Matthew Parris has narrated this article for you to listen to.
‘If I’d known where it would take me I might never have started.’ This need not be an expression of regret. There are journeys where the final destination is best hidden from the traveller, due to the psychological difficulty he may have in embracing the future until we’re nearly there. This column will move on to assisted dying, but I start with a look back at the fight for equal rights for same-sex couples. I played a minor part in this.
Ever since the 1950s, brave souls – at first just a few – fought for the repeal of 19th-century laws criminalising male homosexual behaviour. They were joined by others, finally even politicians. In 1967, Roy Jenkins’s Sexual Offences Bill passed parliament, decriminalising private homosexual acts between men aged 21 and over. This remains the most important step in British gay history. John Major’s reduction to 18 of the age of consent, Tony Blair’s further reduction to 16, his civil partnerships legislation and David Cameron’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act were all not only legislatively consequential upon it, but a product of the cultural momentum Jenkins set in motion.
Margaret Thatcher was among those voting for the (Labour) Bill. I had spoken to our late prime minister about these matters. Mrs Thatcher (as she was) typified in her approach the attitude – then considered ‘modern’ – that won the argument. Thatcher’s consoling hand on my wrist after we spoke in 1986 will be always in my memory. ‘There,’ she said. ‘That must have been very difficult for you.’ Her (for a 1950s woman) liberal view was that homosexuality was a personal misfortune, but not a matter for the police.