‘Wolfenden’ by Jez Dolan

Wolfenden was commissioned by the House of Commons in 2015 for Parliament’s Festival of Freedoms: Celebrating 800 Years of Rights and Representation. The artwork commemorates the momentous 1957 Wolfenden Report, which was the first report to inquire into decriminalising homosexuality. Legislation targeted at male homosexuals had been in place for centuries, but the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 had outlawed any ‘homosexual act’ between men.

In the artwork, artist Jez Dolan translates parts of the official language of the Wolfenden Report into Polari, a secret language used by gay men. The artwork “highlights the differences between the public political voice and the hidden expressions of the gay community”.

The Polari terms replace certain words from the original Wolfenden Report, including:

Polari Original
quarter four
omipalone man, homosexual man
up her/their latties in private
palones women
badgedom adulthood
dewey-dacha and una 21
zsa-zsa assault
Duchesses of Jennifer Justice Director of Public Prosecutions
letting living
parkering ninty earnings
charvering prostitution
charvering carsey brothel
laued introduced
cottaging gross indecency

Jez Dolan is an artist based in Manchester. He describes his artistic work as exploring the themes of queerness and identity, focusing particularly on secrecy and hiddenness. As well as creating the artwork for Parliament’s 2015 celebrations, he also took part in a panel discussion in the same festival, entitled ‘Driving the change: culture versus legislation’.

What is Polari?

Polari is a form of slang which was used, though not created, by the gay community in Britain, most commonly between the 1920s and1960s. As a secret language, it allowed gay men to conceal their sexuality from outsiders, but also to allow themselves to be identified by members of the same community.

While it was strongly associated with the gay community, Polari was created and used by many different subcultures in Britain. In Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language, published in 2019, linguist Paul Baker describes how the language evolved. Originally linked to an older slang used by travelling entertainers, the language borrows words from several other languages and slangs, including Italian, French, US Air Force slang and cockney rhyming slang. Used widely in the world of entertainment, it gradually came to be used by gay men and female impersonators in Britain.

Usage of the language has now waned. In an article for The Conversation, Baker notes that by the 1960s Polari had fallen out of fashion. He notes that the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, permitting sexual acts between two consenting adults over the age of 21, meant that a secret language was less necessary.

While few people use Polari today, there is renewed academic interest in the language. More information can be found on Baker’s companion website to his 2019 book.

The Wolfenden Committee and the Wolfenden Report

The Wolfenden Report, on which the artwork is based, was the result of the Joint Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, which was established in August 1954. Also known as the Wolfenden Committee, as it was led by Sir John Wolfenden, it was set up to investigate the legality of homosexuality and prostitution.

When the committee was established in 1954, there were over 1,000 men in prison in England and Wales for ‘homosexual offences’. These men had been convicted under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (also known as the Labouchere Amendment), which had made all ‘homosexual acts’ of “gross indecency” illegal. The committee was thus formed to look at the law in more detail and make recommendations for any changes.

Three years after its formation, the committee published the Wolfenden Report on 5 September 1957. Amongst other conclusions, it recommended that homosexual acts between two consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offence. The report was debated in the House of Lords on 4 December 1957.

Despite the recommendations of the report, it was not until 1967 that the Sexual Offences Act of that year decriminalised homosexual acts between two consenting adults. In the House of Lords, the bill was sponsored by the Earl of Arran. Lord Arran had previously supported efforts to decriminalise homosexuality, including in 1965 when he advanced a motion in favour of implementing the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report.

Legacy of the report

Sir John Wolfenden was created a life peer on 12 July 1974, as Baron Wolfenden, of Westcott in the County of Surrey. His obituary in the New York Times notes that he “campaigned vigorously” for his committee’s recommendations to be enacted. A copy of his book, Turning Points: the Memoirs of Lord Wolfenden, is held in the Library.

Since the publication of the report, and the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, Parliament has passed several acts which have further increased rights for the LGBT+ community. These include:

Most recently, the Government announced plans to issue pardons for historical criminal convictions of same-sex sexual activity. In a news story on the Government’s website, Home Secretary Priti Patel thanked Lord Cashman (Labour) and Lord Lexden (Conservative) for raising the issue during committee stage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

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Cover image © Parliamentary Archives