After a decade of attempts to reform British law, a new bill in Parliament proposes to expunge the records of almost all the men convicted under the 1885 law that criminalized male homosexual acts as “gross indecency.” Forgetting the Many is the story of that long struggle.
A wave of post-WWII prosecutions caught thousands, including the brilliant computer pioneer and code-breaker Alan Turing, whose gifts were widely known to have helped the Allies win World War II. In 1952, charged with “gross indecency” for a consensual same-sex act, Turing chose female hormone treatment – a form of chemical castration – over prison. The impact of the treatment was devastating, and in 1954, Turing killed himself.
In 1967, a new Sexual Offences Act partly decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults in England and Wales. Full decriminalization was not enacted until 2003, when the 1885 law was finally repealed. But neither of these reforms expunged the criminal records of those convicted under the old law. In 2009, however, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a posthumous apology to Turing, and in 2013 the Queen pardoned him, posthumously expunging his conviction. Finally, in 2017, a new Policing and Crime Act—with an amendment popularly known as Turing’s Law—automatically pardoned all those convicted under the gross indecency legislation who had already died, but left the surviving victims in a legal limbo, with their convictions still standing. They could apply individually to have their conviction disregarded and removed from the records, if their behavior is no longer a crime. But now, finally, an amendment to the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, pending in Parliament, will widen the range of homosexual offences eligible for a disregard and pardon and at last allow all men convicted of consenting same-sex behavior with a person aged 16 or over, where the acts are no longer an offence, to apply to have their convictions disregarded and removed from the records. This will free the forgotten men from the long shadow of criminality that has been cast over them for decades.
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