LGBTQ+ history month takes place in February each year and was initiated in the UK in February 2005 by Schools Out UK (though it was founded in 1994 in Missouri). The intention is to raise awareness of and combat prejudice against LGBTQ+ people and their history. In this blog, we take a look at the history of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK and what further reform needs to take place.
In 1533 male homosexuality was first targeted for persecution when the Buggery Act was passed, and sodomy was outlawed. Convictions were punishable by death, and it was only with the passing of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 that the death penalty was abolished for such convictions and instead replaced with a minimum of 10 years imprisonment. This may sound like progress, but this was essentially reversed when the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was passed and went a step further by outlawing any male homosexual act. Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing fell victim to this Act, with the former being imprisoned and the latter chemically castrated.
Female homosexuality was not expressly targeted by any legislation until 1921 when it was discussed for the first time in Parliament and the Criminal Law Amendment Bill 1921 was proposed. The only reason it failed was because the House of Commons and House of Lords were concerned it would encourage women to explore their homosexuality. At that time, it was assumed that female homosexuality only occurred in an extremely small percentage of the population.
By 1954, the number of men imprisoned for homosexual acts had risen to over 1,000 each year. This led to calls for an enquiry into the legality of homosexuality and prostitution. In 1957 the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (the ‘Wolfenden Report’) was published in response to evidence that homosexuality could not be regarded as a disease. Significantly, the report proposed that there “must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law’s business”. The report found that the Government should focus on protecting the public instead of scrutinising people’s private lives and recommended that homosexual acts between two consenting adults should not be a criminal offence.
It took the Government 10 years after the Wolfenden report was published to implement its findings. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed and partially legalised same sex acts in England and Wales between men over the age of 21 when conducted in private. It took Scotland and Northern Ireland over a decade to follow suit.
Following the Stonewall Riots in New York in June 1969, the UK Gay Liberation Front was founded in 1970. They fought for the rights of LGBTQ+ people and organised the very first Pride march in 1972 (which now takes place annually and is a celebration of inclusivity, equality and diversity). This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Pride march and the campaign will commemorate the past 50 years and recognise the challenges still faced by the LGBTQ+ community. It will, amongst other things, call upon the Government to ban conversion therapy for all LGBTQ+ people and provide protection for LGBTQ+ communities against hate crime.
Despite the progress that had been made after 1967, the Government, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality and prohibited councils from funding educational materials and projects perceived to be doing this with the passing of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. This was a significant blow for the LGBTQ+ community as it prevented the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues and stopped school pupils from getting the support they needed. Thankfully, Section 28 was repealed in 2003 and David Cameron apologised for it in 2009.
The age of consent for men in homosexual relationships was lowered to 18 in 1994 (no age was set for lesbian relationships). This was still 2 years higher than the age for heterosexual relationships. However, it was then finally lowered to 16 in 2001.
It was not until December 2005 when the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force that same sex couples were legally allowed to enter into binding partnerships. Although similar to marriage, these partnerships were regarded differently and still showed a perceived difference between straight couples and same sex couples. The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 finally made it legal for same sex couples in England and Wales to marry, with the first ceremonies taking place on 29 March 2014. Scotland followed in 2014 and Northern Ireland followed in 2020.
Those within the transgender community were relatively ignored until 1966 when the Beaumont Society was founded to provide information and education on “transvestism”. This is despite transgender identities starting to become more visible after the second world war. The society is now the UK’s largest and longest running support group for transgender people and their families. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 (which came into effect in 2005) gives transgender people full recognition of their acquired gender and allows them to acquire a new birth certificate, provided certain conditions are met. However, the gender options that are available are still only ‘male’ or ‘female’, with no recognition of ‘non-binary’ in law. Trans rights in family law was explored in a blog post published during LGBTQ+ history month in 2021 and can be read here: www.burgessmee.com/site/blog/insights/trans-rights-in-family-law-is-the-law-evolving-too-slowly.
It was in April 2009 that the rights of lesbian parents and their children were equalised with the coming into force of the legal parenthood provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. The Equality Act 2010 provides LGBTQ+ employees with protection from discrimination, harassment and victimisation at work on the basis of the protected characteristic of sexuality. It also added protection for transgender workers and solidified the rights granted by the Gender Recognition Act 2004.
Although the law in the UK has come a long way in recognising the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, it is clear that there is still some way to go. For example, there is a significant disparity in the costs of accessing fertility treatment between heterosexual couples and same-sex couples (e.g. female same-sex couples cannot access NHS funded IVF treatment in some Trusts until they have had at least six rounds of intrauterine insemination, which they have to fund themselves). The LGBTQ+ community is still fighting for equality and social acceptance, and it is imperative that we all do what we can to assist.
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