Why the Peter Wildeblood case in Against the Law was a defining moment in gay equality

The story behind the new BBC drama following the men jailed for being homosexual

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“The buggers are legal now. What more are they after?” Tom Robinson first sang those angry, ironic words in 1976. Nine years had passed since sexual acts between two men over the age of 21 had been legalised. Provided it was in their own home, with no other people in the building. In England and Wales only. And provided you weren’t a member of the armed forces or the merchant navy.

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In the decades after 1967, arrests for sexual behaviour not covered by the Sexual Offences Act multiplied by a factor of three. Gay men and women were still being arrested for public displays of affection – kissing, holding hands – until the 1990s, under breach-of-the-peace laws.

Vilification of the gay community in the tabloid press persisted until the end of the century and, as late as 1986, calls in Parliament for gay male sex to be recriminalised were taken seriously.

So what more were the buggers after? Well, quite a lot, actually. The 1967 Sexual Offences Act was a pivotal moment in queer British history but it was a beginning rather than an end.

The road to the act began in the early 1950s, with the infamous Montagu Trial. And before legislators began to grapple with the question of male homosexuality, they had first to be confronted with an unexpected shift in public opinion on the subject.

And that shift only came to light because, one spring evening in 1952, a young man named Peter Wildeblood went for a stroll near Piccadilly and met a nice bloke in a uniform. Eddie McNally was on leave from RAF Ely and unlike some of his mates he wasn’t looking for a one-night stand.

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Richard Gadd as Eddie McNally in Against the Law

Peter and Eddie began a love affair. It was tempestuous at times but, according to Wildeblood’s friends, both men were rather smitten. Smitten enough to write each other love letters. Love letters give sweethearts the chance to say things we might never say face-to-face. They can be kept as precious reminders for the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, they can also be rather useful as evidence before a Crown Court.

Amongst Wildeblood’s friends was Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. The two men, along with another friend, Michael Pitt-Rivers, were prosecuted under the same law that had put Oscar Wilde behind bars some 60 years previously. Since the case involved a lord of the realm it made the front pages. Back in 1895 the public at large had applauded Wilde’s incarceration; the authorities and the police confidently expected the same level of general approval six decades later.

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(L-R) Michael Pitt Rivers, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Peter Wildeblood, leaving court after being found guilty of gross indecency for homosexual activity, London, March 25th 1954. 

They didn’t get what they bargained for. Many people felt the three friends were the victims of a police witch-hunt. Voices were heard in public suggesting the behaviour of grown men in their own homes might not be any business of the state. The newspapers debated the possibility of reform and the word “homosexual” became common parlance.

Against this backdrop, in August 1954 the government responded in the time-honoured fashion by setting up a committee. That committee, chaired by John Wolfenden, heard testimony from a variety of interested parties, before finally recommending that acts between men should indeed be legalised.

The report also featured the then quite radical assertion that homosexuality was not a disease. But the homosexual, it went on, has a responsibility to impose self-control “as a matter of daily experience. The extent to which coughing can be controlled is an example.”

Harold Macmillan’s government shelved the report but the ball had started rolling. It would take a private member’s bill tabled by Labour backbencher Leo Abse to put the committee’s recommendations into practice, ten years later.

Peter Wildeblood was the only openly gay man to testify before the Wolfenden committee. He wrote a book, Against the Law, outlining his terrible experiences and calling for legal reform. The book resonated with gay men and legislators alike.

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Daniel Mays as Peter Wildeblood

Wildeblood struck me as a compassionate and emotional man – with a major romantic streak. He wanted what so many of us humans want – to love and be loved. His arrest and conviction greatly affected him and undoubtedly clouded his view of society at large – and, unfortunately, his fellow gay men. Writing about individuals who have a transformative effect on their times comes with a risk.

It’s too easy to reimagine people like Peter as versions of “us” – enlightened, socially liberal citizens of the 21st century – somehow parachuted back into darker times when folk were forced to abide by horrible, oppressive laws. They struggle bravely against contemporary mores to nudge society a little bit closer to the sunny uplands we now occupy. It’s a feelgood tale for a modern TV audience.

But, of course, it’s not true. The people who move society on are ahead of their time but also of their time. They say things we might not like; they don’t stick to the script.

Opportunities to write stories as important as this come once in a lifetime. But this story isn’t finished yet. Rights grudgingly given can just as easily be taken away. For example, the film graphically depicts the aversion therapy given to “cure” gay men in the 1950s. Barbaric and totally ineffective it may be, but the current US Vice-President Mike Pence has called for funding to be directed to institutions offering to “help” people “seeking to change their sexual behaviour”.

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Fifty years on, we buggers still want more.