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21 July 2020updated 07 Aug 2020 10:42am

From the NS archive: A magistrate’s figures

31 October 1953: EM Forster pleas for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

By E M Forster

The novelist EM Forster was 74 when he published this plea for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Not only did he feel unable to write openly about his sexuality, he was forced to make the case in stark and violent terms. As he wrote: “Difficulties always arise when we regard human beings as dirt.” Forster was right in sensing a shift in public opinion, however. The Wolfenden report followed four years later and became law in 1967. Forster died in 1970.   

***

From time to time one sees a reference in the newspapers to a homosexual case. Two or three cases may be reported in a week, another week may pass without any mention and one is left with the vaguest idea as to how frequent such cases are.

That vagueness has now been dispersed. Last week a Police Court magistrate, a man of wide experience, was dealing with a case of importuning male persons, and he is reported as saying that in his court alone there were over 600 such cases every year. The figure is so staggering that one suspects a press error, and quotes it subject to correction. But it was evidently large, for the magistrate was greatly concerned, and even expressed the wish that he could send all such offenders to prison. His figure seems to exclude graver charges; they have doubtless come before him, too, and they would further increase the total. And he does not say how many of the charges were brought as a result of a complaint to the police by the person importuned, and how many were the result of police observation. Here, also, figures would be interesting.

If 600 hundred cases, or a large number of cases, pass through a single police court in a year, what can the figures be for all England? Imagination fails and one is overwhelmed by disgust or by pity. It is terrifying to think of thousands of people – for they must run into thousands – going into the streets for a purpose which they know to be criminal, risking detection and punishment, endangering reputations and incomes and jobs – not to mention the dangers of blackmail. What on earth do they do it for? Some critics will denounce them as infamous. Others will jeer at them for being so daft. Neither criticism goes deep enough. They are impelled by something illogical, by an unusual but existent element in the human make-up. They constitute an extremely small item in society, but an item larger than has been hitherto supposed.

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Suggestions for dealing with them, and with the problem generally, are propounded from time to time. Occasionally there is a purity campaign in the press, and a clean-up is eloquently demanded. But where are these people to be cleaned to? Difficulties always arise when we regard human beings as dirt. They can be pushed about from one place to another, but that is all. Prison – that facile solution – is not a remote magical enclave, as it is sometimes supposed. Prison is a place, it is part of society, even when society ignores it, and people who are pushed into it exist just as much as if they had been pushed into the next parish or over the frontier. They can, of course, be pushed right out of the world. That certainly would clean them up, and that has in the past been tried. It is, however, unlikely that the death penalty for homosexuality will be re-established. Civilisation has in this direction become milder. Moreover, holocausts would have to be repeated for each generation periodically.

There is, of course, the remedy of medical treatment, the scope and the methods of which are still controversial. More satisfactory (if it could be achieved) would be an immediate change in the law. If homosexuality between men ceased to be per se criminal – it is not criminal between women – and if homosexual crimes were equated with heterosexual crimes and punished with equal but not with additional severity, much confusion and misery would be averted; there would be less public importuning and less blackmail. But it is unlikely that the law will be changed. Reformers are too optimistic here. In their zeal they do not consider the position of the average MP, through whom the reform must take place. An MP may be sympathetic personally, but he has to face his constituency and justify his vote, and experience has shown how hostile an electorate can be to anything it considers sexually unusual. His enemies will denounce him, his friends will be afraid to defend him, and he may endanger his seat. Change in the law is unlikely until there is a change in public opinion; and this must happen very slowly, for the great majority of people are naturally repelled by the subject and do not want to have to think about it. Even when it does not revolt them it bores them.

Less social stigma under the existing law – that is all that can be hoped for at present, and there are some grounds for hope. Violent and vulgar denunciations do not work as they did, and are apt to recoil on the denouncer. There is more discussion, less emotion, fewer preconceptions. More laymen read modern psychology, which even when it does not satisfy raises salutary doubts. The stigma attaching to the homosexual is becoming more proportioned to the particular facts of each case. Some courts make increasing use of probation.

As a contrast to the magistrate referred to above, one may quote the remarks of a judge, Mr Justice Hallett. Speaking at about the same time as the magistrate, and dealing with an offence far more serious than importuning, the judge is reported as saying: “It will be a great joy to me and to other judges when some humane method for dealing with homosexual cases is devised, and when something more can be done than simply locking up the offenders.” In such indications as these there is certainly ground for hope.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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