Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The importance of "pardons" for gay and bisexual men in the UK

The semi-centennial of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 has produced widespread discussion of the social and legal history of homosexuality in the UK. 
A national conversation about the merits and flaws of the 1967 Act is to be welcomed because, as is well known, this was the first step in a legislative process of decriminalizing "homosexual acts" which concluded, at least in England and Wales, only with the enactment of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
An aspect of the current debate that I find perplexing, however, is the tendency of some people to use the anniversary of the 1967 Act to criticize recent steps taken by the UK Parliament to rectify the wrongs done to gay and bisexual men in the past. 
One of the key criticisms relates to the recent pardons issued by the UK Parliament to deceased persons who were convicted of or cautioned for certain repealed sexual offences. These pardons are also available to living people who successfully apply to have a conviction or caution for an offence "disregarded". I outlined the scope (and limitations) of the pardons here.
The argument being made against pardons is that they are an inadequate response because they offer "forgiveness" to those who committed an offence rather than an "apology" to those who were convicted. 
It is somewhat understandable that this criticism of the pardons exists because a pardon does not eliminate a conviction but, in simple terms, relieves a person from suffering any consequences arising from a conviction. Therefore, I'm not against debating the merits of pardons on this and other grounds, and I understand and share some people's ambivalence towards them.
However, what I don't share is the view that the pardons are some kind of "half way house" and that real justice would only be delivered if the government issued a formal apology. That view seems to have gained traction in recent weeks, with numerous people - including Jeremy Corbyn - calling on Prime Minister Theresa May to issue an official government apology. Mr Corbyn is reported as saying that pardons are "insufficient to say the least" and that "an apology to every gay person who was ever persecuted" should be given by the government.
I'm not opposed to the idea of asking the Prime Minister to express apology for the previous treatment of gay people, but I do find the accompanying criticisms of the pardons problematic. 
Pardoning men who were convicted or cautioned for homosexual offences can only be seen as an "empty gesture" if pardons are considered in narrow, legal terms. For instance, it could be said that there is no point to a posthumous pardon because a deceased person is no longer suffering penalties from which they need release. 
However, such an understanding misses a key point about pardons, which is that their effects are not strictly legal but, importantly, also highly symbolic. For example, the pardons granted in 2006 to servicemen executed for disciplinary offences during the Great War were designed to recognize these men as "victims" of that war. Therefore, although in strict legal terms these pardons may appear somewhat "weak", in symbolic terms they are a powerful mechanism whereby social value is attributed to those once considered to be, amongst other things, cowards. 
The posthumous pardons issued to gay and bisexual men, which extend back to 1533, have a similar symbolic effect. They "rehabilitate" - to use a somewhat problematic term - those who were, for centuries, regarded as social outsiders. They give back to those who were executed, imprisoned or otherwise punished, the value that society robbed of them.
Lord Lexden, speaking in the House of Lords during a recent debate on the pardons, said that they "make reparation, to the extent that it is possible and practicable, to those still living and remove a terrible stain from the reputations of those who are no longer alive, for the comfort of their families". I agree. 
The powerful, symbolic effects of pardons stem from the fact that they are, in this case, granted by the UK Parliament through statute law. Enshrining the pardons in legislation means that the supreme authority of our country - Parliament - has recognized, in law, that the treatment of gay and bisexual men in the past was cruel and wrong. The law has therefore come full circle. This is, to my mind, a far more potent way of expressing an "apology" than words spoken by a Prime Minister.
The pardons show how far the UK Parliament has come on the issue of homosexuality. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the word "homosexuality" being spoken for the first time in a Parliamentary debate. Lord Dawson of Penn first used the word in the House of Lords in 1937 in an attempt to make "the practice of homo-sexuality" an explicit ground for divorce. Since then, the Parliamentary approach to legislating on issues relating to homosexuality has completely transformed. Whereas Parliament was once dominated by homophobic ideas, it is now an institution in which respect for equality on the grounds of sexual orientation is the accepted norm. 
There is, of course, work left for the UK Parliament to do - not least in respect of expanding the "disregard scheme" to allow gay and bisexual people living with convictions or cautions to obtain a disregard and a pardon for offences not currently covered by the scheme - but we should not criticize our legislators for the work they have done so far. Rather, we should look to our Parliament and feel absolute pride for what has been done - often by way of imperfect means, like pardons - to right the wrongs of the past. 
We should also remember that enshrining the pardons for gay and bisexual men in statute law has been no easy task and has required tenacious campaigning. A key figure in this campaign has been Lord Sharkey, who twice introduced the Alan Turing (Statutory Pardon) Bill in the House of Lords, in 2012 and 2013, as "a symbolic first step" towards addressing the hardship suffered by generations of gay people and, importantly, as a means of persuading the government to act. Alan Turing was eventually pardoned directly by Her Majesty the Queen, but it was Lord Sharkey who moved amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill in 2016 that introduced the pardons for other gay and bisexual men in England and Wales. 
Of course, as Lord Cashman said in a recent debate in the House of Lords on the pardons, "I remind myself that what we achieve now is not achieved by us but was made possible by a thousand generations of LGBT people and our heterosexual allies who stood up and fought for equality, often giving up their livelihoods, their freedom and, in some instances, their lives". That's true. But let's not belittle the work that legislators in both Houses of Parliament, across all political parties, have done to achieve these recent, important reforms. Let's ask them to continue this work and, importantly, to encourage legislators in other countries around the world - including those in Council of Europe states - to adopt the same approach. 

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