The 1970s was in retrospect a utopian age in terms of gay life – the period between the (admittedly limited) legalisation of homosexual acts between men in Britain (and in parts of the US) and the start of the HIV era. As Altman notes: “The seventies saw the beginning of a large-scale transition in the status of homosexuality from a deviance or perversion to an alternative life style or minority” (Altman 1982: 2). It was not all plain sailing but much progress was made.

In the English-speaking world the legal framework around homosexuality goes back to Henry VIII’s statute against buggery in 1533, which was repealed in Britain in 1828, although buggery was still illegal (it stopped being a capital offence in 1861). The original wording remained in a number of constitutions across the United States. The Labouchère Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) said: “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency shall be guilty of misdemeanour, and being convicted shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.” In the mid-1950s the Wolfenden Committee was established under John Wolfenden to consider the issues surrounding homosexuality. Their final report recommended decriminalisation, although this was not to happen until the Sexual Offences Act (1967) which decriminalised sexual acts between men over the age of 21 in England and Wales (Scotland followed in 1980, and Northern Ireland 1982).

In the United States, the police were constantly raiding gay bars but there was a change of mood in the late 1960s among the gay community. Late on Friday 27 June 1969, two detectives and police officers set out to raid the Stonewall Inn at 63 Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, New York, apparently just one more raid but significantly during a mayoral campaign. This time some of the customers fought back and resisted arrest, and something in the region of 2000 people protested against four hundred police over a number of days. It was in the aftermath of this that organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activist Alliance were established – in part influenced by the Black civil rights movements and the anti-Vietnam protests; indeed the GLF were on an anti-war march on 31 October 1969. Marches to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall raid led to the Pride Marches which continue to this day. Bob Mellors witnessed events in New York and returned to London to establish a British GLF at the London School of Economics.

Homosexuality had become a medical condition in the late nineteenth century, in the writings of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Sigmund Freud and others, but in the 1970s it was to become a minority grouping and a lifestyle. This should alert us to the problem of defining precisely what “homosexual” or “gay” is referring to – whether it is a different sex from male or female, a female psyche in a male body (or vice versa), it demands exclusive attachment to the same sex in sexual object, it can be lifelong or situational, it is a form of bisexuality or distinct from it, or how far transgender, transsexual, cross-dressing and drag overlaps with it. Altman suggests “belief that homosexuality is somehow a reflection of a blurred sense of masculinity/femininity remains central to the Western imagination” (1982: 55). On the one hand lumping all the categories together is an act of being repelled by a groups of individuals regarded as perverse or deviant, on the other hand the collectivity of a single banner gave the community a bigger voice.

The shift in attitudes to homosexuality coincided with a questioning of gender and sex roles within the second wave of feminism. This should not be regarded as monolithic; not all feminists would become lesbians and reject men altogether – but Phyllis Chesler suggested that “bio-patriarchal culture is still essentially a male homosexual one – in spirit and/or in practice” (1972: 19). The work in feminism was to influence some gay men though:

because it questioned sex roles and the function of the family, encouraged the emotional development of men, and fostered a spirit of equality in male-female friendships. Under the influence of feminist thinking, the passive partner in gay male sex, the receiver of the penis, who had been stigmatized as womanly, became respected. The distinction between top and bottom grew less important as men wanted to exchange roles (Cruikshank 1992: 36).

There was a slow movement towards a great sense of being accepted, and being represented in the mainstream media.

It was not all one way, though. The American Psychiatric Association bowed to pressure in 1973 to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, whereas the World Health Organisation only removed it as a mental disorder from the International Classification of Diseases in 1990. Various attempts were made to enact laws to prevent homosexuals from becoming teachers – with the campaigns of Anita Bryant being some of the most prominent. in 1977 Dade County, Florida had passed an ordinance that prevented discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, and Bryant campaigned to repeal it, arguing that gays would try to “recruit” children to their “cause” or try to persuade them that their lifestyle were natural. Her campaign was successful, and she tried to introduce disciminatory legislation elsewhere – it was narrowly defeated in California in 1978. In the aftermath, the openly-gay city supervisor of San Francisco and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by former city supervisor and fireman Dan White. White was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, leading to the White Night Riots on 21 May 1979.

Whilst some of the gains made for acceptance of homosexuality were to be undermined in legislation passed in the 1980s, and HIV was to devastate the community, a new sense of community and of pride rather than self-loathing had emerged which could attempt to deal with the new challenges. The community would resist “being persecuted for what was normal” (Cruikshank 1992: 62).


  • Altman, Dennis, The Homosexualization of America, Boston: Beacon Press, 1982.
  • Chesler, Phyllis, Women and Madness, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.
  • Cruikshank, Margaret, The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement, New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

First draft 26 July 2008


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