Against the Law, shown on BBC1 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales, left me momentarily lost for words.
That doesn’t happen too often. But as is more usually the case it is by getting some words down on a page that I can best make sense of the visceral response it provoked in me.
I should acknowledge up front that it is a response that is primarily about the G in LGBT. That is not to suggest that Wolfenden has no relevance beyond the experience of gay men. Nor to argue that gains we have won since haven’t been the result of collaboration. Still less to deny that rights for others remain contested.
It’s simply that Against the Law told the stories of gay men and it was as a gay man first and foremost that I responded.
Much has been written about the remarkable change in attitudes which has taken place during the past 30 years. I am privileged to have played a part in bringing about that change and lucky enough to be a beneficiary of it. I sat and watched Against the Law with my husband of two months.
Both in our mid-50s, we are young enough to have grown up largely in the post-Wolfenden era though whereas I grew up in England, he lived in Scotland where decriminalisation didn’t happen until 1981.
But growing up gay back in the 70s wasn’t a picnic anywhere in the U.K. and both our early experiences were outside the law. My first sexual experience was with an older man in a public toilet. But I didn’t get arrested.
We avoided aversion therapy too. And we experienced acceptance within our families even if that didn’t happen overnight. My late father’s first reaction was that I should go for a long run, take a cold shower, and avoid the occasion of sin. My husband’s sexuality was never spoken about with his late father.
But even though the story in Against the Law wasn’t our story, it was the story of men in the generation immediately preceding us. They were men we knew, and our early experiences were more akin to theirs than they would be today.
Last autumn I went to an interview with the journalist Matthew Todd. He was in Edinburgh to talk about his book Straight Jacket. In the book, Matthew explores what it’s like to grow up gay in the more recent past. He refers to that experience as one of being put in a cultural straitjacket, and the book is about the resultant crisis of shame in the gay community.
The book’s core idea resonated strongly with me as a gay man and as a long-standing gay rights activist and advocate. It’s the idea that we have grown up in a society where the dominant narrative of human sexuality is not ours.
It’s the notion that our self-identity has therefore been shaped against the grain, and that our response to that experience has to varying degrees been internalised.
The private anguish of Against the Law’s central character, Peter Wildeblood, brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Mays, is one of the most powerful aspects of Against the Law. Its amplification by the present-day stories of men who bore witness to those times was the programme’s piece de resistance.
When Matthew Todd was interviewed, with great skill by the broadcaster Sheena Macdonald, something extraordinary happened in the room that I had cause to reflect on watching Against the Law.
The audience at the interview was primarily gay men of varying ages but many of them older. What happened was an opening up of something that seemed for many of those present to have been unspoken.
There was a strong sense of loss, even pain, in the room. A feeling that for all things were so much better, we had in different ways lived through something which had left a mark on all of us. Each of us had our own personal stories of what that straitjacket had been like.
In an article in the Observer published earlier last year, Matthew concluded by anticipating the anniversary of Wolfenden. He reflected that those who had lived gay lives before 1967 would no doubt be overwhelmed by what has happened since.
He argued that they would want us to realise our potential in ways that had not been possible for them. He suggested that wasn’t just about loving each other but loving ourselves. He was speaking, of course, of stigma. And it was the effect of stigma that reverberated around the room when he spoke to us.
Against the Law took us back to time not so long ago when the effect of that stigma was often ruinous and even fatal. One witness described his experience of having been forced to tell the police about a sexual encounter which resulted in the other man literally blowing his brains out. And of the life-long anguish of living with it for 60 years since.
What Against the Law did so powerfully was to remind us that rights were won with casualties. It took us back to lives lived contingently, in the half light. To a time when ephemeral relationships were preferable because they left less of an evidence trail, where stability was elusive, even counter cultural.
It took us to a place whose faded colours and crumbling textures were at odds with the stiffness of the prevailing mores and manners of the times. It did so on a day when events across the water reminded us that rights are fragile.
The event with Matthew Todd demonstrated that those times cast a long shadow. It also reminded us that the dominant narrative about sexuality has only just begun to change.
That even now people are still growing up having to contend with the fact that their identity is not the norm. Where they have to learn how to be themselves in response to expectations which are at odds with who they are.
That comes at a price. It’s why people still ‘come out’. It’s why they still get bullied and why mental ill-health remains common. It’s why we need role models and inclusive education and much more.
I may well have the luxury of forgetting that I’m gay most of the time in sharp contrast to men 50 years ago who all too often had the torment of never being able to do so. Even though erasing it from their everyday identity was, for so many, tragically the best way out.
But for all the change, and goodness it’s to be celebrated, the presumption for kids growing up today is still largely one of heterosexuality. It is a presumption which lives out in families, communities, and institutions. And until that changes, the precious legacy that Peter Wildeblood and men of his generation gave us will not be fully realised.
The words of the law are no longer against us. But changing the spaces between words, the constellation of symbols, images and beliefs that shape our experience of human sexuality, remains a work in progress.
The cultural straitjacket is loosening its grip, but it’s not gone yet. What has happened since 1967 is not an accident. And 50 years after Wolfenden, there is still much to do. We owe it to those who came before.
First published on 27th July 2017