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BARONESS RUTH DEECH, Gresham Professor of Law
It has been estimated that some 5% of the population is gay. From the Buggery Act 1533 until 1861 some homosexual activity (albeit always limited to men) carried the death penalty. We recall the famous case of the Marquess of Queensberry whose accusations against Oscar Wilde led to the latter's being charged and convicted in 1895 to 2 years' hard labour. Only half a century ago homosexual activity was still a crime. In 1953, 2,267 men were prosecuted for homosexual offences; in 1956, 118 out of 300 convicted men who were in a consenting relationship were sent to prison. In those 50 years or so homosexuality has moved from criminal status to legalisation, from legalisation to acceptance and equal respect with heterosexual relationships. (On this history, see S Cretney, Same Sex Relationships (OUP, 2006)). Liberalisation came, as ever, in the form of a report by a member of the establishment, in that period when so much changed, the late 1950s and the legislative reform period of the 1960s. The Wolfenden Report of 1957 opined that ‘there should remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law's business' (para 13). John Wolfenden was Vice Chancellor of Reading University, in the very town where Wilde had been incarcerated. His recommendations led to the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which legalised homosexual acts in private between consenting adults.
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