This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the decriminalisation of sex between two men in the UK – but this does not mean 1967 marks the end of criminal convictions, or that we have had anything like legal equality for the LGBT community ever since. Having said that, the improvements in legal rights in more recent times and the position of the UK on the international plane, is cause for celebration.
As it is currently London’s Pride Festival, let’s have a look back on some of the major legal landmarks from this period.
London’s Pride Festival is an annual two week festival with events across the city and an iconic parade giving the LGBT+ community the chance to be visible to the rest of the city, showcasing what it has achieved and raising the awareness of current LGBT+ issues. The festival is a show of celebration, solidarity and pride.
1885: Sexual acts between men made illegal
By way of background, in 1885 the offence “gross indecency” was created, criminalising sexual acts between men. Before then, “sodomy” or anal sex was illegal for everyone – both heterosexual and homosexual couples.
1967: The Sexual Offences Act 1967 – partially decriminalises sex between men
The landmark Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised sex between two men, but it was discriminatory: The age of consent was 21 for male couples, whereas 16 for heterosexual couples, the Act had limited reach as it didn’t cover certain groups, including the Armed Forces, and it didn’t cover the whole of the UK. All relations had to be between no more than two people, and had to take place in strict privacy.
Moreover, the centuries old laws that have also been used to convict men for homosexual activities were not abolished in 1967 and remained in force under the statutory heading “Unnatural offences”. Peter Tatchell, prominent human rights campaigner, explains these laws were in fact policed more aggressively post-1967:
“Many aspects of gay male life remained criminal. In fact, the repression got much worse. There were police stake-outs in parks and toilets, sometimes using ‘pretty police’ as bait to lure gay men to commit sex offences. Gay saunas were raided. Disorderly house charges were pressed against gay clubs that allowed same-sex couples to dance cheek-to-cheek.” View Tatchell’s full article and interesting research figures.
1969: Origins of Pride: The Stonewall riots
In June 1969 a police raid at Stonewall Inn, a mafia run gay club in New York City, turned into a violent riot. Whilst the original raid was legitimate for selling alcohol illegally, there was a growing feeling amongst the LGBT community of perpetual police harassment and social discrimination, and when patrons (not employees) were forcibly arrested under New York law (for example, for not wearing at least three items of “gender appropriate” attire) outrage ensued. Several days of demonstrations followed as protesters took to New York streets in rebellion.
Although the Stonewall riots were not the origins of the gay rights movement, it became an international symbol of resistance to social and political discrimination, and campaign organisations, including Stonewall, have been central to driving legislative changes in the UK.
1982: The Sexual Offences Act 1967 applies across the UK
The 1967 reform Act extended to Scotland in 1980, and Northern Ireland in 1982.
1988: Margaret Thatcher introduces controversial Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988
The Act stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. View speech.
1998: The Bolton Seven: Men convicted for consensual gay sex in the privacy of their homes
A high profile controversial case, the Bolton Seven involved a group of men having consensual sex in private. The incident came to light when police seized the videos of them having sex which had been filmed for personal use.
They were convicted of gross indecency under the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and age of consent offences under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 on January 1998. Under section 13 of the 1956 Act, group sex was illegal, and one male was six months under the statutory age for consent. If they had been heterosexual, they would not have been charged.
Six of the seven appealed to the European Court of Human Rights arguing the prosecutions violated their ‘right to respect for a private family life’, article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. They won and were awarded compensation.
2000: Ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces
The then Labour Government removes ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces.
2001: Statutory consent age required for homosexual men lowered to 16
Previously the statutory age for consent for gay sex was 21, lowered to 18 in 1994 – two years older than the heterosexual age.
A ruling from the European Commission of Human Rights that a discriminatory age of consent violated the Convention, led to three Bills being proposed in Parliament to make the consent age equal. This was repeatedly rejected due to opposition from the House of Lords and religious leaders.
The law which became Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 and came into force in 2001, had to be forced through Parliament by invoking the Parliament Act; it was only the fourth time since World War One that this Act had to be used. This Act also legalised homosexual group sex.
2003: Sexual Offences Act 2003 repeals “unnatural offences” laws
This includes repealing the gross indecency law – hugely significant as it was used in the conviction of high profile cases including Alan Turning in 1952, Oscar Wilde in 1895, and in the Bolton Seven in 1994, and therefore marks the removal of criminal penalties for gay sex in England & Wales.
Considering its significance, it was surprisingly later that this took affect for the rest of the UK. The ban on sodomy was repealed in Northern Ireland in 2008, and in Scotland in 2009.
The Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 deleted the anti-gay terminology of ‘gross indecency’ and ‘sodomy’ from the statutes and a new set of fully gender and sexual orientation neutral offences was established. This did not take affect till 2013, leading Peter Hatchell to state:
“It seems scarcely credible, but gay sex ceased to be a crime in the UK only four years ago.”
To recap, while 1667 Act extended to Scotland in 1980 with the discriminatory elements removed by 2001, the ‘anti-gay laws’ remained. Having said that, a case like the Bolton Seven argued on the basis of these laws would have been unimaginable post 2000s.
2003: Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 repealed
Section 28 repealed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, lifting the ban on local authorities from “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality”.
2003: Protection from discrimination at work for LGBT
Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations becomes law in the UK, making it illegal to discriminate against LGBT people in the workplace. Previously, the Court of Appeal in Smith v Gardner merchant, had held that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 did not cover discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, meaning that sexual orientation was a justifiable ground for discrimination in the workplace. (See more)
2007: Protection from discrimination in the provision of goods & services for LGBT
The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 outlawed the discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities, services, education and public functions on the grounds of sexual orientation.
2007: New offence of “incitement to homophobic hatred’ introduced
The offence of ‘inciting homophobic hatred’ was introduced in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2008. It came into force in 2010 and carried a maximum seven-year prison sentence.
2008: Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 recognises same-sex parents
Same-sex couples undergoing fertility treatment gained the right to name both partners on their child’s birth certificate, recognising them both as legal parents. Previously, the legal definition of parenthood meant that same-sex partners were treated differently in law, and therefore could not obtain the same rights to the child as their heterosexual couple counterparts.
2010: The Equality Act 2010 consolidates haphazard LGBT protections to ensure stronger protection.
Gender reassignment added as a protected characteristic.
2013: Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act is passed in England and Wales.
Following the Civil Partnership Act 2004 which gave legal recognition to same-sex relationships, the Marriage Act 2013 gave same-sex couples the right to marry.
Significant results have been achieved over the past 50 years for equal rights for the LGBT community. Of course, there is still work to be done, especially as the implications (and background) of any of these laws are so intertwined with social and political attitudes – these legal landmarks will only ever be part of the bigger picture.
However, on that token, in the recent election the number of LGBTQ MPs elected to Parliament was a British and global record, at 45 (7% of the new House of commons). Whether this is a change in the actual numbers or individuals’ openness, it is certainly a great result for the representation of the LGBT community.
With thanks to StoneWall for providing useful information online which helped to compile this list.