Thursday 27 July 2017 marks fifty years since an Act of Parliament was passed that partially decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting males, and acted as one of the first major steps in the liberalisation of laws relating to homosexuality. David Edgley, one of the founding members of the Notts LGBT+ Network, has seen vast swathes of change over the years, so we sat down to pick his brains...
Being born in 1992, growing up gay hasn’t always been easy. Bullying, loneliness and discrimination are just a few of the issues that myself and many LGBT+ people face in modern Britain, but I have never lived under the threat that my sexuality would make me a criminal. Before 1967, being a gay man meant you were breaking UK law, and if you were caught, you’d be arrested and subjected to humiliating trials where you were given the choice between prison or chemical castration, electric shock treatments and lobotomy in order to “cure gayness”.
To get a better idea of what life has been like for homosexuals over the last fifty years, I spoke to David Edgley. I met David while volunteering for a support charity in Nottingham called the Notts LGBT+ Network. He’s one of the founding members, and has been a leading voice and active member of LGBT+ groups across Nottingham over the last fifty years.
I asked David what he thought the major drawbacks of the 1967 Act were. “All the Act did was remove the threat of imprisonment if the people involved were ‘consenting male adults in private’. ‘Adult’ meant over 21, while for everyone else, including lesbians, it was sixteen. The definition of private was bizarre; hotels and communal accommodation could never be private and having a third person staying in your house in a separate room was not private.
“A 1955 Act dealing with ‘soliciting for immoral purposes’ also meant that one man ‘chatting up’ another man was and remained illegal. So, it was okay for two gay men to end up in bed together, but the process by which they got there was still against the law.”
What were police attitudes towards gay people like? “There are examples of police harassment towards lesbians and gay men for many years after 1967,” says David. “In some parts of the country, agent provocateurs – the ‘pretty police’ – were used. These were young, casually dressed policemen who would stand about in public lavatories waiting to be approached, and then arrest those who did. By the nineties, more and more magistrates and judges were asking the police ‘Have you really got nothing better to do?’”
David moved to Nottingham in 1967, the year the Sexual Offence Act came into being. I wanted to know how he was able to find a gay scene in a society that was so unaccepting of homosexuality. “What I was aware of, and took advantage of, was increasing opportunities for socialising through social groups, gay magazines and ‘legitimate’ pubs and clubs which started to spring up in the wake of the 1967 act” says David.
“Nevertheless, finding out about what was available was not an easy process with no internet and no helplines. It was often the case that you had to know someone, or you came across things by chance. You’d be very sensitive to little bits of information that appeared in the occasional newspaper article. It was very much by chance that in 1968 I found out about a gay social group which met in Mapperley Park.”
David became involved in activism after discovering a campaign group called The Campaign for Homosexuality Equality. “When CHE started a group in Nottingham in 1971, I became involved in that and remained with it until it faded away in 1982.”
The CHE fought for equality via many methods, one of the bravest and boldest being Gay Street Theatre. “A joint effort between CHE and the Gay Liberation Front produced gay-themed plays which were literally performed in the street,” says David. “In 1975, the first of these plays, Robina Hood and her Gay Folk, was seen in Nottingham’s Market Square before eventually being moved on by the police.”
The purpose of the CHE was to fight for equality, but it became increasingly obvious that a source of information and support for people with issues relating to homosexuality was necessary. After hosting a weekly “gay night” at the then People’s Centre in 1974, the group went on to acquire a phone line in 1975. Thus, the Nottingham Gay and Lesbian Switchboard – now the Notts LGBT+ Network – was founded.
David told me about the challenges of getting advertising and support for such an organisation. “In 1977, the boss of the Evening Post wrote ‘I do not approve of homosexuality and I disapprove most violently of the current drift to decadence in this country.’ In trying to get support from local councillors, the leader of the Conservative group in 1977 wrote in reply, ‘Sir, I must say that I consider it an impertinence for you to send me a letter. I have always regarded homosexuality as one form of perversion and I very much regret the progress on permissive lines that have taken place during the last few years. I also take exception to the use of the word gay. From time to time I am gay, but at no time queer.’”
There’ve been many standout moments for the network over the years, and David’s been witness to many: a phone call from Lord Longford to discuss Section 28; the first grant received from the University of Nottingham; a phone call from the father of a young gay man who attempted suicide; a ceremony attended by the group to honour gay victims of the Holocaust; as well as the numerous people whose lives have been changed through a single phone call.
So what’s the need for LGBT+ charities and groups today? “Though legislation is now more positive, it brings its own problems” explains David. “People may want information about the legal implications of civil partnerships or same-sex marriage or, in some cases, the break-up of those relationships. There will always be times when people just want somebody to talk to. Things change. Things stay the same.”
But how has Nottingham’s LGBT+ community developed over the years? “One undoubtedly positive event which probably generates more genuine community feeling than anything else is the annual Pride festival. From a small-scale start in 1997, this has grown into an event attended by numerous organisations, to demonstrate their LGBT+ friendliness. It is, in the words of Wallace and Gromit, ‘a grand day out.’
“In the not-too-distant past, bisexual people were rendered invisible and transgender people were seen as a few cross-dressers. Often the B and the T were sidelined, dismissed or ill-treated not just by the heterosexual community, but by the L and the G bits, too. These days, there is a growing acknowledgement of the great range of sexual orientations and gender identities, and growing support systems for them.”
Listening to David, I can’t help but feel an enormous sense of gratitude to all the brave individuals that have fought, and continue to fight, for equality. I think it’s really important, especially for younger generations, to know how much people have fought to help create a freer and more equal society for all. That way we can help prevent history repeating itself. In David’s words: “Be vigilant. Find allies.”
For more information about Notts LGBT+ Network, or if you just want to talk, call 0115 934 8485.