Campaigner for gay law reform & equality
Peter Tatchell recalls the contribution of LGBT rights pioneer Allan Horsfall, who died from heart failure on 27 August 2012, aged 84.
Allan Horsfall was one of the grandfathers of the modern gay rights movement in Britain, with a campaigning record that stretches back more than 50 years – beginning in 1958, when he joined the newly-formed Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS). It had been established with the aim of securing the implementation of the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which had recommended the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.
HLRS focussed on winning the support of establishment figures, such as politicians, writers, academics and church leaders. Gay members of the HLRS, such as Antony Grey, hid their sexuality; believing, with some justification, that if their gayness became known publicly it could damage their cause.
The HLRS was too London-centred, aloof, intellectual and closeted, in Horsfall’s view. Supporters had no say or involvement. Horsfall saw the need for a democratic, down-to-earth campaign group that would take the case for law reform out into the provinces; in which gay supporters could get involved and be open about their sexuality. Being out and proud was, according to Horsfall, one of the most effective ways to debunk prejudice and stereotypes.
In 1964, he played the lead role in founding Britain’s first ever grassroots, gay-led homosexual campaign group, the Manchester-based North-West Homosexual Law Reform Committee (NWHLRC).
Horsfall lived in a mining village at the time. He used his home address and phone number as a public contact point. It was a brave thing to do, especially in those days. Many thought him foolhardy for being so open. There was, however, very little hostile reaction. This refuted claims by some Labour MPs that they couldn’t support decriminalisation because their mining constituents would object.
Horsfall saw the Wolfenden recommendations as a brave but flawed first step; being critical of the limited decriminalisation proposed. He was particularly scathing about Wolfenden’s refusal to support public initiatives for the implementation of his report. As he recalled to me in 1996: “He (John Wolfenden) refused to send a message of support to a public meeting we organised in Manchester in 1966 to discuss his proposals. Once the report was finished, Wolfenden washed his hands of it. He didn’t want anything more to do with homosexual law reform.”
When decriminalisation was won in 1967, the HLRS faded. Most of its supporters believed their goal had been achieved. Horsfall disagreed. Many aspects of gay life remained unlawful. Decriminalisation applied only in very narrow circumstances. Sexual offences law continued to embody profound discrimination. As well as a higher age of consent for sex between men (21, compared to 16 for heterosexual relations), the facilitating, inviting, procuring and aiding and abetting of homosexual acts remained punishable by up to five years imprisonment. No such restrictions applied to comparable heterosexual behaviour. For Horsfall, the battle was far from finished.
One of the positive benefits of decriminalisation was that gay men felt less vulnerable to prosecution and blackmail. This emboldened many to join NWHLRC. Very quickly it morphed into a nationwide organisation and was renamed the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in 1971.
In the 1970s and 80s, CHE was the UK’s largest ever democratic, mass membership lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights organisation, with over 5,000 members in more than 100 local groups all over England and Wales. Horsfall was CHE’s first secretary and then later its president; a post he held from 1974 until his death.
As well as lobbying parliament and local authorities, CHE helped change the way public institutions treated LGBT people by speaking to teachers, social workers, police, journalists, doctors and prison officers.
For two decades, Horsfall and other CHE campaigners, such as Glenys Parry and Griff Vaughan Williams, were leading public voices against homophobia and for LGBT equality; giving hundreds of talks and media interviews that helped change hearts and minds.
CHE also provided advice and support to thousands of vulnerable and victimised LGBT people – transforming lives for the better and helping shape the modern gay identity and community. The organisation also played a role in the establishment of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, the global federation of LGBT organisations.
Horsfall’s campaigning continued unabated in the 1990s. In 1998, he co-led the campaign to defend the Bolton 7: seven men who were facing jail for group sex under Britain’s antiquated, homophobic sexual offence laws, which in those days outlawed same-sex acts involving the participation or presence of more than two men. Although convicted, they were spared prison sentences. Under Horsfall’s guidance they went on to successfully challenge their convictions in the European Court of Human Rights, which led to the eventual scrapping of the ban on homosexual threesomes and group sex in 2003.
Horsfall was then involved in the second wave of gay law reform from 1999 onwards, which ended the ban on gay people serving in the military, equalised the age of consent at 16, repealed Section 28, introduced civil partnerships, allowed gay couples to adopt children and gave LGBT people protection against discrimination. Crowning it all was the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which ended homophobic bias in the penal code; finally repealing the ‘buggery’ law which dated back to 1533 and the ‘gross indecency’ statute of 1885, which was used to jail Oscar Wilde.
Born in Colne, Lancashire, in 1926, Horsfall served in the in the RAF after the war. He then worked for the National Coal Board from 1959 to 1971 and later for the Salford Education Committee.
From 1958 to 1961, he was a Labour councillor in Nelson, secretary of the Northern New Left Clubs Committee and chair of the NE Lancashire Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
He later campaigned for improved bus services as a co-founder and executive member of the National Federation of Bus Users; also serving on the consultative committee of the Greater Manchester Passenger Authority.
Although much of his life was spent working for law reform, Horsfall sympathised with the more radical queer politics of activist groups like OutRage! in the 1990s. Indeed, he encouraged and supported each new generation of LGBT campaigners.
A contemporary of US gay rights pioneers Harry Hay and Frank Kameny, and predating Harvey Milk by two decades, Horsfall ranks with fellow British homosexual law reform lobbyists Antony Grey, Jackie Forster and Tony Dyson as one of the pioneers of LGBT equality.
For 48 years he was in a relationship with Harold Pollard, a head teacher and former Chairman of CHE, until Pollard’s death in 1996.
A warm-hearted, generous and much loved humanitarian – and humanist – he will be long remembered with admiration and affection by those who knew him.
Gay law reform and CHE are Horsfall’s two great legacies. The whole gay community walks in his shadow. He was still campaigning for LGBT rights until a few months before he died
Allan Horsfall, gay rights campaigner, was born on October 20, 1927. He died of heart failure on August 27, 2012, aged 84.