The UK Government has announced that it will officially pardon thousands of men who were convicted of homosexuality back in the days when it was against the law in this country. Approximately 65,000 men were convicted under these laws, of whom 15,000 are still alive.
Since I’m very much in favour of equality on grounds of sexuality, and certainly don’t think that homosexuality should be illegal, I find myself in the slightly awkward mental position of nonetheless thinking that this isn’t a particularly good idea. It smacks very much of not only wanting to judge the past by modern standards, but of wanting to reach back in time and correct its mistakes, even if only retroactively and in most cases posthumously.
I’m all for looking at the past and learning lessons from it, where possible. We can examine with horror the idea that gay men were convicted simply of being gay, but I see no value whatsoever in retroactively pardoning thousands of men, most of whom are beyond caring in case. At the times in which these crimes were committed, they were just that; crimes. Should they have been crimes? Nowadays we think not. From the article: “Justice Minister Sam Gyimah said it was "hugely important that we pardon people convicted of historical sexual offences who would be innocent of any crime today".” I think this is the crux. If they were living today, they would, very rightly, be innocent of any crime. However, they were not living today.
In effect, what we’re saying with this is not simply ’We no longer think that these acts ought to be a crime’ but that ’These acts have now never been a crime, because we no longer think that they ought to have been in the first place.’
It also seems like apologising for the acts of other people. I equally see little value in the great-great grandchildren of some colonial oppressor or other apologising to the great-great grandchildren of the people they oppressed for the things the one lot of ancestors did to the other. You’re apologising to somebody for what somebody else did to somebody else again, and I’m not convinced of the value of it. Perhaps if my ancestors had been tortured and persecuted I would, but it still seems to me to be a somewhat self-indulgent exercise in salving our consciences for a thing that we didn’t do in the first place.
I think that rewriting history to suit ourselves, to make ourselves feel better because we don’t happen to agree with decisions made decades before most of us were born, is a very slippery and dangerous slope. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as the adage goes, and to me this merely serves to lessen the impact of the lessons that we ought to be learning. To my modern sensibilities, it seems absurd and unjust that people should ever have been prosecuted simply for being homosexual, but the fact that they were helps sharpens my desire to ensure that we achieve true equality in the here and now, and help stamp out this injustice in those places in which it still exists today; a job which is very far from complete. Changing the past in this way is, if anything, a needless distraction from that job.