An amendment to the policing and crime bill which pardons only those men historically accused of homosexual offences that are now dead has been rightly considered insufficient by SNP minister John Nicolson, who proposes a law to pardon all gay men, dead or alive. The obstruction to the passing of the ‘Turing Bill’ by Conservative minister Sam Gyimah reflects a standstill in an otherwise rapid progression towards legal equality between gay and straight people in recent years.
The 15 000 men still living with convictions of homosexual offences will have endured the trauma of a world that seems geared against their freedom. They lived in a time when their feelings were doomed to be either hidden or forcibly suppressed by the law, abuse on the street, or a punch in the playground. And now that the government seems to be finally working against, rather than acting as a conduit for, the homophobic tendencies of society, these men are being told that they must work for their rights. In a speech which led him close to tears, Chris Bryant, former shadow leader of the House of Commons, asked, “Why on earth would you write to the home secretary and say, ‘Please can I be pardoned?… Why on earth would you want someone to analyse whether or not you were guilty at all way back when?”
The government must turn its focus away from the dead and confront the living impact of discrimination. With a continued tendency towards mental health problems among the LGBT community, what Owen Jones has termed the “hidden” demon faced by gay people, the need becomes painfully clear. Stonewall research in 2014 found that 52 per cent of young LGBT people have self-harmed, while 44 per cent have considered suicide. Certainly, Sam Gyimah telling 15 000 men that they have to beg for forgiveness cannot help to remedy this trend. However, these statistics reflect a society which continues to judge people according to their sexual orientation and this problem cannot be solved by one law. If justice prevails, an automatic pardon for those living with historical convictions will not be difficult to enact. What will take more time and effort from both the government and wider society, is psychological support for the thousands of gay people struggling to cope with mental illness.
This will mean the government demonstrating, in deed rather than word, its commitment to high-standard mental health provisions. LGBT people are just one of the minority groups in the UK bearing the brunt of the Tory government’s aversion to public sector spending. Only 55 per cent of mental health trusts have reported increases in their budgets since ‘parity of esteem’ with physical health was promised in 2012. Saffron Cordery, director of policy at NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, has stated: “Mental health services in this country have suffered from decades of underinvestment…despite pledges from the government to address this, our survey shows that promised funding simply isn’t getting through to local mental health services”.
Pardoning Oscar Wilde is easy. It is those living with the psychological effects of being gay that are more in need of our help.