Good – but not good enough.
Thousands of deceased gay and bisexual men in England and Wales convicted of sexual offences for partaking in gay sex when it was still illegal were pardoned posthumously when the Policing and Crime Bill received Royal Assent on 31 January 2017.
The Act is known as Turing’s Law, recognising the ill-treatment of the gay computer scientist Alan Turing, who committed suicide in 1954 after his conviction for Gross Indecency. Turing was given a posthumous Royal Pardon in 2013, but the new Act pardons 50,000 to 100,000 men convicted of Gross Indecency with Another Man or Buggery before 1967.
Justice minister Sam Gyimah said it was a “truly momentous day… …We can never undo the hurt caused, but we have apologised and taken action to right these wrongs.” This is the same Sam Gyimah who last year infamously ‘filibustered’ a Bill in the Westminster Parliament; speaking out its alloted time and thereby preventing a vote being taken upon it.
There are some however who do not think the Act goes far enough Scottish National Party (SNP) MP John Nicholson, who tabled the Bill filibustered by Sam Gyimah, asked what provision there will be for those men still living. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, replied that men still living could make applications for pardons. In 2016 Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that the SNP administration in the devolved Scottish Government is about to introduce their own legislation, under which men still living will be automatically pardoned, along with those deceased, which Mr Nicholson was very quick to point out.
There are very good reasons for doing this. Many of the men convicted are now very elderly and simply physically unable to go and get the forms and fill them out, or indeed fill them out online. A caller to LBC Radio on 1 February 2017 also highlighted another potential problem. He stated he was a gay man who had been convicted, served time in prison, and had subsequently changed his identity. Should he have to apply for a pardon, that would mean having to use his original identity. If the pardon was automatic for living persons, there would be no need for him to run this risk of being exposed.
The Act must be welcomed, as must the upcoming legislation in Scotland, but there is still fault on both sides of the border. Many, myself included, feel that a ‘pardon’ is insufficient, as it still assumes guilt. What is needed is for all convictions completely quashed and a clear apology given, to both the deceased and the living.
There may even be an argument for monetary compensation for those living. After all, many of them faced imprisonment, violence from police officers/prison officers/fellow inmates (including rape in many cases), some fines, most lost their jobs, and were ostracised by family, friends, and society in general.
Those are lost lives, stolen by the state, and those men affected and still alive deserve a HUGE sorry – preferably along with a big, fat cheque.
And while LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell maintains that the Act will pardon men convicted of sexual offences “under discriminatory anti-gay laws between 1885 and 2003”, I question if that is actually the case. I cannot find anything in the Act which mentions men convicted of “underage” gay sex between 1967 and 2001. To explain, the gay age of consent was set at 21 in 1967. It was not until 1994 that it was lowered to 18, and in 2001 it was lowered again to 16, to bring it into line with the age of consent for heterosexuals. This means that there are a great many men still alive today who were convicted of having sex with a “minor”, with all of the attendant stigma that carries. Are they to be pardoned? And if not, why not?
We should never forget the words of Tom Robinson:
Have you heard the story about Peter Wells,
who one day was arrested and dragged to the cells?
For being in love with a man of eighteen;
the vicar found out they’d been having a scene.
The magistrates sent him for trial by the Crown;
he even appealed but they still sent him down.
He was only mistreated a couple of years ~
cos even in prison they “look after” the queers.
(Tom Robinson, “Glad to be Gay”, original version)
All in all, the Act is a step in the right direction, but with all the deaths, the heartache, the loss of liberty, loss of family and friends, ostracisation, violence from the authorities, prison inmates and members of the public alike, loss of livelihoods and much, much more which anti-gay UK laws produced, neither the new Act nor the upcoming legislation in the devolved Scottish Government go nearly far enough to addressing past wrongs.
Get the cheque books out, Theresa and Nicola.