Britain Extends Pardons Policy for Consensual Same-Sex Partners
LONDON — A four-decade-old conviction has haunted Terry Stewart, a 68-year-old former social worker, throughout his adult life. Classified as a sexual offense, it came up when he applied for a mortgage or a job, and it stymied memberships to some social organizations.
The crime: He was convicted under a now-defunct law of “importuning,” or soliciting same-sex sexual activity. He pleaded not guilty but was convicted anyway.
“It’s not just a slap on the wrist and a 10 pound fine,” said Mr. Stewart, a London man who was active in the gay liberation movement in the 1980s. “It impacted me my whole life.”
Legislative changes over the years have allowed pardons to be granted to gay and bisexual people convicted of sexual offenses under laws that were later repealed. One such reform was known as Turing’s Law, named for the World War II code breaker Alan Turing who was chemically castrated after being convicted of gross indecency in 1952.
But the legislative paths created in the past had not encompassed crimes such as “importuning” or solicitation.
This week, Britain’s government tried to rectify that by pledging to pardon people like Mr. Stewart, who had been convicted of such offenses, said Priti Patel, Britain’s home secretary, adding that she hoped the new policy will “go some way to righting the wrongs of the past.”
Those seeking a pardon must apply through the government, though it has not yet released details.
This new path to a pardon came after years of campaigning by gay rights activists and organizations, and it broadened those eligible to include anyone who had been convicted under repealed legislation relating to consensual same-sex activity. The path was codified into law by an amendment to a policing bill.
Activists said it was a significant development that addressed the discriminatory treatment of gay and bisexual people in the past.
“It recognizes the extraordinary scale of injustice done to so many people over a long period of time, and offers, as far as possible, restitution,” said Paul Johnson, a professor of social sciences at the University of Leeds, who said the change could cover thousands of people. “It draws a line under five centuries of state-sanctioned persecution of gay people and says: ‘never again.’”
But the change — and framing the result as a pardon — does not go far enough in addressing the injustice of the past, Mr. Stewart said. He said it was “an insult” that the government would not proactively reach out to him to clear his conviction.
“Most of the men it affects, it’s much too late for them to pursue the careers that they want to be pursuing,” said Katy Watts, a lawyer for Liberty, a human rights organization that has represented clients like Mr. Stewart. “It’s deeply frustrating that it’s taken so long.”
Mr. Stewart said, “I don’t feel it’s enough, when you consider the impact it’s had and the loss to me in my life and my career,” adding he had appealed his conviction to several home secretaries over the years.
“I don’t want a pardon either,” he added, “because a pardon is an admission of guilt on my part.”
Mr. Stewart said he was profiled as gay by two police officers and charged in 1981 after he went into a public restroom to wash his hands on a weekday morning. “You’re talking about a young man with very blonde hair tied in pigtails,” he said. “That would have been pretty conspicuous.”
He was convicted of importuning a year later.
According to a 2000 Home Office report, broad definitions against “importuning” and “gross indecency” became a way to regulate consensual behavior between homosexual men. Soliciting, for example, could involve “a smile, wink, gesture or some other physical signal.”
For some gay people, the new legislative step has come at the end of a life harmed by the state’s policies.
“Now nearly 99, I am finally seeing my gay criminal record being removed before I die,” George Montague, a World War II veteran who has demanded the government apologize to gay and bisexual people, said on Twitter on Wednesday.
Mr. Montague was convicted of “gross indecency” in 1974, a crime at the time that ultimately forced him to resign from a leadership position in the Boy Scouts after 40 years.
Given the sensitivity of something like a criminal record, many affected people might not want to come forward, said Ms. Watts, of Liberty.
“By bringing legal action you put yourself in the public domain and a lot of men are not willing to do that because of the ongoing shame and stigma,” she said.