Why the Welsh Assembly being named Britain’s best employer for LGBT is no surprise


This is a guest blog by author and activist Norena Shopland, whose new book Forbidden Lives we published in late 2017.

Why the Welsh Assembly being named Britain’s best employer for LGBT is no surprise

The National Assembly for Wales has just been named Britain’s best employer for LGBT staff in Stonewall’s annual list of top 100 LGBT-inclusive employers. Fifth last year, they made the top spot due to their range of policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) staff, as well as introducing new measures to improve the workplace for transgender employees.

I have seen first-hand the positive work done by Assembly employees, particularly the LGBT staff network group Prism and Seren Books and I would like to congratulate the Welsh Assembly on their award. It didn’t surprise me though – given how influential people from Wales have been in British LGBT history, and by extension in societal history here and abroad.

Norena Shopland Forbidden LivesThis was something I was made acutely aware of when writing Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales, and several chapters are dedicated to these influential people.

In 2017 we celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the Wolfenden Report (1957) and the fiftieth of the Sexual Offences Act (1967). I was delighted to be invited to speak at a House of Commons event on the roles played by people from Wales. I took as my theme that great period of flux in the mid-twentieth century when so much happened with regard to LGBT people: prosecutions against gay men reached its highest point; in 1931 there were 622 prosecutions, a figure which rose to 6,644 in 1955 – because of a law that prohibited gay men from simply being. We know that Alan Turing was convicted for nothing more than confessing he was a homosexual, and whilst gay women and transgender people were not prohibited under law, simply being so was socially unacceptable and discrimination was high. When society began to question the purpose of this law, particularly following the sensational Montagu trial (1954), an increasing number of people began speaking up.

Opponents included Roy Jenkins MP, and Rev. Llywelyn Williams MP from Abertillery among others, but it was Pembrokeshire’s Desmond Donnolly MP who first brought the subject of decriminalising homosexuality up in the House of Commons, a risky move at the time.  Robert Boothby MP pressurised the Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe into considering the situation and reluctantly Maxwell-Fyfe agreed, tagging homosexuality onto a commissioned report on prostitution, which became known as the Wolfenden Report.

Initially the Wolfenden committee refused to speak to homosexual men, as they could not consider talking to criminals. Welshman Goronwy Rees, described as the most ‘lateral thinking and perceptive member of the committee’, thought differently and complained that few members had ever encountered a homosexual ‘in a social way’. He persuaded John Wolfenden, the chair, to meet some homosexual men and to accept the testimony of Peter Wildeblood, who had been imprisoned following the Montague trial. Wildeblood had subsequently written a book and Wolfenden therefore considered him an ‘attention seeker’. Rees also facilitated the inclusion of Patrick Trevor-Roper, a Harley Street consultant; Carl Winter, the director of the Fitzwillian Museum; and author Angus Wilson. Only these four self-identified homosexual men appeared before the committee but they played an important role in influencing the outcome of the Wolfenden Report.

The recommendation of the report for more leniency towards homosexual men was on the whole positively received, but whilst the recommendations on prostitution were enacted, those on homosexuality were not. Maxwell-Fyfe, having reluctantly commissioned Wolfenden, was now stalling it and Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister and personally supportive of change, felt that it would cost the labour party too many votes.

When it became apparent that nothing was going to happen, Tony Dyson, an English lecturer at Bangor University, wrote to every notable person he could think of, asking them to sign an open letter to The Times requesting Wolfenden be enacted. Writing on Bangor University headed note paper, Dyson was placing himself at great risk of being either arrested, sacked or both. As it happened, the university took no action against him – a progressive reaction at the time. The Times obituary for Dyson in 2002 drew attention to his contribution: ‘it is difficult to comprehend,’ they said, ‘the danger of living as a homosexual before the law was reformed in 1967, with the ever-present threat of criminal proceeding or blackmail.’

On the back of The Times letter, Dyson and others set up the Homosexual Law Reform Society, the first openly gay campaigning group in Britain – others followed. What was needed was someone to spearhead a campaign to get Wolfenden enacted and that person was Leo Abse, Cardiff solicitor and MP for Pontypool. As a backbencher he was able to concentrate on unpopular causes and did much for women’s rights, among other achievements. But even he struggled to get this bill through and it was Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary, who gave the final push needed for the legislation to pass and so changed British society for good.

Of course others have been at the forefront: Katherine Philips; Mary Lloyd; Cliff Tucker; Cranogwen; John Randell; Cliff Gordon; Jan Morris; Gwen John; Ernest Jones; Cedric Morris; Griff Vaughan Williams; Lady Rhondda – I could go on and on about the number of Welsh people who have influenced LGBT and British life.

Wales is a small country but in LGBT history it has always had a huge presence – and that is why the Welsh Assembly award shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

 

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