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Gay Britannia – 50 years on from the 1967 Sexual Offences Act

Black and white photo of a man peering over a newspaper

‘Glad to be Gay’ by Tom Robinson was in part designed to shock when it was written in 1976 and became Britain’s ‘gay anthem’. Young people born in the past 20 years are unlikely to appreciate the impact of that song and of the Gay Pride movement that inspired it, as they have grown up in a society where attitudes have changed dramatically.

The change began after the end of the Second World War, and culminated in the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act which (partially) de-criminalised homosexuality. The 1967 Act was a milestone not just in legal terms but because it had been brought about by a shift in public attitudes to homosexuality.

Sadly, this was too late for many gay people who had been criminalised under the previous anti-homosexuality laws. One of these was Alan Turing, whose role in creating the Enigma machine, considered by many to be the forerunner of modern computers, helped to hasten the end of WW2. He was prosecuted for gross indecency in 1952 and subsequently committed suicide. This clip from BBC news shows how his pardon and those of others so criminalised sparked controversy from other gay people, who felt that this did not go far enough and wanted an apology.

The BBC has been broadcasting a season of programming marking – indeed, celebrating – the de-criminalising of homosexuality and specifically the 50th anniversary of the passing of the 1967 Act. Gay Britannia is the umbrella title for a wide range of TV and radio broadcasts with clips from many being featured on the BBC’ website.

One stand-out is BBC4’s ‘Queers’, a series of monologues that are moving and insightful and provide fleeting glimpses of the often-illicit lives and loves of gay people in the not-too-distant past. The series starts on Monday at 10 pm, with two episodes a night until Thursday.

‘Man in an Orange Shirt’ (part 1 airs at 9 pm BBC2 Monday) is set in 1944 and shows how gay people were trapped in lives that society had prescribed for them. Another window into a past that now seems very far away, although is still in living memory.

The BBC’s Storyville documentary series showcases the best in international documentaries and Monday’s broadcast is Queerama, film-maker Daisy Asquith’s production showcases 100 years of gay experiences with original footage from the BFI’s national archive. First shown at the Sheffield Film festival in June 2017, this is its small-screen premiere. (Monday 10.40 pm BBC 4).

Gay Britannia radio clips can be found here.