A time to take stock and do more

Professor Martin Milton marks the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Readers may be aware of this due to the array of artistic and cultural events that have been commissioned and performed to commemorate and celebrate this milestone. There have been important exhibitions and productions at the Tate, the British Museum, the Old Vic and a range of television offerings, both drama and documentary.

It is important that this anniversary is recognised, because the Act was good, it created momentum and meant that a generation of young gay men grew up without being criminalised. But it is also important to note that it was lacking in some ways, making inroads but leaving some problems behind; In some ways a bit like the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 that returned the cowardly vote of an unequal age of consent for gay men, it brought us closer to equality, without getting us there. Maybe it's a bit like the TV fare too, while on TV there hasn’t been much on the main BBC1. It seems we can be celebrated… but quietly so.

I raise this in the pages of The Psychologist as… it should be here. We are a part of that complicated history, at times complicit with those wanting to ferret out the deviants, wanting to know ‘what makes someone different’, at times brutalising through our involvement in (pointless and unethical) therapies to redirect sexual orientation. Thankfully we have also done better, more recently moving towards a more socially aware and ethical approach that prioritises social justice and the understanding of people within the context of their own lives.

We have also started to challenge discrimination overtly as when we made statements about equal marriage, about the reporting on the Orlando atrocity and most recently on the Trump administration’s scientifically and ethically nonsensical intent to ban trans people from serving in the military.

This is another reason for noting the anniversary: it reminds us that we still have a long way to go. Rights have been hard won, but as we are seeing, they are under threat and they can be lost. We see it all around us, the US has launched an attack on LGBT rights, making us invisible in government websites, becoming preoccupied with the right to use a bathroom, and they have a VP who has long supported unethical and barbaric conversion therapy. In Chechnya, just a stone's throw from Europe and the civilised EU, we have gay men being murdered en masse.

And what about closer to home? Like others, I am nervous here too. Anti-LGBT hate crime rose alongside xenophobic violence in the first few months after the Brexit referendum; we may have a memo of understanding that pours scorn on the notion of conversion therapy, but we haven’t banned it as Malta has, and a Memo of Understanding is not the same as having it on the stature books. And our government has now made an arrangement with a party notorious for being an obstacle to equal rights.

As psychologists, practitioners and researchers alike, we have to be mindful of the impact of social injustice and inequality, and of the damage done by silencing and invisibilising policies and practices. We have to remember that while change happens, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are persistent. They are like racism, sexism and ableism, they have a way of emerging again and again, often in new and subtle forms.

There is still a lot to do before we have a society that is comfortable with diversity, of any kind, and especially around gender and sexuality. And this is where I think we come in. Psychology could be at the forefront of challenging problems and creating positive ways forward, both in the consulting room and in the culture at large. It seems to me that it not enough to simply try not to go along with some of the excesses of our culture. We need to do more. We need to be at the forefront of accepting and celebrating diversity, of all kinds, rather than simply (to use that awful term so favoured by politicians) ‘tolerating’ diversity. We need to develop our services so that the understanding of privilege and Othering is part and parcel of each assessment we do. We need to have more research that not only notes the damage done by oppressive socio-cultural contexts but that sheds light on innovative and contextually sensitive practice that overcomes it. Our policies need to be clear on the advantages of diversity and the ways in which allies across demographic groups all benefit. The anniversary of this Act is a time to take stock and remember that a kinder society for one group can be a kinder society for all.

Professor Martin Milton

Regents University London 

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