Archive for homosexuality

The 1967 Sexual Offences Act

Posted in History, LGBT with tags , , on July 27, 2017 by telescoper

1967 act

Just a short post to note that today is the 50th anniversary of the day that the Sexual Offences Act (1967) received the Royal Assent (27th July 1967). This Act partially decriminalised sex between two male adults provided both were over the age of 21 at the time. I’ve emphasised `partially’ because the number of prosecutions of men for consensual sexual acts actually went up in the years following this law. It was not until 2000 that the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 equalised that age of consent at 16 for both homosexual and heterosexual behaviours throughout the United Kingdom. The 1967 Act was problematic in many ways, but it was a start…

Why not pardon Turing?

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , , on February 9, 2012 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a quick comment or two on the government’s decision not to issue a posthumous pardon to Alan Turing, in the matter of his his criminal conviction for homosexuality, recently announced by Lord McNally. This is Lord McNally’s reply to a question asked by Lord Sharkey:

The question of granting a posthumous pardon to Mr Turing was considered by the previous Government in 2009.

As a result of the previous campaign, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an unequivocal posthumous apology to Mr Turing on behalf of the Government, describing his treatment as “horrifying” and “utterly unfair”. Mr Brown said the country owed him a huge debt. This apology was also shown at the end of the Channel 4 documentary celebrating Mr Turing’s life and achievements which was broadcast on 21 November 2011.

A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted. It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

In other words he is using the argument that Turing was properly convicted of behaviour that was considered an offence at the time so that conviction should not be negated.

This argument is entirely specious. A pardon is an act of clemency or forgiveness, exercised under the royal prerogative whenever advised by the government. It is not the mechanism for overturning wrongful convictions, so the observation that this conviction was lawful at the time is a red herring. Moreover, in what I consider to be an entirely analogous situation, all soldiers convicted and executed for cowardice in World War I actually received pardons in 2006. Their actions were also considered punishable at the time. This sets a clear precedent. Why is the Turing case logically different?

The answer to that is that if Turing were to receive a pardon, why should all the other gay people convicted of the criminal offence of being homosexual not also receive pardons? Why does it matter logically in this case that Turing was a brilliant mathematician who made immense contributions to the Allied effort during World War II? What about those gay men who were prevented from joining the services because of their sexuality? Why should one’s brilliance or eminence in a given field lead one to be treated differently under the law? Wouldn’t that just be saying “yes, he was gay, which is a problem, but we’ll forgive him because he made up for it in other ways”?

I think the government’s primary motivation for denying a pardon in this case is in fact the argument I just gave: that they should then have to pardon everyone convicted of homosexuality…

Of course you might ask in that case why it is that people are campaigning for a pardon for Turing in particular? Why not campaign for a universal pardon? I admit that it’s slightly illogical to do so, but it’s a question of pragmatism. Arguing the case for Turing in particular provides a focus which hopefully will lead to a wider resolution of the issue.

Asking for a posthumous pardon isn’t asking for very much, but I suspect the government is more worried about those people still alive who were convicted of homosexuality before 1967, which is when such acts were decriminalized. The case for denying pardons in this situation, when pardons were granted in the case of the executed WWI troops, therefore rests entirely on the possibility that there may be some pesky people who were convicted of homosexuality in the past but who unfortunately, unlike Turing, are not yet dead.

That’s the message this decision sends from the government to gay people.

You didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyway…

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2010 by telescoper

I just chanced across the news that the United States Senate has voted to repeal the policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. This silly rule required gay servicemen and women to conceal their sexual orientation or risk being kicked out of the services. It was always an awful compromise and I’m glad to see it has been scrapped.

One of the arguments used against allowing gay people to be open about their sexuality while in the armed forces was that this would be “bad for morale”. I’m not quite sure why, but that’s what people say. Perhaps what it means is that a lot of straight military personnel are deeply prejudiced and that it would be bad for morale to have that prejudice challenged.

Until 2000, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence imposed an outright ban on lesbian and gay people serving in the armed forces. However, in 1999 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that ban illegal. Now, at least officially, the MoD has a much more open and inclusive policy. One regularly sees official representation at Gay Pride marches and so on. Indeed, in 2008, General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, said in a speech that

respect for gays, lesbian, bi-sexual and transsexual officers and soldiers was now “a command responsibility” and was vital for “operational effectiveness”

It would have been hard to imagine even ten years ago that a senior officer in the British Army would make such a statement. I’m sure openly gay soldiers still have a pretty tough time in the army, but we’re heading in the right direction. Times have changed.

But all this is perhaps not as new as you might think.

I’m now going to bore you with a bit of history that might surprise you. The elite division of the Theban army in the 4th Century BC was an outfit called the Sacred Band of Thebes. This consisted of about 300 men, hand-picked for their courage and fighting skill. Or not so much 300 men, but 150 same-sex (male) couples; this was the legendary Army of Lovers. Obviously there wasn’t any need for “don’t ask, don’t tell” in ancient Thebes.

The inspiration for this special unit derived from Plato who, in the Symposium, said

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their beloved, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?

Initially the members of the Sacred Band were scattered among the rest of the soldiers, in order to raise morale (!), but later on they were all united in a single fighting division, the “special forces” of the Theban army. They were responsible for several famous victories, including the Battle of Leuctra which established Theban independence from Spartan rule.

But brave and steadfast though they were, they eventually met an adversary that even they couldn’t withstand. At the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC they fought an army led by Philip II of Macedonia one of whose generals was his son, a young man by the name of Alexander. The Macedonian army had a new infantry tactic that gave it the edge over all armies of its age. This was the phalanx, a large but tightly bunched and highly disciplined group of soldiers with interlocking shields and bristling with spears, which was impervious to cavalry and archery alike. A few years later when Alexander became King of Macedonia and set off on his journey to Greatness, the phalanx continued to be the mainstay of his army and it allowed him to defeat huge forces at least five or six times the size of his own.

At Chaeronea the fearsome phalanx made mincemeat of the rank and file of the Theban army. In the face of the Macedonian onslaught, the Sacred Band stood its ground to the last, but their resistance was futile. At the end of the battle, their corpses were found piled one on top of the other. They hadn’t given an inch, but all had died where they had stood. The Army of Lovers was no more.

In about 300 BC the citizens of Thebes erected a memorial to the Sacred Band where they had been buried, with full military honours, by Philip II’s soldiers, at the spot where they had fallen. When this was excavated in 1890, 254 skeletons were found, neatly arranged in rows.

The point I’m trying to make with this bit of ancient history is that our attitudes to sexuality are not built in. They’re all formed by social conventions. In fact, bisexuality was quite normal in Ancient Greece, so nobody had any reason to think of homosexuality as some kind of “otherness” that could be a focus of discrimination. Alexander the Great himself had relationships with both men and women and, although he was clearly a megalomaniac and not at all a nice person, he was undeniably rather good at being a soldier.

There’s therefore no reason why gays and lesbians shouldn’t serve with distinction in the army, or anywhere else for that matter. The problem’s not with them, but with the rest of you.


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