David Starkey

Blatant not latent

My life as an activist

It’s exactly 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised male homosexuality, received the Royal Assent on 27 July 1967 after an impassioned late-night debate in the Commons. I wish I could say — death of Kennedy-like — that I remember where I was. But I don’t.

I had only one concern that summer. It was to get the First which would enable me to return to Cambridge to study for my PhD in Tudor history under Geoffrey Elton. The goal achieved, I relaxed like a spent fish.

But I did do one thing that mattered. I lost weight and changed from a fat and frumpy teenager into a svelte and rather fetching young man.

Which stood me in good stead for the next milestone in gay history.

Homosexuals were expected to be grateful for the ’67 act — and to show their gratitude by staying discreetly in their semi-legalised closet. Or as Lord Arran, the sponsor of the bill in the Lords, put it: ‘I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful.’

‘Public flaunting’ was, however, the whole point of the Gay Liberation Front. Founded in America in the wake of the Stonewall riots of 1969, its message quickly spread to this side of the Atlantic, where it spawned a whole series of organisations and influenced many more. Its best slogan — for gay politics had not yet lost a sense of humour—was ‘better blatant than latent’. I loved it and have tried to live it.

And this time I remember, for I was there. I’d moved from Cambridge to the London School of Economics in the academic year 1972-3 and found myself in the thick of it.

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