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What Happened in 1954? Gay Rights Milestones
by Darren Marples | @Mattersofpride
The year 1954 influenced future LGBT rights in the United Kingdom and beyond. In January of 1954, Peter Wildeblood was arrested for being a homosexual. His home in Canonbury, Islington was searched for evidence of homosexual acts. He was later charged with ‘Gross Indecency’, which could lead to two years imprisonment. The shocking events of 1954 were an important part of twentieth century gay rights milestones.
Invasion of Privacy and Gay Rights Milestones
The police leaked information about the charges against Peter Wildeblood to the press. The following day the scandal hit the Sunday paper headlines. Thus, the entire trial became front page news. Even though this trial was not the last of its kind, it was a public interest story like few others.
In March of that year, Wildeblood appeared in court with his co-offenders; Lord Edward Montagu, and Montagu’s cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers.
Gay Rights Milestones: Arrested for Love
Wildeblood was a Royal Air Force (RAF) World War II veteran. After returning from war, he pursued a career in journalism. In 1953 he covered the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II for the Daily Mail. He was a royal correspondent until his arrest.
Wildeblood had an affair with an Edward McNally, a RAF service man. During his trial the love letters Wildeblood sent to McNally were used as evidence against him. During the dramatic trial, Wildeblood confessed to being homosexual. Wildeblood, along with Lord Edward Montagu and his cousin, Michael Pitt-Rivers, were all sentenced to prison.
Gay Rights Milestones: A Military Affair
In order to protect himself, Edward McNally, who participated in the affair with Wildeblood, gave evidence against him. McNally and his friend, John Reynolds, became witnesses for the prosecution. Very little is known of McNally after the events of 1954. Historians have tried to gather more information about him for years. He worked at a hospital in Cambridge and was a corporal in the Royal Air Force. However, at the conclusion of the court case, McNally seemed to vanish.
Wildeblood received an eighteen-month sentence in Wormwood Scrubs. He wrote a book based on his experiences that highlighted the appalling conditions of the prison. Through his writings, he helped reform prisons and homosexuality laws for future court cases.
Gay Rights Milestones: Early Morning Raids
During the 1950’s, police actively enforced laws prohibiting sex between men. Police pursued suspected homosexual activity through dawn raids, breaking into houses attempting to catch men sharing beds. By 1955, there were over a thousand men convicted of homosexual acts in prison in England and Wales. They were an average age of 37. Since 1938 a military draft had been in place, so convicted men were young adults who had fought for Queen and Country in World War II. Only a few of these men have received any pardon from the government.
Gay Rights Milestones: Prison or Castration
Another well documented case of this era case was that of Alan Turing. He had also served his country well during World War II. His heroic war efforts that save many lives should never be forgotten. Rather than go to prison for his sexuality, he was chemically castrated through estrogen injections. Two years after his conviction, Turing took his own life.
Recently, Turing’s struggles were brilliantly documented in the film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. It took an internet campaign, to bring about a 2009 public apology to Turing by the British Prime Minister. In 2013, Turing was granted a posthumous pardon, which was well-deserved. However, it must also be granted to other men mistreated by the government during the 1950’s.
2009 news report on Turing’s posthumous apology
Gay Rights Milestones: The Wolfenden Committee
In 1954, the UK Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, created The Wolfenden Committee to consider British law relating to homosexual offenses and prostitution. This was in part due to pressure from the media and public scrutiny.
The 15 member committee was lead by John Wolfenden. Wolfenden is now considered to be an LGBT hero for Equal Rights. At the beginning of the trial, Wolfeden suggested for the sake of the ladies in the room, that they use the terms “Huntley” and “Palmers” after the biscuit manufacturers. Huntley’s stood for homosexuals and Palmers stood for prostitutes.
The committee met over the course of three years meeting with witnesses. Although it was difficult to get homosexuals to come forward, three did. Among those three interviewed by the committee was Peter Wildeblood, recently released from prison.
Gay Rights Milestones: Decriminalization
In 1957, the final report of the Wolfenden Committee recommended that homosexuality be decriminalized. A decade later, it was finally decriminalized in England and Wales. It wasn’t until 1980 that it was decriminalized in Scotland. It took two more years for Northern Ireland to decriminalize it, and even longer for the coastal Islands.
1967 interview of John Wolfenden on recommended decriminalization of homosexuality
Historically, 1954 was an important year for LGBT and Equal Rights. Even though it was still a difficult time, we have to remember the emerging and fallen heroes. The men who served prison sentences for their sexuality should ever be forgotten. We should remember Turing who saved millions, and those lesser known servicemen who bravely fought for their country.
This article is part of a series. Read more about the progression towards decriminalizing homosexuality in the UK: 1954: Three Gay Men