As It Happens

This U.K. man convicted under an anti-gay law 40 years ago may finally get a pardon

The U.K. government announced Tuesday that it will expand a program launched in 2012 that allowed thousands of gay and bisexual men to clear their convictions under now-abolished anti-gay laws. 

Britain expands pardons for people convicted under defunct laws that criminalized consensual same-sex activity

For the past four decades, Terry Stewart has had a blight on his criminal record. His crime? Breaking the now-abolished law of importuning, or soliciting men for sex. (Submitted by Terry Stewart)

Story Transcript

Terry Stewart's criminal record has made his life hell for more than 40 years, costing him several job opportunities and even preventing him from getting a mortgage. But he considers himself one of the lucky ones.

The 68-year-old London man was convicted in the early 1980s of "importuning for an immoral purpose," a now-defunct U.K. law that criminalized men soliciting same-sex sexual activity. 

He's just one of thousands of LGBTQ people convicted under what he calls homophobic laws that never should have existed in the first place. Now, thanks to new legislation, he may finally have the chance to clear his name — but not everyone is so fortunate. 

"I now would consider myself lucky because a lot of people couldn't deal with it. Some people committed suicide. It wrecked families," Stewart told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"It was just atrocious, what happened to people."

'Massive backlash against the gay community'

The U.K. government announced Tuesday that it will expand a program launched in 2012 that allowed thousands of gay and bisexual men in England and Wales to clear their convictions under now-abolished anti-gay laws. Northern Ireland and Wales, which are also a part of the U.K., have their own policies around pardons.

The original legislation applied to convictions of "buggery," "gross indecency" and "sodomy." Now, thanks to an amendment to the country's policing bill, it will now include all convictions related to consensual same-sex sexual activity.

That includes importuning, the charge for which Stewart was convicted. The offence technically applied to the solicitation of sex work, but a 2000 report from the UK. Home Office found that it, along with a slew of other laws, were "primarily used to regulate same-sex behaviour in public."

That report found a man could be convicted of soliciting for something a simple as "a smile, wink, gesture or some other physical signal."

Importuning was repealed in 2013, but it has remained on Stewart's record as a crime. He says it's a homophobic law that never should have existed, but he still steadfastly maintains his innocence. 

Stewart, pictured in 1981, marching in the streets. The Irish-born Londoner has long been active in the gay liberation movement. (Submitted by Terry Stewart)

He says he was running an errand in 1982, when he had to stop to make a repair on his bike. He popped into a public bathroom to wash the grease off his hands, when he says two police officers came in and told him he was under arrest.

He pleaded not guilty, but was convicted at trial. 

"[The officers] suggested that I had approached several men with a view to having sex with them. Well, this was 10 o'clock in the morning on a Wednesday morning. There was nobody there. There was no men. It was just nonsense," Stewart said.

"But it was fairly typical of the way in which they conducted themselves with gay people during that period. There was a massive backlash against the gay community in the early '80s."

'Righting the wrongs of the past' 

Home Secretary Priti Patel said on Tuesday that the expanded pardons are the government's way of "righting the wrongs of the past."

"It is only right that where offences have been abolished, convictions for consensual activity between same-sex partners should be disregarded too," she added in a statement.

The U.K has taken a series of steps in recent years to address past discrimination against LGBTQ people. 

Alan Turing, a mathematician, computer scientist and Second World War codebreaker, was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 and subjected to chemical castration.

In 2017, the government pardoned thousands of gay and bisexual men posthumously. Called Turing's Law, It was named for Second World War codebreaker Alan Turing, who was chemically castrated after being convicted of gross indecency in 1952. He took his own life two years later. 

Last year, the British military allowed dismissed members to apply to have their medals returned.

"It's very important that the state recognizes that, as a country, we did something that was wholly wrong and  inappropriate," Michael Cashman, a British lawmaker who worked on the policy, and founder of LGBTQ rights organization Stonewall, said. It's been a long six years of work."

Under the new rules, Stewart can apply to have his conviction cleared, and if it is, he will be formally pardoned, said his lawyer, Katy Watts.

But if it was up to Stewart, everyone's convictions would be thrown out automatically in one fell swoop.

"But they're not doing that. They're putting people through more trauma by them having to apply for this removal," he said. "I'm not happy with it because it's set up as a pardon, and a pardon is almost an admission to guilt on my part."

Still, he will go forward with the application, hoping to put an end to a long, dark chapter of his life.

But, once again, he says he's one of the lucky ones. Some may not live long enough to see their names cleared. 

"I'm hoping it'll happen within a matter of months," he said. "But I've got a friend who is 98 years of age."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Terry Stewart produced by Sarah Jackson. 

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