Against the Law

This documentary was screened as part of the BBC’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, i.e., that of males, as the law always assumed that women don’t do such things. It tells the story of journalist Peter Wildeblood who was put on trial with his friends Lord Montague and Michael Pitt-Rivers for practicing and encouraging what was seen as depraved behaviour. The 3 men pleaded not guilty, but were sent to jail for over a year, where they were offered ‘treatments’ for their ‘condition’. Apparently the injection of estrogen proved futile, so they were offered instead electric shock therapy or purging – to be vomiting and pissing and left to sit in their own filth for over a day. Appalling stuff and of course it didn’t work.

I was disappointed that the aristocrats played such a small role in this, but there was a lot to fit into the 90 minutes. On Wildeblood’s release he returned to his house to find his neighbours had put up a sign to welcome him home, which helped him a lot. A commission was arranged to investigate the system, but Wildeblood was the only gay man to give evidence, which shows how fearful the gay community was of coming out. He explained to them how there were 3 types of gays -he was what he claimed was the largest group, who just wanted to fall in love and have private relationships. The commission recommended decriminalisation, but it still took another 10 years for the law to change. Ten years! While London was swinging, and straight people were misbehaving in public, these poor men continued to suffer for being themselves. 

The film was interspersed with clips of gay men who remember those dark times, which I thought might be a bit cheesy, but the men were intelligent, thoughtful and damaged by how they had been treated. Some were in their 90s and some in very long term relationships, so the story was not all bleak. One spoke of how the criminal system forced him into furtive, short term dalliances, which prevented any long term relationships, which made him lonely and isolated. Others spoke of police entrapment. An ex-navy man told of how he was arrested and told to give them names of others. He gave them one name, and learnt that soon after, the man committed suicide. He still feels responsible. How many men lost their careers, their friends, their lives to this ignorance, this malicious law? As the reviewer in The Observer wrote “A shocking, heart breaking indictment of old-world mores. Please watch it.”

 

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