”


A zombie rises: Jim Linwood

People have asked me, “Doug, why are you so against the plebiscite?” History. Over and over I have seen, have lived, have seen, that the veneer of respect for us is paper-thin.

I was 17 and still at grammar school near London when the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was passed, partially decriminalising homosexuality. Thanks to the freely expressed prejudices of our enemies, it was a crippled thing, offering just enough to allow us to exist, yet the fight to get it passed had been vicious.Then we were advised to shut up, keep quiet and be grateful.

Equality took another 40 years.

There’s a good summary of the times, from the 1950s to 2000, here. I’ve used a few quotes from it below.

In the years leading up to decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, public opinion had been broadly in favour, at about 63%. Roughly where public support for marriage equality is now. But that did not mean enthusiastic support. The best you could expect was a mix of pity and disgust. Bare tolerance was the norm: if there was a turn towards acceptance, then as far as I remember, it was minimal and grudging.

As a teenager who feared he might be gay, and desperately wanted not to be, this was a very hard time. There was no-one to turn to, no gay groups of any kind, let alone for young people. The only stories about gay people were about sleazy vicars and scoutmasters molesting boys, or men caught in undescribed “acts of gross indecency” in public toilets and parks. This, I believed, was what I could look forward to because my desires were oriented towards members of my own sex. And I would be publicly shamed and rejected if anyone ever found me out.

During the parliamentary debates press hostility increased. After one extremely difficult day in the Commons one headline the next day was “Homosexual Bill Has Rough Passage.”

Even those battling for decriminalisation were far from being gay rights supporters:


Years later, when Gay News wrote to him asking for comment on our launch, he was still of the same mind, telling us the paper was a mistake.

Thank you for your letter. But I cannot honestly say that I like the idea of Gay News. I am against making homosexuals into a group on their own. The whole point is that they are just human beings like anyone else, and to as it went publicise them can do them no good and can in certain circumstances do them harm.

You must realise, as I am sure you do, that there is still a strong prejudice – and indeed always will be – against the homosexual, and to try and make something special out of them can only re-arouse the slowly dying hatreds which persist.

Do not please regard this as in any way a hostile letter. If I were hostile towards homosexuals I would not have introduced my bill. It is just that I am not in agreement with you over the tactics required to improve their sociological and spiritual position.


Decriminalisation did not mean the end of persecution. If anything, it intensified, with the deployment of “pretty policemen” in civilian clothes to entrap us in parks, on the streets, and at beats.

more proecutions

The age of consent was 21: for everyone else, 16.

Sexual activity had to be ‘in private’, which judges interpreted narrowly. People were fined and jailed for having sex in a locked room in a house or hotel, because other people were in the building, or had access to the building, at the same time.

Cruising was deemed “soliciting for an immoral purpose”: if you were spotted picking up another man in public, even just smiling at him, you could be arrested. Just because an act was legal, one judge helpfully explained, didn’t mean it was moral.

To make matters worse, the maximum penalty for any man over 21 committing acts of ‘gross indecency’ (which included masturbation and oral sex) with a 16- to 21-year-old was increased from two years to five years.

Meanwhile, in 1968 I went to university, where my defences finally cracked, as I suffered something of a breakdown, after which I accepted myself as gay. And I was angry. Angry at what I had suffered, to no good purpose, and determined to stop it ever happening again to anyone else. I suppose I have been on that angry crusade ever since. By 1972 I was out of university and helping to run Britain’s first gay newspaper, Gay News. 

In 1969 printed gay small ads – the precursor to hook-up apps – had been deemed by the courts to be “on all fours” with ads by sex workers touting for business, and hence illegal (in the case against International Times (IT)).  We defiantly headed our small ads columns in Gay News, Love Knoweth No Laws

“Referring to the International Times case in 1969, Sir Peter said “…the then Attorney General had to consider advertisements by males, the kind of advertisement that contained wording such as ‘Dolly Boy Seeks Sugar Daddy’ and so on. The then Attorney General”…had discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions and a prosecution was launched because it was held, and the courts affirmed, that publication of these male advertisements was on all fours with the Shaw case, which involved advertisements for female prostitutes.””

The point was reinforced in 1972 when ITs appeal was dismissed, leading to the closure of the paper in October the next year (although it was later revived, more than once).  Gay News reported

“Do you believe that the 1967 Act solved everything? That it gave you the same rights as anyone else. Well, take very careful note of the words of one of their high and mighty lordships (Lord Reid) in deciding that IT was breaking the law in publishing gay personal ads. According to him, and therefore the law, there is “a material difference between merely exempting certain conduct from criminal penalties and making it lawful in the full sense.” In plain English, it’s legal, but then again, it isn’t. To the corrupt minds of their lordships, of the police, and of everyone else in a position of power over you life and mine, our homosexuality is a “vice”, a “perversion”, an “abnormality”.”

I will skip over the next decade, during which things gradually got little better. Between 1967 and 2003, 30,000 gay and bisexual men were convicted for behaviour that would not have been a crime had their partner been a woman. As the Guardian reported, in just one year, 1989, during the Conservative Party campaign for “family values”, more than 2,000 men were prosecuted for gross indecency: as many as during the whole of the 1950s, and almost three times as many as in the Sixties.The twin disasters of Margaret Thatcher and AIDS were turning the clock backwards.


Plague 2

I won’t drag into daylight all the awful stories of that era, nor the vile reporting that caused many of us to agonise over what we had done through the preceding decades. Had our battle for liberation unleashed this horror, as we were repeatedly told? Was it the fault of people like us, gay journalists and campaigners, who had tried to bring together, inform and educate our community, that so many were now dying? These were hard thoughts to counter, and gave me and many others some very dark days.

But the battle, and still is, far from over. The haters came out in force again during the fight over the 2007 Equality Act. One example will suffice

The Catholic Archbishops of Westminster and Birmingham argued for exemptions in the 2007 Equality Act which would have allowed homosexuals to be turned away from soup kitchens and hospices.

Think about that. The Catholic church wanted exemptions to allow them to refuse us help at their soup kitchens and hospices. They wanted no part of easing either our lives or our deaths: something I will never forget, or forgive. Do you wonder that I still find ‘religious exemptions’ abominable?

The same filth was strongly in evidence during the battles over Civil Unions and Same-Sex Marriage, which I fortunately did not experience first hand.

So when people urge us to accept a plebiscite, urge us to “toughen up” and “battle through” the horrors that will undoubtedly be unleashed, assuring us that debate will be “respectful”, I think, not in this atmosphere which is still unsafe for most LGBTI in most places.

I remember my history and say, No. Don’t tell me Australia is different. It’s not. Do not give this cold cruelty and hatred another platform. Not again.


About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)