How Wakefield led the way in creating equality for all

The 50th anniversary of the partial decrimininalisation of homosexuality has been widely celebrated across Britain recently, yet little is known about Wakefield's indelible link to the landmark shift in the law.

Wednesday, 27th September 2017, 5:58 pm
Updated Wednesday, 4th October 2017, 3:16 pm
A portrait of John Wolfenden (pic supplied by the University of Reading)

Until the law was changed in 1967, being gay was enough to land you behind bars, and despite a change of attitudes still decades away, it became a watershed moment for a more liberal Britain.

Step forward Wakefield’s own Sir John Wolfenden, whose hard work on the Wolfenden Report 10 years prior had laid the foundations to the changes - challenging the laws on homosexuality and prostitution.

Although born in Wiltshire, Sir John grew up on Alverthorpe Road, and a blue plaque bearing his name and contribution to equality adorns the wall of the nearby Balne Lane Community Centre.

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The plaque for John Wolfenden in Wakefield. (Wakefield Civic Society)

He attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar and won a scholarship to Oxford University, and later became Lord Wolfenden.

Despite being an educationalist, the reason for him being chosen by the government to spearhead the investigative report remains unclear, although its need was becoming obvious.

A sharp rise of convictions for homosexuality was seen after the Second World War, fuelled further by cases involving high-profile public figures such as Lord Montagu and wealthy landowner Michael Pitt-Rivers.

Lord Wolfenden, along with his 14 other committee members, were tasked with looking into the laws surrounding homosexuality and prostitution, subjects that Wolfenden would later admit in his memoirs to knowing very little about, thus adding to the mystery of his selection.

Wakefield pride at The Rainbow

In 1954 his committee began systematically interviewing police, psychiatrists, religious leaders and gay men who had fallen foul of the law.

The committee often found it difficult to find any men to speak out, such was the fear and lack of trust at the time.

Completed three years later, it was published in September 1957 and flew in the face of public opinion, dismissing the notion that homosexuality was a disease and determining that the function of the law was to ‘not intervene in the private life of citizens’.

Crucially, the report made a distinction between private actions and public order in the eyes of the law, regardless of personally-held views on homosexuality.

Coun Ryan Case, Wakefield Council's LGBT champion.

By contrast, the report did little to improve the tolerance of women working as prostitutes.

It led to a crackdown by police after it found the rise in offences was blamed on the ‘weakening of the family’ and ‘community instability’, attitudes that would take decades to subside.

But for homosexuality, the seeds were sewn for a more tolerant outlook and formed the foundations of the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

Fast forward 50 years and Wakefield’s significant involvement is now beginning to be recognised.

The plaque for John Wolfenden in Wakefield. (Wakefield Civic Society)

The Rainbow Trail exhibition - the rainbow being the symbol for homosexuality - was launched at Wakefield Museum last month.

Including artefacts, videos and stories about the struggle for equality, it will run until the end of the year and highlights the importance of Wolfenden’s report.

The Pride event - which celebrates the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender communities (LGBT)- attracts hundreds of revellers to Wakefield each year.

Councillor Ryan Case, LGBT champion for Wakefield Council said: “The Wolfenden Report led the way for the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the UK.

“John Wolfenden was not born here, but at an early age moved to Wakefield with his parents where he attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar. Wakefield should be proud that someone who helped to move decriminalisation forward was educated in the city.”

Elsewhere in the city, Westgate Chapel became the first church to become registered for same-sex marriages, permitted by law since 2014.

Wakefield pride at The Rainbow

General secretary, Chris Pilkington, said the decision was taken because he says the Unitarian church is ‘at the forefront of promoting liberal causes’.

He said: “That belief in radical equality meant that the movement campaigned for the law to be changed to allow Unitarians to carry out same sex marriages and we were pleased that Westgate Chapel became the first place of worship in Wakefield to be registered to conduct them with the first such ceremony taking place in 2016.

“Nearly 60 years after the Wolfenden Report it is fitting that such marriages can take place in the home city of Lord Wolfenden.”

Coun Ryan Case, Wakefield Council's LGBT champion.