Gay Men are Still Sex Offenders

Merrick, 30th April 2010ce

A man is arrested on suspicion of being gay. He is held for weeks by military and civilian police whose interrogations, augmented by sleep deprivation, beatings and humiliation, eventually force him to confess.

Is this Iran? Saudi Arabia? No, it happened in Britain in 1959, to a man called John Crawford.

We think now that the only damage that remains with such men is the psychological scarring. But eight years ago Crawford found out that he, like tens of thousands of other men, is still officially branded a sex offender and his convictions mean he is often turned down for jobs involving contact with vulnerable people.

He recently told The Guardian:

Since then, I've analysed my life and found out the amount of my jobs that I've lost because I've got a criminal record.

Currently doing voluntary work feeding patients in hospital, Crawford is looking for jobs but has to disclose his conviction with every application.

It's a tricky thing for a government in the aftermath of repealing a law, and the convention is to let convictions stand. The attitude appears to be that you still deserve to be punished for not obeying laws, even though we now know they banned things that aren't bad. It’s still the way even if your crime had no victim. Obedience is paramount.

So men who were in jail when homosexuality was legalised in 1967 were not pardoned but made to serve out their time, even as the streets outside were populated with openly gay men.

Legalisation only permitted sex in private with men over 21. Sex anywhere else still led to convictions for Gross Indecency. Men convicted of sex with underage men before the age of consent was equalized in 2001 still have a criminal record that says they had sex with children.


The increasing access to criminal records has magnified the impact on those with convictions, effectively extending state persecution of gay men even as we moved towards equality elsewhere. As well as a CRB check* being made for a large proportion of jobs, the Sex Offenders Register brought new prominence to those convicted of sexual offences.

The Register covers anyone cautioned, convicted or released from prison for a sexual offence since September 1997. The prevailing regime prohibited gay sex except for older men in private – and classified buggery as an outright crime whoever and whatever - until the Sexual Offences Act 2003. So there were six years of men being put on the Register for consensual adult sex.

Sex offenders have the right to have their permanent entry on the Sex Offenders Register reviewed, based on the idea that they may no longer pose a threat of reoffending. How could gay men reoffend when their actions were no longer an offence? How could we justify keeping them on the Register when we now concede that their actions should never have been an offence in the first place? Those men should have automatically been removed from the Register en masse.

The government tacitly conceded the basic premise of this point. Gay men who individually applied had their names removed. Those who didn't know they could do that continued to have their lives hampered by being on the Register. In a fair world, these men should be eligible for compensation for loss of earnings and any other detriment caused.

Even someone as broad-minded as you should ask yourself if, receiving a job application from someone with a sexual offence conviction, you’d really choose to employ them to work with children and vulnerable adults. Nobody wants to be named in the next social services scandal. Nobody wants to be known in the office and beyond as the one who hired a convicted sex offender.

Retaining these convictions doesn’t just impede employment prospects. The results of CRB checks are sent to the workplace and to the person concerned's home address. The information can readily become known to others. As the knowledge that someone has a conviction for sex with minors or the vaguely phrased Gross Indecency spreads, so does the risk and fear of vigilante violence.


The Guardian article about John Crawford does a laudable job of highlighting the injustice of keeping convictions for repealed crimes on the Police National Computer (PNC) database. However, several things worth our attention are brushed over in the report.

Some forces proactively "weeded out" convictions for repealed crimes from the PNC, but others did not.

Crawford was told by police that his conviction would remain on the database until his 100th birthday, after all 43 police forces in England and Wales had been instructed to freeze the process of deleting or "stepping down" criminal records.

That's not quite right. As I understand it, 'stepping down' is not the deletion of criminal records. It makes them 'for police eyes only'. This means that only the police have access, but these convictions will nonetheless still be disclosed on when employers ask for CRB checks, in either standard or enhanced versions.

Full deletions can happen, though. When five people tried to get old minor convictions deleted in 2008 - including theft of a 99p packet of meat in 1984 when the person was under 18 - the police resisted. The police won their right to retain every conviction with a Court of Appeal judgement last October that said:

If the police say rationally and reasonably that convictions, however old or minor, have a value in the work they do that should, in effect, be the end of the matter.

However it seems the police can decide that some convictions don't have value after all, if you wave kickass lawyers at them. John Crawford’s legal team threatened the police with judicial review. The police suddenly decided that Crawford was an ‘exceptional’ case and erased his record.

But the whole point is that John Crawford's case is not exceptional. He is one of a large number of men who are stigmatised and restricted by their convictions for what we now accept as normal non-criminal behaviour.

Keeping their convictions on file is not like retaining details of petty thefts of 30 years ago. This is about a society that knows it persecuted certain people who had done no wrong of any kind.


Alan Turing was a genius mathematician whose work paved the way for the modern computer. He is perhaps most famous for his achievements during World War 2 when he cracked the German Enigma codes. This feat alone is often credited with shortening the war by years.

Turing was not only a pioneer and national hero. He was also gay. After a man he’d been seeing helped an accomplice to burgle Turing’s house, the police were called. Turing admitted his homosexuality, and was promptly charged with Gross Indecency. He was, inevitably, found guilty. He agreed to a programme of female hormone injections as an alternative to prison.

The laws against homosexuality were nicknamed ‘the blackmailers charter,’ as otherwise law-abiding men, often passing for straight with joyless sham marriages, were prime victims for blackmail. The risk of this meant Turing had his government security clearance revoked. Two years later, he committed suicide. He was 41.

In September 2009, the Prime Minister issued an apology for what happened to Turing. He plainly said that Turing was ‘in effect, tried for being gay’.

Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.

What makes Turing’s case prominent is his extraordinary work for the fight against the Nazis. But, like John Crawford, there can be no credible claim that his case is exceptional. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s apology specifically said so.

Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly.

An apology to Alan Turing more than fifty years after he died can’t really help him. But there are those alive today whose convictions – ‘tried, in effect, for being gay’ – are still making them suffer. If the state readily admits such treatment was ‘utterly unfair’, it must stop perpetuating the punishment. It must, at the very least, demonstrate its sincerity by erasing those convictions and giving the victims a future free from the restrictions, poverty, stigma and fear that we still inflict upon them.

* In the UK, employers are obliged to vet potential employees who work with or around children and vulnerable adults, or in positions of high responsibility, for criminal convictions and police cautions. It is known as a CRB check, as the issuing authority in England and Wales is the Criminal Records Bureau (authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland have different names but the same function).

The ‘standard disclosure’ is for work involving regular contact with children or vulnerable adults, such as administrative or menial staff in schools. ‘Enhanced disclosure’ is for anyone actually working with the vulnerable groups, such as teachers and medical staff. It is estimated that a quarter of the adult population hold positions that required an enhanced disclosure check.

Galop, who campaign on LGBT legal issues and helped John Crawford with his legal work, are now looking for others who may have had experiences similar to Crawford’s, and who may be interested in joining a potential legal action. For more information, see: