Essay: Wolfenden - The Man, The Report, The Legacy

Sarah Lane


The Lesbian and Gay Liberation prosopography, or collective biography records, are rife with a variety of name types. When I first came upon the single entry for Lord Wolfenden, I wondered if Lord Wolfenden was a pseudonym. This was a fair conclusion given that we have other entries in the text for aristocratic pseudonyms, such as Duke Gaylord and Lady Bessborough. Regardless, when I read the entry for Lord Wolfenden, I had a feeling that the name could be interpreted differently. I considered that “Lord” could be a hereditary title for this Wolfenden, and that it was indicative of the fact that Wolfenden was a British Lord. In order to test my theory, I did a quick search for the name Wolfenden on the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF). Much to my excitement I found John Frederick Wolfenden, Baron of Westcott. An additional Google search confirmed that John Wolfenden was indeed the same Lord Wolfenden who produced the Wolfenden Report in our text.

Although the mystery had now been solved and an important piece of information for the prosopography had been found, I was curious to learn more about Lord Wolfenden and the report that bore his name. Little did I know at the time what I was about to discover.

In the mid-1950s in the United Kingdom, more than fifty years after the Oscar Wilde trials, gay men and women were still being prosecuted. Buggery and gross indecency (an undefined act between two men which is considered sexually indecent) were punishable offences (Myers 371-372; The Report 56, 67-68). Hundreds of men were arrested and charged every year with sentences ranging from fines to imprisonment (The Report 210-211, 214-215). Many of these men only engaged in sex in private with other consenting adults, but, if found out, they were still subject to prosecution (43).

The rise in arrests for homosexual acts, combined with high-profile cases such as that of one Lord Edward Montagu and his friends Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood, brought attention to the related laws in the 1950s (Bedell). It was during that tumultuous time that the Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe, formed The Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (CHOP) to evaluate the laws relating to homosexuality and determine whether or not any legal changes should be made. The committee also investigated the laws regarding prostitution, but that part of their report is beyond the scope of this essay (Bedell).

When CHOP was first established, Maxwell-Fyfe knew that he would need someone to chair the committee. The person he ended up offering that position to was John Wolfenden. In his own memoirs, Wolfenden hypothesizes that his selection had something to do with the fact that he was a well-known and respected academic and had had previous experience chairing committees (Wolfenden 132). In the 1950s, John Wolfenden was the Vice Chancellor of Reading University in England. Before that he had worked as a fellow and headmaster at various academic institutions (109, 89, 66, 53).

Wolfenden’s personality might also have made him an appealing candidate for the CHOP chair because he was known to be traditionally-minded and unemotional (Faulks 214). His level-headedness and ability to keep his own opinions and emotions to himself made him uniquely capable of organizing a group of people in investigation of such polarizing topics as homosexuality and prostitution. Someone as reserved and serious as Wolfenden would hopefully be able to keep the committee focused. The Home Secretary may also have thought that a man like Wolfenden would lead such a committee to a reasonable conclusion that would not drastically challenge the established laws of the time. In that regard, Wolfenden likely surprised him.

Before accepting the role as chairman, Wolfenden considered the impact that his involvement with the committee might have on his employers, the institutions he worked for, and his family (Wolfenden 133). What he did not mention in his memoirs though is that one member of his family in particular would likely be affected by the work of CHOP.

Less than two years before the establishment of CHOP, John Wolfenden learned that his teenage son, Jeremy, was gay (Faulks 226). Jeremy Wolfenden was openly and unashamedly attracted to men and engaged in various same-sex relationships throughout his youth and young adult life (218, 222). He came out to his father in 1952, at the age of eighteen, after he was banned from Eton College, the school from which he had graduated only months before. He was banned because he had been corresponding with other students and providing them with support and encouragement regarding their same-sex attractions (225-226). Jeremy believed that sexuality was not a choice and was reportedly completely content with his sexual orientation (227). In letters to friends he openly discussed his attraction to and relations with other men and he self-identified as queer (222). That said, historian can only speculate on what, if any, influence Jeremy’s orientation had on Wolfenden decision to chair CHOP, as he never explicitly commented on it.

In the end, John Wolfenden did accept Maxwell-Fyfe’s invitation to be the chairman of CHOP. He shortly thereafter wrote a letter to Jeremy in which he asked him to wear less makeup and suggested that the two of them keep their distance from each other for the duration of the investigation (Faulks 242). This was presumably so that the public would be less likely to find out about Jeremy’s orientation and therefore not think that Wolfenden had a conflict of interest in directing CHOP.

On August 24th, 1954, Wolfenden and a team of fourteen other men and women (all well-respected and high-ranking members of society) met to start what would end up being a three year assessment of the intersection of gay sex and the law in the UK. The committee met privately sixty-two times and, during at least half of those meetings, interviewed dozens of witnesses on the topic of homosexuality and the law (The Report 19, 233-239). After dedicating much time and effort to fully understanding the issue at hand, Wolfenden and his colleagues came to a number of conclusions and proposed that a handful of changes be made to the laws. They recorded all of their findings and considerations in detail in a report that would be given to the government, but also be made accessible to the public. John Wolfenden was never listed as the sole author of the report; that title was given to the committee as a whole. However, over time, publishers and the public at large began referring to it as The Wolfenden Report and the name stuck (Wolfenden 134, 145).

The most famous and monumental recommendation in The Wolfenden Report was that homosexual behaviour conducted in private by consenting adults should be decriminalized (The Report 187). Although this suggested change was by no means perfect (gay men still would not be able to show each other affection in public and the age of adulthood was set at twenty-one, rather than sixteen, as it was for heterosexuals) it was a substantial step in the right direction towards gay liberation (Bedell).

When I read through The Wolfenden Report there were a number of things that I found incredibly interesting, especially given the context in which it was written. First, Lord Wolfenden made it explicitly clear right at the beginning of the report that the committee believed there was an important difference between something that is morally wrong and something that is legally wrong. His argument was that even though many people, himself included, believed that homosexual behaviour was a sin that did not necessarily mean that it should be prosecuted as a criminal act (The Report 23-24; Faulks 242). So serious was Wolfenden about leaving moral judgements out of the investigation that he insisted on avoiding labels such as “natural” and “unnatural” in relation to sexual behaviour because he felt that those terms were not appropriate in a legal context (The Report 36).

Lord Wolfenden and his committee also notably attempted to consider the criticisms against homosexuality and the reasons for its criminalization. They methodically dissected the common arguments and, in many cases, exposed the problems or inaccuracies in them. One such example of this would be the committee’s discussion of whether or not sex or affection between men was detrimental to families and to the institution of marriage. It was commonly believed in Wolfenden’s time (and still by some people today) that men’s refusal to marry women and sire children would negatively impact society. Although this was a dominant opinion of the time, Wolfenden more or less dismissed it entirely by making one simple point. He argued that male homosexual behaviour was no more damaging to a family than adultery or lesbian behaviour. However, as Wolfenden then went on to mention, of those three things, only homosexual behaviour between men was treated as a criminal offence (The Report 44-45). For this reason, as well as many others, Wolfenden’s committee framed the criminalization of gay sex as being unfair, if not entirely inappropriate.

The views in the report were also surprisingly liberal given the context in which they were written, heralding a 21st appreciation of queer lives. Wolfenden acknowledged, for instance, the fact that not all gay men are sexually active and that some straight men take pleasure in same-sex sex. He also recognized that a person’s urges and behaviours, their identity even, can fluctuate over time (The Report 27-28). We might be inclined to think that concepts such as sexual fluidity are very new and have only been recently considered in any depth. However, such ideas were already being discussed decades ago. For example, the well-known work by American sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey, was conducted in the forties and his scale of the heterosexual-homosexual continuum is actually cited in The Wolfenden Report (29). Remarkably, Lord Wolfenden also takes the stance that homosexuality is not a disease, which was a common belief at the time (31-33). Considering the persecution, demonization, and unnecessary judgement of gay people in mid-twentieth century Britain, Lord Wolfenden and his committee did an admirable job of opening themselves up to alternative viewpoints and ideas about gay men.

Some of the other conclusions the committee came to were as follows: homosexuality and sexual preference is generally fixed by age sixteen or earlier (The Report 50); engaging in homosexual behaviour does not turn someone into a homosexual, even if that person is a young, seemingly impressionable youth (59-60); the severity of the punishment for engaging in anal sex or other sexual acts is “ludicrous” (61); not all homosexual men are pedophiles (just as not all heterosexual men are pedophiles) and so, the proposed legal changes regarding homosexual behaviour should not negatively impact children (46). Wolfenden also made it clear that they were not trying to condone homosexual behaviour, but that the committee believed that the laws regarding such acts needed to be changed (45). Unfortunately, it would be another ten years of political negotiation before changes in the laws around homosexuality in the UK would actually be enacted.

While Lord Wolfenden was completing his work with CHOP, his son, Jeremy, went on to become a journalist. He worked as a foreign correspondent in Russia for quite some time and, while there, was blackmailed into working for the KGB (the Russian intelligence agency). However, the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) had already enlisted Jeremy into their ranks before he went to Russia, and so, they turned him into a double agent once the KGB entrapped him (Faulks 244, 267-268). Several years being watched and manipulated by both governmental agencies was understandably extraordinarily stressful and very likely contributed to Jeremy’s alcoholism, which only got worse as the years went by (278). Sadly, Jeremy Wolfenden died in 1965 at the age of thirty-one (295). Due to his involvement with various spy organizations, some were suspicious about the circumstances of his death. However, based on the official reports, Jeremy died of a fatty liver, essentially caused by his many years of excessive drinking (292-294). Jeremy Wolfenden died before homosexuality was legalized; he never got to see the great impact that his father’s work had on the UK and the world.

Although The Wolfenden Report was written in England and specifically tailored to the British public and the British legal system, its impact was felt well beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. Here in Canada, gay and lesbian activists, including Sidney Simons and Douglas Sanders, used The Wolfenden Report to try to convince Canadian lawmakers to decriminalize private gay sex between consenting adults (McLeod 25). When the British parliament modified their laws in 1967, in large part because of the recommendations in The Wolfenden Report, Canada soon followed suit and ended up passing Bill C-150 in 1969, which decriminalized some homosexual acts (McLeod, 30, 42). In both of these cases, the legal changes were not perfect and were by no means an outright decriminalization of homosexuality or homosexual behaviour. However, even considering all their flaws and limitations, the passing of the Sexual Offences Bill in England and Bill C-150 in Canada did make a difference. These bills made it so that people like Everett George Klippert, a Canadian who served almost ten years in prison for gross indecency, could no longer be arrested and imprisoned for privately enjoying the company of other men. The Wolfenden Report and Lord Wolfenden are just two steps on the path towards complete legalization and acceptance of gay rights in the United Kingdom. However, both the report and the man who championed it shaped the Canadian gay rights landscape.

Works Cited

Bedell, Geraldine. “Coming Out of the Dark Ages.” The Guardian. 24 June 2007. Web. 3 June 2015.

Faulks, Sebastian. The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives. London: Vintage, 1997. Print.

McLeod, Donald W. Lesbian and gay liberation in Canada: a selected annotated chronology, 1964-1975. Toronto: ECW Press/Homewood Books, 1996. Print.

Myers, JoAnne. Historical Dictionary of Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movements. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013. Print.

The Wolfenden Report: Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. Authorized American Ed. Introd. by Karl Menninger. New York: Stein and Day, 1963. Print.

Wolfenden, John. Turning Points: The Memoirs of Lord Wolfenden. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1976. Print.