Home / Comment / In brief

Why 'pardoning' gay men does not redeem Parliament

Why 'pardoning' gay men does not redeem Parliament

Interested by this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e-newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Friends Programme to find out how you can help our work.

Towards the end of last week the government filibustered a proposed measure to pardon the tens of thousands of men who were prosecuted as homosexuals.  The government has stressed that this was not because they disagree with the principle of the bill, but with the vehicle by which it is to be achieved.

One would have thought the best way to settle that issue would be with open democratic discussion and debate, rather than a dubious play on parliamentary procedure, but that’s politics for you. Nevertheless, in principle, MPs on both sides agree with the overall thrust of the motion and see this as an important step in demonstrating LGBT+ solidarity. That being said, am I the only one who finds the fact that this was a proposed pardon a bit odd?

When homosexual acts were decriminalized in 1967 it was because it was felt that the law was fundamentally unjust. Accordingly, anyone prosecuted by the state ought to have been considered to have suffered an injustice at the hands of the state and its laws. Those convicted were victims of a state and legal system that did not recognise the legitimacy of homosexuality, and in so doing destroyed the lives of thousands of men.

A pardon is an act of forgiveness on the part of a ruler or state. It is a statement that though someone was guilty the state has decided to forgive them of their crime. It does not de-legitimize the law that the perpetrator has broken, but states that the individual in this case is, for whatever reason, to be forgiven. It is, in other words, an act of benevolent forgiveness on the part of the ruler or state.

In this case, the idea of forgiveness seems to have been weirdly flipped on its head. The law was unjust. Those who were convicted by it do not need to be forgiven by the state, but rather it is the state that ought to be seeking forgiveness from those it has persecuted unjustly. Pardoning in this case in some ways seems to promote the opposite to what is intended – it reinforces the idea that there is something for which these men deserved to be prosecuted.

It is a sanitising of history by which today parliamentarians can feel good about their liberal credentials without having to really own the consequences of their predecessors’ legislation. A pardon is in effect a relieving of any responsibility on the state to own its own history.

The state should, in this case, be the petitioner of forgiveness, recognising its failure, not acting like a benevolent ruler dispensing pardons to guilty subjects, and then congratulating itself for its liberalism and enlightenment. This pardon is well meaning, and has been welcomed by some LGBT+ groups (though not by everyone), but it has warped the whole idea of forgiveness and justice and who owes what to whom – it’s frankly a bit odd. 


Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos. @BenedictWRyan

Image by Cen2s2s, from Wikipedia, available under CC BY-SA 3.0


See all


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.