As the UK marks 50 years since the partial decriminalization of gay sex in England and Wales, thousands of gay men still have homophobic convictions on their records.
Terry Stewart is one such example.
He was arrested in 1982 for importuning, the act of ‘persistently soliciting in a public place for immoral purposes.’
To this day, Stewart says he is innocent.
Now, in an interview with Gay Star News, he is calling for the government to mark the anniversary by pardoning 15,000 men who have similar convictions.
He says the convictions are ‘a dark cloud looming over us. If we are going to move forward, we have to deal with the past.’
One day in 1982
Stewart was cycling home from Covent Garden in the center of London, after insuring his newly purchased bike.
Unfortunately, when he reached Charing Cross Road, an accident caused the chain on his bike to fall off.
Hands splattered with oil, he parked his bike up and walked down some stairs to public toilets to clean up before continuing.
But, after washing his hands and using the urinal, Stewart found himself in the company of plain-clothed policemen.
‘You’re under arrest. Please could you come upstairs’
Stewart felt confused and shocked.
Under arrest for importuning, Stewart protested. Pointing out there was no one else in the public toilet for him to ‘importune’.
However, Stewart was arrested and taken to court.
He pleaded innocent, forcing the case to go to the High Court.
Eventually, Stewart was found guilty of the offense. It is still on his criminal record to this day.
Thousands still have criminal offenses like this on their records
Following the partial decriminalization of homosexual acts, arrests actually increased.
What happened to Stewart is an all too common story for gay men in the 70s.
15,000 men were convicted after the Sexual Offenses Act came into legislation in 1967.
Stewart’s arrest did real damage to his career:
‘My field of work then was social and community. All of those jobs, you were expected to provide a CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) check. Of course, importuning came up.
‘Even going forward as a volunteer, you’re out there trying to assist the community and you’re refused.’
Thankfully, Stewart has a strong will with people around him supporting him. Some were not as lucky.
‘It wrecked families, destroyed lives. It was bigger than just 10 minutes in court,’ Stewart says.
To move forward, we must deal with the past
The UK government is facing growing calls from the LGBTI community to now pardon these kinds of convictions.
In 2017, the Policing and Crime Act gave pardons to some of those convicted of homosexual offenses.
It was modeled on the one granted in 2013 to mathematician Alan Turing, who broke the wartime Enigma codes.
Turing committed suicide in 1954 after a conviction for gross indecency.
However, the act had omissions that did not pardon men convicted for soliciting and procuring homosexual relations under the 1956 and 1967 Sexual Offences Acts. It also didn’t cover those serving in the armed services.
Now Stewart, with the union Unite, are calling on Home Secretary Amber Rudd to institute a legal pardon for all those convicted of homosexual offenses.
Stewart explains: ‘I think there needs to be a discussion about the nature of the law, and the way it’s used to criminalize LGBTI people.
‘It hasn’t been easy for any of us. We need to clear the way for the future. If we’re going to move forward, we have to deal with the history.
‘The 50th anniversary is a perfect opportunity to do this.’
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has also joined the calls. He says: ‘These men deserve an apology and compensation for the terrible persecution they suffered.
‘The psychological and emotional scars were devastating and long lasting.
‘That’s why they need and deserve a Prime Ministerial apology – and state compensation.’