The Jewish MP who pried open Britain’s closet door

LONDON — Britain’s summer Pride season — the gay community’s annual chance to marry partying and politics — is now in full swing. This year’s festivities, though, have an added significance as the country marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of male homosexuality.

The event is being widely commemorated: the BBC is screening a series of programs; Prime Minister Theresa May last week held a reception at Downing Street where she acknowledged both her own and her party’s somewhat mixed record on gay rights; and special events and exhibitions are being held across the country. Even the somewhat conventional and conservative National Trust is lending a hand.

When the Homosexual Law Reform Bill finished its tortuous passage through parliament in July of 1967, it marked the beginning of the end of the persecution of gay men by the British state. On this foundation were built the huge achievements of the past two decades — which swept away discriminatory laws, allowed gay men and women to serve in the military, and introduced civil partnerships and equal marriage.

The bill’s author and dogged champion was Leo Abse, a colorful Jewish MP who represented the South Wales mining constituency of Pontypool.

The Welsh Valleys — deeply conservative and traditionalist with a strong nonconformist streak — were an improbable home for a champion of gay rights. But, then again, a wealthy Jewish lawyer from Cardiff had seemed an unlikely candidate for Pontypool’s Labour party when the constituency faced a by-election in 1958. Undeterred by the opposition of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, Abse fought and won that selection. He would represent the seat for the next three decades, soon winning over the skeptical with his passion for social justice and hard work, especially on behalf of miners who had suffered industrial injuries.

The grandson of Jewish immigrants from Poland — his grandfather was supposedly the first Jew to speak Welsh with a Yiddish accent and Yiddish with a Welsh one — Abse attributed to personal experience his interest in the then highly controversial issue of what was termed “homosexual law reform.” His first wife was an artist who counted many gay men as friends.

A reveler dressed as the Queen enjoys the Pride London Parade in London, Saturday, July 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

“My house was always full of artists,” he would say quaintly in later years, “and there was a high incidence of homosexuality among the talented people.”

His time as a lawyer — his practice was the Welsh capital’s largest — had also encouraged a keen awareness of the perversity of the law as it stood. In an interview shortly before his death, he recalled finding his fees from criminals all suddenly coming from the account of one man, who turned out to be a vicar who was being blackmailed for being gay.

‘There was a high incidence of homosexuality among the talented people’

“The bastards were bleeding him,” said Abse. “I sent for one of the criminals and told him if I had another check from this man, I’d get him sent down for 10 years. I sent for the vicar and told him to come to me if they approached him again.”

Abse entered parliament at a propitious moment. A Cold War-inspired witchhunt against gay men, mirroring that in the United States, had produced a series of high-profile trials in the early 1950s.

But while the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, pledged “a new drive against male vice” that would “rid England of this plague,” the conviction and imprisonment of Lord Edward Douglas Scott Montagu, journalist Peter Wildeblood and West Country landowner Michael Pitt-Rivers in 1954 produced a public backlash. The government subsequently decided to establish a committee to review the legislation.

In September 1957, the Wolfenden committee near-unanimously recommended that gay sex between consenting adults should no longer be illegal in Great Britain. (LSE Library, via Flickr)

In September 1957 — a year before Abse’s election — the Wolfenden committee nearly unanimously recommended that gay sex between consenting adults should no longer be illegal. It was, the report concluded, “not the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behavior.”

Parliament, however, balked at Wolfenden’s recommendations, in one early vote opposing them by a majority of two to one. Maxwell-Fyfe, now the Lord Chancellor, walked out of Cabinet, refusing to discuss the “filthy” subject whenever it was raised.
Over the next four years, various attempts, including by Abse in 1961, similarly failed in the face of entrenched opposition.

The election of a Labour government in 1964 — which saw its wafer-thin majority sharply increased after a snap election in 1966 — brought new hope for reformers. In July 1966, Abse introduced a private member’s bill — a device often used in contentious “conscience” issues such as abortion and the death penalty, where the government remains officially neutral — which passed its first parliamentary hurdle by a majority of 244-100.

A passionate supporter of reform, then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins fought in Cabinet for the government to give Abse’s bill the parliamentary time it needed to make its way through the House of Commons and House of Lords. As Abse later admitted, he was probably not Jenkins’ first choice to lead the bill through parliament.

The Home Secretary, Abse suggested, “thought I was too dangerous a character. I was too colorful.”

Certainly, the MP’s propensity for flamboyant attire was already renowned. He liked to wear 18th century dress for Budget Day, turning up in 1960 clad in a curry-colored, high-collared jacket with a black velvet waistcoat embroidered with flowers and carrying a cane.

Labour MP Leo Abse's flamboyant attire for Britain's Budget Day, 1965. (Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo)

There was, though, nothing frivolous about Abse as his skilled handling of the bill subsequently proved. Indeed, by now he was something of an artful parliamentary operator. Calling in favors, he persuaded mining MPs, who opposed reform, to stay away from critical votes. At the same time, he cajoled enough MPs who supported his cause to sit through hours of debate to ensure that during the crucial report stage he always had 100 MPs in the chamber to cut off debate and prevent filibustering.

More controversially, Abse also accepted the need to compromise. The legislation was narrowed to only include England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland did not follow until 1980 and 1982 respectively). The armed forces were excluded. Abse also accepted what he later conceded was an “absurdly high” and unequal age of consent of 21 (it was 16 for straight people).

Feeling the need to “reassure the House of Commons about its masculinity,” his speeches also contained a great deal of what he later termed “bloody nonsense.” He would later parody his own arguments to fellow MPs: “Look, you are wonderful fellows, you are good family men, you have children, marvelous wives — pity these poor people, they are not like you. They are quite different.”

‘Pity these poor people, they are not like you. They are quite different’

More laudably, Abse recalled his experiences in Cardiff and described the existing law as “an invitation to hoodlums.” Speaking at 350 words a minute, one journalist wrote on Abse’s death, his “fast-track, fluent and sparkling Welsh waffle” ensured the interest of the press.

Finally, just before 6 a.m. on the morning of July 5, 1967, the bill cleared the House of Commons. Three weeks later, on July 27, the Sexual Offences Act received its Royal Assent and became law.

The patronizing tone of the debate, the compromises made and the fact that the police continued to seek to entrap and harass gay men for years afterwards meant that the 1967 act remained highly contentious for many. Abse himself felt he did not receive the gratitude he felt the gay community owed him. At the same time, he had to face the ire of those who opposed the reforms with which he was ever-associated. During the 1980s, for instance, he received abusive mail blaming him for the prevalence of AIDS.

Revelers enjoy the Pride London Parade in London, Saturday, July 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

But as the public mood shifted, and the fight for equality gained traction after Tony Blair came to power in 1997, Abse began to receive the recognition he deserved. As one gay journalist wrote after Abse’s death in 2008: “Some 40 years on, Abse’s law does not seem so much an act of betrayal, but the only way of initiating a process of change. It was this or nothing. For all its flaws and faults — and the many cruel injustices that continued long after it was passed — Leo Abse had finally pried open a door.”

‘It was this or nothing. For all its flaws and faults, Leo Abse had finally pried open a door’

The 1967 Act was not Abse’s only contribution towards the raft of liberalizing reforms passed in the 1960s.

He was also at the forefront of the battles to abolish the death penalty (another private member’s bill, it was pushed through parliament by Jewish Labour MP Sydney Silverman); to increase access to family planning and make divorce easier.

He hated the manner in which the existing draconian divorce laws required a bogus admission of adultery or forced couples to remain married only in name. His early efforts at reform, though, encountered stiff opposition from both the Catholic and Protestant churches in Britain. Unperturbed, he quipped to the media: “It took a Jew to found the Christian Church, and it’s taking another to unite it.”

British prime minister James Callaghan in 1977 (public domain, via wikipedia)

Less flippantly, Abse believed that being Jewish contributed to his liberal outlook.

“I could address… those issues to do with family relationships because I wasn’t burdened by the Christian view, which would tend to accept existing laws,” he later suggested. “The confident sense of identity which comes from belonging to an older culture meant that you were not intimidated by the prevailing ambience.”

Abse would also pioneer important legislation on children, industrial injuries, congenital disabilities and widows’ damages. Not for nothing did his friend James Callaghan, who would later serve as prime minister, once suggest to Abse: “You do much more good in terms of human happiness than 90% of the work done in parliament on political issues.”

“The true revolutionary,” believed Abse, “is the reformer who moves step by step.”

Today, his footprints are imprinted on a great swath of legislation that made Britain a more liberal and civilized country.

“He got more backbench socially reforming legislation on the statute book than any other individual MP in the 20th century,” suggested one obituarist.

But Abse’s legacy is to be found less in the dry and arcane language of acts of parliament than in the crowds — gay and straight — who will celebrate 50 years of freedom on the streets of Britain this summer.

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