In June 1967, opposition Conservative UK parliamentarians encountered a new and threatening queer danger. They feared that the Sexual Offences Bill then before them — a measure that would partially decriminalize male homosexual acts — might appear to sanction, and even promote, homosexual activity. Conservative MP Sir Cyril Osborne therefore proposed an amendment that would make publicizing and publishing lists of homosexuals, in other words printing “gay bachelor” or queer personal ads, a new “serious punishable offence.”
Even if the government was on the verge of partially decriminalizing male homosexual acts, Osborne’s proposed amendment would nonetheless criminalize what he saw as the commercial promotion of homosexuality. It demanded that,
Anyone who indulges in activities tending to promote acts of homosexuality between consenting adults through the publication of lists of names and addresses of known homosexuals or otherwise, shall be guilty of a criminal offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of five years or a fine of £5,000.
In other words, were the act to pass, anyone who “promoted” entirely legal acts of consensual homosexuality would themselves be committing a criminal offence. Punishment for this new commercial crime would in fact be even more stringent than existing laws for most homosexual offences; acts of gross indecency were then punishable by up to two years imprisonment.
When discussion came before Parliament on 23 June 1967, former Assistant Postmaster-General and Tory MP Ray Mawby read out an ad from a “gay bachelor” looking for other men to form a “social club” for “male only activities.” Claiming that this was only one of many such ads in the unnamed magazine, Mawby expressed his fear at the availability of this material and condemned the magazines that printed it. “We might say,” he conceded, “that there was not too much to worry about if this magazine had a private circulation among certain people…”. Were the magazine limited to a small and less lucrative subcultural circulation, in other words, it might not have been so repugnant. It was the magazine’s commercial distribution and widespread public availability that angered him most.
The issue of homosexual advertisements was, however, more complicated. This was clear to Dick Taverne, Labour Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. He worried that even well-meaning organizations designed to confront the “problem” of homosexuality could be harmed by the proposed clause to the Sexual Offences Bill. They too, after all, supported activities that tended to bring homosexuals together. Making such ads illegal, he warned, might proscribe the activities of these bona fide organizations that offered therapy and other medical interventions for homosexuals.
Tory MPs, however, remained fixated on the insidious threat posed by homosexual personal ads that could freely circulate in publications throughout the country. Sir Arthur Vere Harvey cited the “cleverly worded advertisements in the personal columns of leading newspapers which are designed to bring men together” as an even more serious danger. They might compel men to meet, inciting desires and forging links between homosexuals that could ultimately contribute to creating a community. Such newspapers were still more mainstream, and posed an even greater threat on account of their national distribution. Clearly, no publication was innocent, and no one was safe. Significantly, Charles Doughty further emphasized the “commercial element,” condemning those who advertised in order to make money from sexual vice. Proponents of the amendment rallied against public commercial vice and the threat of homosexuality to British society, but after about two hours of debate the clause was ultimately defeated.
In the 1950s and 1960s, coded terms like “gay bachelor” could still mask transgressive sexuality, allowing queer personal ads to appear in even mainstream publications. Perhaps capitulating that decriminalization of homosexual sex was by this time inevitable, Osborne instead attacked the personal ads through which men could meet and the publications that printed them. His amendment illuminates concerns over the relationship between homosexuality and capitalism. For conservative observers and legislators, these publications were dangerous precisely because they disrupted boundaries between public and private behaviour by the promiscuous mingling of commercial endeavor and “unnatural vice.”
As Osborne and his colleagues realized and feared, commercially successful publications in which queer personal ads might run could facilitate personal connections and even, as US historian Martin Meeker shows, contribute to community formation. In the UK, H.G. Cocks has conclusively demonstrated queer personal ads appearing in print throughout the twentieth century, and with them an equally long interest from authorities. It is important, however, not to lose sight of the commercial foundations and significance of these publications. In fact, as David Johnson has shown in work on US physique magazines, commercial networks touched the lives of many more gay men than homophile activism. Commercial networks, then, could become community networks, offering escape from isolation and loneliness, discovery of others, or simply social and sexual opportunities.
Gaydar, other online dating sites, and geosocial networking apps like Grindr and Growlr that rely on subscriptions, advertising or which might collect market information, may all seem like recent commercial innovations allowing queer men to connect for the first time from the safety and security of their homes. Osborne’s proposed criminalization of queer personal ads in commercial media, however, forces us to reconcile much longer histories of capitalism and homosexuality intertwining to bring men together. Long before Grindr, mainstream commercial magazines and newspapers brought queer men opportunities to meet other “gay bachelors” safely in their homes. And precisely because of this mingling of commerce and sexuality, they also drew attacks from those who feared that potential to forge new connections and communities.
Justin Bengry is an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. Justin’s research focuses on the intersection of homosexuality and consumer capitalism in twentieth-century Britain, and he is currently revising a book manuscript titled The Pink Pound: Queer Profits in Twentieth-Century Britain. He tweets from @justinbengry
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