Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Leo Abse: an appreciation

Leo Abse died last week. He was a Cardiff lawyer who was a humanitarian and was ahead of his time.

In the 1960s men were not “gay”; they were “homosexual”, and homosexual men were perceived to be mentally disordered, subnormal and perverse. The partial decriminilisation of homosexuality among men that he played a major part in achieving in 1967 satisfied no one. Compromises never do. It criminalised men under 21 who carried out acts of same-sex affection; it outlawed any homosexual act not held behind closed doors and any homosexual act between more than two consenting adults. Where a homosexual act did take place and one participant was under 21 the act was legally a sexual assault and the elder party was the assailant and the younger was the victim; whatever the mitigating circumstances. More men were prosecuted for cottaging after 1967 than before. The law could be used retrospectively and was up until the 90s. It didn’t even apply outside England. But for many it was see as a perverts’ charter. The press vilified us and we had no gay media with which to fight back.

Abse put himself, as a politician with a great deal to lose, at great personal risk in seeking the new legislation and the compromises were there to make it work. He himself suffered a great deal of abuse as a result of the new legislation and his role in creating it.

To a young gay, bisexual, or for that matter straight, man the situation in 1967 and beyond may look Draconian. But Abse was a libertarian and he knew this was a stepping stone to greater freedoms in the future for a Britain that still looked to the Empire for its views on moral conduct. As to the fact that it took another 30 years to reduce the age of consent for gay men to 16; we might attack Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and Major for their feet dragging. We can certainly blame Thatcher for her outright homophobia and the introduction of the dreadful section 28. But we would be wrong to attack Leo Abse, who was a visionary who saw through the prejudice and did for us what he could given the conditions at the time.

We would do well to remember the struggle then. There are over 80 countries where same sex relations are illegal today and our hard won freedoms could disappear tomorrow if some people on our shores had their way. That is the importance of LGBT history and why we need LGBT History Month.

Tony Fenwick
Co-chair of LGBT History Month

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