Leo Abse, a controversial figure

Publish Date: 20/02/2012

Around five years ago Mike Newman began to produce a short history of freedom for gay men in Britain since the 1950’s after reading an article about the lack of awareness of early gay liberation campaigners.

Over the last few years Mike has interviewed five such campaigners and here he takes a look at Leo Abse.

The late former Labour MP guided a Private Member's Bill through Parliament in 1967 that legalised sex between men. In the 1960s Abse broke the political deadlock over the status of homosexuality. He persuaded the home secretary Roy Jenkins to give his Bill Government time.

Abse was a flamboyant character for most of his life; his original profession was as a solicitor in Cardiff.

There must have been many things to occupy his time in a South Wales mining constituency in the long years of Conservative government before 1964, but he had a penchant for the big national social issues; hanging, divorce, abortion (which he opposed) and homosexuality, among others. Each has a chapter in his book, Private Member, and one has the impression of a great many balls kept in the air to cover so many themes.

It would not have been possible to keep active on so many issues all his political life and his interest in the position of gay men, one of illegality and persecution, came from professional and personal experience.

His legal practice made him aware of the prevalence of blackmail in their lives; he described how a vicar was compelled, under threat of revelation of bisexuality, to pay his lawyer’s fees for criminals under prosecution - Abse said he told the vicar to stop paying and tell him if further threats were made, and hauled some of the blackmailers into his office, telling them he would get them ten year sentences if they didn’t desist.

At the same time, he knew gay men as part of his social circle through his first wife who was an artist. ‘My house was always full of artists’, he said, ’and there was a high incidence of homosexuality among the talented people’. From these two sources, he said, he became aware of the ‘problems and predicaments ‘and he wanted to change the situation for gay men, though not as radically as many would have liked.

Abse arrived in the House of Commons in 1958 after a by-election, in the year after the publication of the Wolfenden Report (Which recommended homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence). As he said,’It is noteworthy that previous to that (the Montagu-Wildeblood case of 1954, which led to the setting up of the Wolfenden Report) there had been little or no public discussion or report on this subject’.

Lord Kilmuir, the Lord Chancellor, walked out of cabinet meetings whenever the ‘filthy subject’ of homosexuality was discussed. A debate not long after Abse’s arrival rejected the proposals by more than two to one. His view of the origin of homosexuality was not entirely what would nowadays be thought of as progressive, feeling it had produced ‘faulty males’ and that efforts should be directed towards preventing little boys from developing in that direction, even if those who did should not be imprisoned for so doing.

His first attempt at reform was limited, nevertheless his proposals for uniform procedures across the country, prosecution within twelve months and psychiatric reports on first offenders were rejected; ‘the more public it became in the debate, the more you could get people to accept the need for change without getting frightened’.

Only three months into the new parliament Abse won the the right under the ten minute rule to request permission to introduce a bill on the subject in July 1966, which he won by 244 votes to 100 after a debate in which he attacked the unjust and unenforceable law, an ‘invitation to hoodlums’.

Nevertheless, he also said he felt all in the house would wish to see a reduction in the number of gay men. But then, qualified support, regret and condescension were hallmarks at that time of those supporting reform which now strike us as bizarre.

He acknowledged the role played before the vote by ‘discriminating lobbying of M.Ps ‘by the persistent Antony Grey of the Homosexual Law Reform Society’.

Abse, also involved heavily in the debates on abortion, where he was, unlike all the other social reform issues, on the ‘no’ side. In order to move closure and avoid running out of available time, Abse had to have a hundred supporters in the chamber each time a closure was proposed.

With all the amendments won, a simple majority sufficed to pass the report stage in the Commons, and this was achieved at 5.44 a.m. by 99 votes to 14. Of the majority, 83 members were Labour, 12 Conservative and 4 Liberal.

It is clear where most support for the measure came from, which makes one of the view that a Labour election win was needed to pass it, but it would be unfair to those Conservatives who risked public and party disapproval, who included those known to be on the liberal wing, but also, though they did not stay through the night, Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell.

Abse dragged himself home, exhausted, and it only remained for the Bill to go back to the Lords, where it passed without a division, At the end of the Lords debate, The Earl of Arran made a speech which Antony Grey could not persuade him to drop, asking homosexuals to ‘remember that while there may be nothing bad in being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good’‘, and that the new freedom would not prevent them from being ‘the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity’.

His dislike of ‘flaunting’ was paralleled by that of Abse, who regetted to the end the appearance of ‘gay ghettoes’ where he had wanted gay men to merge imperceptibly into the wider community, an option certainly, but not the only one.

To find out more come along to Pioneers and Progress – A short British history of gay men’s freedom. 23rd February 7pm at the Lesbian & Gay Foundation. To reserve your place please e-mail: andrew.gilliver@lgf.org.uk