Haunting tales of gay men made into criminals – for speaking in public toilets


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Terry Stewart was hauled in front of a crown court jury who believed police officers’ claims that he’d been in the toilet with other gay men, leading to a permeant mark on his criminal record

Police arrested Terry Stewart in a public toilet
Police arrested Terry Stewart in a public toilet

A Navy officer discharged for being gay and a homosexual convicted of chatting to men in an empty public toilet will have their records scrubbed clean following an historic ruling.

Former Wren radio operator first class Emma Riley and Terry Stewart are two of the people to be pardoned under new plans Priti Patel announced on Monday night.

The Home Secretary has said convictions of consensual gay activity under now-abolished laws will be included in a scheme aimed at “righting the wrongs of the past”.

The move has been hailed by LGBTQ+ campaigners who have fought for decades to have acts long-since decriminalised erased from people’s records.

Leeds University Professor Paul Johnson, a sociologist who helped spearhead the campaign, told The Mirror: “The main thing is that it rights many great wrongs of the past over many hundreds of years and will bring justice and restitution for many gay people.”

One such person is Ms Riley, whose working and personal life was ripped apart when she told a friend and colleague on the HMS Neptune battleship that she thought she was gay.

The next morning she was hauled from her bed in the early hours, arrested and subject to an intense three hour probe at the hands of two investigators.

Emma Riley was kicked out of the Navy for being gay
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the legal education foundation)

They combed through her personal possessions, confiscated a Julian Clary DVD, asked if she owned any “electrical equipment” and handed a personal letter written to her pen-pal over to prosecutors.

The betrayal of Ms Riley’s former-friend, and a line in the letter suggesting she was gay, was enough to condemn the 21-year-old.

“I wasn’t partnered with anyone else and there was nothing going on in the military,” Ms Riley, who had dreamed of joining the Navy since she was 13 and described it as her “absolute vocation”, told The Mirror.

“There wasn’t really much they could charge me with except for being gay.

“They sent me home from Scotland to go and tell my parents that not only was I being thrown out of the navy, but that I was gay.”

She added: “It was horrific. It scars you for life and makes you have to redraw everything you have every thought of.

“I spent about five years rebuilding myself.”

Mr Stewart also found himself at the mercy of moralistic anti-gay laws after he moved from Belfast to London in the mid 70s.

In the early 80s he walked into a public toilet in Charing Cross and was washing his hands when two police officers strode through the door.

“They said ‘we’re arresting you for importuning’ and marched me to Bow Street station,” Mr Stewart told the Mirror.

“I am not what you call very discreet. I had blonde hair tied in pigtails. To an officer I was an easy days’ work.

“They said ‘we know you’re a homosexual’. You wouldn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to know that.”

Importuning is a now long-outdated offense which effectively criminalised gay men chatting each other up in public.

Mr Stewart was hauled in front of a crown court jury who believed the officers’ claims that he’d been in the toilet with other gay men.

His objection that the public facilities were otherwise empty fell on deaf ears.

While his fine of £20 was relatively small, the impact of the conviction is still being felt by Mr Stewart four decades on.

He continued: “I was the victim in the end. I had a criminal record which stayed with me for the whole of my career because it was under the Sexual Offences Act.

“I got a degree and wanted to become a social worker, but I was advised not to because of my record. So I changed my career.”

Mr Stewart is one of likely thousands of people who will be pardoned and whose convictions will be removed.

As things are currently, only nine former offences can be pardoned on a specified list the Home Office said “largely focused on the repealed offences of buggery and gross indecency between men”.

An amendment to the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill will broaden the criteria to include any repealed or abolished civilian or military offence that was imposed on someone purely for, or due to, consensual same-sex sexual activity.

Lord Michael Cashman campaigned for the changes
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Nikki Powell)

All those whose cautions and convictions are disregarded under the scheme will also receive an automatic pardon, and anyone who has died before the changes came into place – or up to 12 months afterwards – will be posthumously pardoned.

Lord Michael Cashman, who made history when his character in EastEnders Colin Russell shared the first gay kiss in a British soap, has been fighting for the changes for years.

“I grew up during that period and I knew that people were terrified,” he said.

“An injustice by the state to one is an injustice to many and an injustice to others. It signals an intolerance, an attack on identity and equality.

“I think there might be financial consequences (from this decision) for people who lost their jobs and pensions.”

While Lord Cashman avoided the police, he knew many others on the London gay scene who were less lucky.

He added: “As soon as I started campaigning from section 28 onwards I got to know people who had been directly affected, who had been arrested, who had been entrapped.

“I used to go to clubs long before I met Paul (his late partner) in the 70s. There were pretty policemen who waited outside the pubs for you to chat them up who would then arrest you. That could have been me.

“It is a reminder that we still have much, much more to do. We need to end the cultural wars.

“For every luxury we think we gain with equality, we need to recognise that some people are still denied equality in the eyes of the law.

“Today I think of trans people and teenagers who are daily defamed and misrepresented. If these changes will make somebody’s life better, then the world is better for it.”

An MOD spokesperson said: “The Disregards and Pardons Scheme includes former Service personnel who may have suffered due to this historic wrong.

“It is deeply regrettable that they were previously subject to injustice because of their sexuality and the MOD is committed to righting this historic wrong, including the restoration of medals and posthumous pardons.”

The Met declined to comment.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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