Ian McKellen | Writings | Activism | UK Age of Consent

6 April 1993 | In Support of an Equal Age of Consent

In London 98 years ago, as today, two of the most popular hits in the West End Theatre were An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.  98 years ago this week, the author’s name was removed from the hoardings outside the theatres and, shortly after, the plays themselves were taken off.   This was all because, 98 years ago today, Oscar Wilde was arrested here in the Cadogan Hotel, and taken to Bow Street where he was refused bail and imprisoned during the hearings, which led to his trial and punishment in Reading Gaol and his exile in France.  His crime was to have made love to another man.   

Shortly after his arrest, the ferry crossing the Channel carried 540 male passengers more than usual.  They were presumably escaping the hysterical repression of their homosexuality.  

Today, 98 years on, three more gay men are once more looking to mainland Europe for some sort of sanctuary.  Hugo Greenhalgh, William Parry and Ralph Wilde are applying to the European Court of Human Rights for the understanding and justice denied them by the United Kingdom’s “age of consent” laws. 

In 1967, when gay male sex was decriminalized in England and Wales, the age at which two men could legally consent to make love in private was to be the age of majority, which was then 21.  Although the age of majority has since been legally changed to 18, the age of consent for gay men remains frozen at 21.  This anomaly does not apply to their peers, heterosexual or lesbian, who are free to make love at 16.  

The principle of equality in this matter is accepted by 20 of the 28 countries who are in the Council of Europe.  Hugo Greenhalgh, William Parry and Ralph Wilde are hoping that their application will be heeded by the British government, who can learn from the experience of our neighbors and be reassured that an equal age of consent does not endanger individuals or society.  Rather, by freeing individuals society is made more just as a whole.  

The aim of Stonewall is to establish equality under the law for lesbians and gay men in the United Kingdom.  We lobby for an equal age of consent.  We therefore will vigorously support this application, in the hope that before the centenary of Oscar Wilde’s arrest, his namesake will no longer be called a criminal.    

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