Against The Law review: a fitting tribute to gay men whose persecution in 1950s paved way for new rights

A dangerous romance in the 1950s. BBC Pictures

The journalist Peter Wildeblood may not be a household name in Britain today, but he was in 1954. Along with the wealthy Lord Montagu and Michael Pitt-Rivers, Wildeblood was sent to prison for homosexual offences in a case that shocked Britain. His case is the subject of Against The Law, a film premiered at the BFI Flare film festival and aired on BBC2 to mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.

The post-war period saw a major upswing in the number of such cases coming before the courts in the UK and the US. This was not because men were having more sex with other men, but because the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic were acting with increased vigour to catch them. In 1948, the American biologist Alfred Kinsey and his team of scientists had published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, with its shock findings that same-sex incidents were widespread across the population.

Panic reactions, including attempts to identify secret homosexuals hiding in the closet, were spurred by fears that the Soviet Union was using information about private lives to blackmail individuals into spying for them.

Speaking out

Wildeblood’s importance in reforming the strict laws in the UK lay not so much in his conviction but in his subsequent publication of Against The Law in 1955. In this pioneering book, he openly advocated legal reform from the position of an avowedly gay man or, to use the language of the time, “a homosexual”.

The BBC film telling Wildeblood’s story – part dramatisation, part documentary – was produced in associated with the Wellcome Trust, which advised on the medical treatments for homosexuality on offer at the time, such as hormone and aversion therapies involving the administration of emetics and electric shocks.

Wildeblood was the only openly homosexual man to agree to give testimony to the committee, chaired by Lord Wolfenden, that was established in the wake of the trial. The resulting report, published in 1957, laid the groundwork for the eventual (partial) decriminalisation of male homosexual sex brought about in England by the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in July 1967.

When Wildeblood, played by Daniel Mays in the film, attests in court to being homosexual, he is not admitting that he has broken the law. Sexual acts such as “buggery” were illegal, but simply being a “sexual deviant” was not. Yet, whether they were celibate or not, gay men were loathed by a considerable proportion of the population and by the police who were paid to hunt them down.

Peter Wildebood was sentenced to 18 months in prison. BBC Pictures

When Wildeblood’s former lover agrees to turn “Queen’s evidence” in return for immunity from prosecution, viewers are invited to think of the line “each man kills the thing he loves” from Oscar Wilde’s poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The ghostly presence of Wilde and his own trials in 1895 haunt this production, implying that little had changed over the intervening 60 years.

Insecurity leads to clampdown

But interwar Britain had in fact witnessed several years of much more openly queer life, even if it had not seen a relaxation of the criminal law. World War II then brought all manner of opportunities for queer sex, even if not sustained love, in the blackout. As the writer and sometime sex-worker Quentin Crisp said of the behaviour of American service personnel stationed in London: “Never in the history of sex was so much offered to so many by so few.”

What had changed, by the 1950s, was that the British establishment was far less secure than it had been. There was a real fear of the spread of communism across Europe, and the end of the British Empire was widely understood to be inevitable once India was given its independence in 1947. New methods of social control were introduced in the 1950s: the police manufactured evidence, intimidated witnesses, entrapped homosexual men, and ensured that careers and relationships were ruined.

The film’s dramatic reconstruction of events during the 1950s is intercut with testimony from men who lived through the time. Some of them enjoyed playing cat and mouse with the authorities. But others admit to years of shame and terror at the thought that their desires might become public.

Wildeblood was not a gay liberationist in the mould of the civil rights campaigners of the 1970s. What he wanted was the right to live a respectable private life and, to some extent, the 1967 law provided that opportunity. It was no proud exercise in identity affirmation, but rather the application of discretion to what was felt to be a pressing social problem.

Nevertheless, the BBC’s film, with its sexy scenes and celebratory tributes to men who endured years of bullying and intimidation, makes it clear that it was the establishment that was in retreat as British imperial power fell apart in the face of the rising demands of people across the former empire for independence, respect and self-determination.