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Before and after the Wolfenden Report

Homosexuality in the 1950s

At the beginning of the 1950s, homosexual acts were still considered by law to be criminal offences. The number of convictions rose rapidly in the immediate post-war period as the Home Office pursued prosecution more rigorously. At that time, homosexuality was also the subject of sensationalist reporting in the popular press, and there were a number of high profile cases involving public figures. In 1951, the Russian spies Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess, both known to be homosexual, defected to the USSR.

The Wolfenden Report

All of these events and controversies helped to keep the issue of law reform near the top of the political agenda, creating pressure for a re-evaluation of the criminalisation of homosexuality. In 1954, the Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe, appointed the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution in Great Britain under Sir John Wolfenden.

The Wolfenden Report was published in 1957. It concluded that the criminalisation of homosexuality was an impingement on civil liberty. While the law should prevent abuse and protect the young and other vulnerable individuals, it should not intrude into matters of personal morality. Homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should no longer constitute an offence. The Cabinet opposed any proposal to implement Wolfenden's recommendations.

Sexual Offences Act 1967

The decriminalisation of male homosexuality had to wait until the more permissive circumstances of the late 1960s. In the House of Lords in 1965, Lord Arran advanced a motion in favour of implementing the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report.

In 1966, the Labour backbencher Leo Abse sponsored a Sexual Offences Bill. The Labour Cabinet assumed an attitude of neutrality and allowed a free vote. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised male homosexuality between consenting adults above the age of twenty-one. However, conspiracy to commit or assist homosexual acts remained an offence.