This question is inspired by an incident in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (the Hollywood film version starring Gary Oldman, not the novel or the BBC miniseries with Alec Guinness).

One of the British spies, Peter Guillam (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), is secretly homosexual. Partway through the film, on the advice of George Smiley, he abruptly terminates his romantic relationship and evicts his male lover. The reason he does this is because Smiley's vital counter-espionage operation cannot risk being discovered, and Guillam leading a double-life inevitably leads to discrepancies that, if anyone were to probe, could conceivably lead to the discovery of Smiley's mole hunt.

My question is: would it have been legally acceptable for Guillam to resolve his dilemma by coming out of the closet? In 1973, did homosexuals in the British government face any kind of legal discrimination? Were they barred from serving in the government, or the intelligence service, or from living in London, or anything else?

Was there any legal reason a gay man could not have had Peter Guillam's job in Her Majesty's Government in 1973?

For a more detailed discussion of the fictional context, see this answer of mine on Movies.SE which prompted me to consult you fine folks.

1 Answer 1



The UK is not a unified jurisdiction. While the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales, it was still a crime in Scotland until 1980 and Northern Ireland until 1982. However, even after 1967, an estimated 15,000-plus gay men were convicted of homosexual acts that still remained criminal.

While homosexuality was decimalised; it was only legal if it took place in total privacy: at home, behind closed doors and curtains with no one else in the dwelling. The age of consent was 21, compared to 16 for heterosexual sex. It was a crime if there were more than 2 people involved or if they were filmed or photographed.

In 1966, the year before decriminalisation, there were 420 convictions for homosexuality; in 1974, there were 1,711 convictions for still criminal activities around homosexuality. Perversely, decriminalisation led to a more zealous police force targeting gays for what had not been decriminalized about their lifestyle.

It was still a crime for members of the armed services and for merchant seaman, decriminalised in 1994. It was still legal to sack civilian sailors for homosexuality until 2017.

Notwithstanding, even where there was no criminality, there was no protection against discrimination until various laws were introduced between 2003-2007.

Socially, there was enormous prejudice against homosexuals through the 1970s, 1980s and continuing to today in some communities. I can remember the nasty jokes, abuse and, in some cases, physical violence and murders directed against gays when I was at school and university. The categorisation of AIDS as the "gay disease" did nothing to alleviate this prejudice.

For a spy to be openly homosexual? Not a chance it hell. It would be seen as a weakness that could be exploited by the enemy.

  • You appear to have confused homosexuality with the pound sterling. Also, what's a civilian sailor?
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 14, 2022 at 16:03
  • @phoog a sailor who isn’t in the navy
    – Dale M
    Commented Jun 14, 2022 at 22:42
  • In much of the English speaking world, at least in the US, sailor is reserved for people serving in the navy and people who are using boats with actual sails. Virtually none of the latter are in a position to be sacked (though in the US we'd say "fired" or "dismissed"). Someone in the merchant marine is usually called a "merchant mariner" in my experience. The use of "civilian sailor" immediately after "merchant seamen" is a bit confusing.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 5:44
  • @phoog people who work commercial ships are also sailors in common English usage.
    – Dale M
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 5:47
  • The majority of applications of that term that I see online refer to civilians in vessels with sails, but indeed not all of them. The fact remains that I found the term or its juxtaposition with "merchant seamen" to be confusing. To be more specific, my first thought was that it referred to civilian employees of the navy, who presumably should not be called sailors because in that context at least it should be reserved for military personnel and because civilians in the navy presumably have no shipboard duties. Also it might be worth mentioning the retroactive pardon of 2017.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 6:21

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .