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Wolfenden Report: Audio transcript

Curator Kristian Jensen talks about how this 1957 report that eventually helped legalise homosexuality set an important and unusual benchmark for our application of human rights

Wolfenden Report 1957, conclusion, with Kristian Jensen

Curator Kristian Jensen and the Wolfenden Report

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I'm Kristian Jensen. I'm acting head of British Collections in the British Library. I've chosen as one of my favourite items from the Taking Liberties exhibition the Wolfenden Report.

To look at, it might be an odd choice, because it's an official government study; it basically looks like any government report, not at all an attractive thing to look at. But I think it's very important. It was the report which began the movement to legalising homosexuality or homosexual acts between consenting adults in private.

A history of repression

Britain in general had a long tradition of very oppressive legislation against homosexuals, particularly sharpened towards the end of the 19th century. Very famous of course was the trial against Oscar Wilde, which was specifically a trial against offences under an act from 1885.

The Wolfenden Report was set up in an atmosphere of great hostility towards homosexuality in the 1950s. There was a great hoo-hah in the press against gay men, in particular - gay women didn't figure, and it wasn't actually even illegal.

So, Maxwell-Fife, who was a minister in the second Churchill government, set up a committee to examine homosexuality presumably because he actually wanted to tighten legislation against homosexuality. He probably wanted to make things more repressive, which is quite interesting, because Maxwell-Fife actually has another background. He was very instrumental in drawing up the European Convention on Human Rights. That was part of his background. He came out of that Churchillian background of trying to impose greater human rights on a Europe which had so clearly infringed human rights. In the 1950s I think there wasn't a great deal of awareness that some of the main victims of some of the Nazi persecutions were actually gay men. So I don't think that figured at all in the considerations which led to the setting up of a committee under Lord Wolfenden.

A surprising result

Maxwell-Fife was probably really surprised when the Wolfenden Report came out, because looking at the composition of the committee, you probably wouldn't have expected that outcome. For instance, one of the members was the vice-president of the City of Glasgow Girl Guides. The church was well represented, the navy was well represented.

So the report came out, recommending that homosexual acts between adults in private should be legalised, and the same rules should be applied to define what was private as one did for heterosexual relationships.

And the report was, in effect, set aside, because it was far too radical. But it came out in an atmosphere of great interest. It was in fact a best-seller; it had to be reprinted, which is very unusual for a government report. It had to be reprinted several times, and sold out.

Cases in the public eye

But it also came out in an environment where there was a growing awareness that perhaps, in certain parts of society, this was actually quite awkward. Some very well known people had been affected by the legislation against homosexuality, for instance Alan Turing, the chief code breaker at Bletchley, who basically designed and built the computer which enabled the country to break the German Enigma code. He was gay, and he was found out, and he was basically blackmailed into resigning and into taking hormone treatment, and killed himself in 1954.

This did not have a great level of publicity, but there were other great famous names involved. And I think there was a realisation in certain parts of society that homosexuality was in practice not something you could legislate against. Indeed, the Wolfenden Report found that it could not be considered a disease, despite some of the most established medical advice.

Aftermath of the Report

So there was this complex background, both a strong hostility to homosexuality, particularly in the popular press, and a growing awareness that actually it's not something you can just stop by legislation... which led up to the Sexual Offences Act 1967 under the Wilson government, and promoted by Roy Jenkins, which finally legalised sexual acts between adult males in private.

It is also interesting when you read the report that the members of the committee decided to do this because they thought it was in conformity with standard application of decent human behaviour as expressed in other human rights legislation. They could see that the state had no role in deciding what people did in private - because that was infringing general principles of human rights, as expressed for instance in the European Convention of Human Rights. They didn't actually approve of homosexuality; the Report is quite explicit about that. Most of them quite clearly thought it was repugnant and repusive.

The important lesson

And I think that is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the Report. Here we have a group of people who say, We don't like this; but we recognise that rights apply even to people who we don't like.

And that is perhaps the main test for how good we are at applying human rights: are we able to give human rights to those people whom we like the least? So that last point is perhaps why I really think the Wolfenden Report is very important. Obviously as a gay man I have a private interest in it as well; but I think it's the general ability to say that people whom we don't like have the same rights as us which is really important.

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