“50 Years Legal”
“Though only an hour and a half long, the film [“50 Years Legal] is extraordinarily comprehensive, exploring its subject decade by decade and contextualizing each major development with personal stories about the changes that resulted from it.”
On the 27th of July 1967, the Houses of Parliament at Westminster passed the Sexual Offences Act 1967, that decriminalized discreet sexual relations between men over the age of 21 in England and Wales. It was still a long way from creating equality and such relations remained illegal in Scotland until 1981 and the age of consent was not equalized until 2003 – but it was pivotal and very important in that it constituted the first formal acceptance by the state that gay people might be deserving of some sympathy. Over the years since then, a lot more progress has been made, both legally and culturally. Simon Napier-Bell’s documentary looks at and celebrates this process, using interviews with key players from different generations whose own attitudes show the shift in social perspectives.
We hear of the strategies used to win public support and overcome political resistance will prove particularly useful for today’s human rights campaigners, and “it is given added context by its release in the middle of a moral panic over transgender rights, with clear parallels between the types of language and scaremongering used by opponents in each case.”
Although the nature of the 1967 legislation and the persecution that preceded it means this is primarily a film about gay and bisexual men but at that time the distinction between sexual orientation and gender had not yet been clarified and many trans women were living as gay men (including interviewee Quentin Crisp, whose acknowledgement that life as a woman would have made more sense) but that was later. Many gay men used stereotypical feminine accoutrements and mannerisms as a means of identifying themselves to others. Lesbians are somewhat sidelined and bisexual women barely even mentioned. Tensions within the LGBT community are still visible, with hints of biphobia in places and a tendency by some older gay male contributors to assume that everything is alright now and the battle has been won. A focus on transphobia towards the end of the film shows that this is not the case, and provides balance without the need for contradiction.
The contributors from different generations hints at the psychological impact of prejudice, with older contributors finding more joy in early improvements but also talking about the need to laugh at oneself. Younger contributors are focused on a different set of struggles and have the energy that’s easier to find in the younger people yet we are very aware that the confidence they have about the future comes from what had been done in the past and they acknowledge that. Peter Tatchell has something to say about each stage of the struggle. Marc Almond, shares a very personal perspective that shows the way that social change could drive personal change but sometimes at a pace that is a bit too intense for individuals. We see that the euphoria that came with liberation did not universally make coming out less frightening.
Music is celebrated here from Marc Almond to Dusty Springfield, David Bowie and Tom Robinson, whose anthem “Glad To Be Gay” is the backbone of the film. Napier-Bell situates the film in the context of wider social change and he deals with the impact of the AIDS crisis and with Margaret Thatcher’s exploitation of homophobia and the introduction of Clause 28that reminds us that progress never comes with guarantees and hostile measures can be introduced where there were none before. This is a very through documentary that is a valuable contribution to LGBT history.