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LGBTQ Rights UK

LGBTQ Rights UK

Equality is a right the LGBTQ community has had to fight for much more ardently than most. What is it that led to the targeting of this community and how did they fight back? Let's find out about LGBTQ Rights in the UK.

LGBTQ is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning that is used to refer to these communities.

No term is perfectly inclusive, and the recognition of identity is continually evolving. Often, the term LGBTQ+ is used to refer to the above and other related communities.

A timeline of LGBTQ rights in Britain

YearEvent
1533The Buggery Act was enacted, outlawing all homosexual relations in Britain and later the Empire. The conviction carried the death penalty.
1861The Offences Against the Person Act was enacted. It abolished the death penalty for homosexual acts. Instead, a minimum of ten years in prison was to be given to anyone convicted.
1885The Criminal Law Act was enacted. It made any type of homosexual act illegal whether in public or private. No witnesses were needed for prosecution.
1889German psychiatrist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing claimed to have successfully achieved conversion therapy with a homosexual patient. Pseudoscientific research began using methods to 'cure' non-heteronormativity, including treatments such as electric shocks. Homosexuality was erroneously diagnosed as a mental disorder.

LGBTQ Rights UK Albert von Schrenck-Notzing StudySmarterFig. 1 - Albert von Schrenck-Notzing

1946Michael Dillon became the first transgender man to publish an autobiography. It was titled 'Self: A Study in Endocrinology. He was the first trans person to undergo phalloplasty surgery.
1951Roberta Cowell became the first trans woman to undergo vaginoplasty surgery.
1952Alan Turing was prosecuted as a homosexual under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. He was forced to undergo chemical castration. He died from suicide in 1954.
1957The Wolfenden Report was published. It argued that there was no scientific evidence to class homosexuality as a disease. It also suggested that the law should not invade citizens' private affairs.
1966The Beaumont Society was established. It aimed to educate the public on transvestism and transgender affairs.
1967The Sexual Offences Act was enacted. It partially decriminalised male homosexuality. It was allowed between consenting adults over the age of 21 strictly in private.
1970The Gay Liberation Front was founded as a result of the Stonewall Riots which took place in 1969 in New York.
1972The first UK Gay Pride rally was held in London.
1981The first case of HIV/AIDS was diagnosed in the UK. The AIDS epidemic grew from this point.
1988The Government Act was enacted under Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. Section 28 prohibited the dissemination of materials that promoted homosexuality.
1996Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) became the standard treatment for HIV, significantly reducing the development of AIDS and thus reducing the death toll from the disease. The death rate peaked in 1995 with around 1800 people dying from AIDS-related illnesses.
2004The Civil Partnership Act was enacted, allowing same-sex couples to enter into secular civil partnerships which mirror marriages. The same year the Gender Recognition Act was enacted, giving transgender persons legal recognition by allowing them to acquire a birth certificate in which they could choose to be assigned as 'male' or 'female'.
2010The Equality Act was enacted. It legally protected the LGBT community from discrimination in employment.
2013The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act was enacted. It legalised marriage for same-sex couples in England and Wales.
2018The UK Government committed itself to placing a legal ban on conversion therapy as part of its LGBT equality plan.
2022In April, the UK government U-turned on its conversion therapy plans and excluded the trans community from the proposed ban. At present, the UK still has not put in place a legal ban on conversion therapy.

Did you know? The Criminal Law Act was so ambiguous in its definition of homosexual acts, that a letter in which affection between males was being expressed, was enough to lead to a conviction. It was so easy to convict someone that the Act was branded the Blackmailing Charter.

History of LGBTQ rights in the UK

Let's look more in-depth at the issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community in the UK.

Male homosexuality: criminalisation and decriminalisation

Male homosexuality was illegal from the early sixteenth century to the first half of the twentieth century. This was because of Christianity's prominence in the UK since the sixth century. Although there was no explicit doctrine to brand homosexuality sinful, the Church condemned it so.

During Henry VIII's reign, this condemnation took a legal character. Henry VIII split English Christianity from Roman Catholicism thus creating the Church of England. Following this, the law was revised so that crimes which had normally been tried in ecclesiastical (church) courts were now to be tried in civil courts.

The 1533 Buggery Act criminalised male homosexuality and offenders were given the death penalty.

The detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind or beast...

The act carried the death penalty, making homosexuality a capital crime for the first time in UK history. Although it was repealed under Mary I in 1553, it was quickly put back into effect upon Elizabeth I's accession to the throne.

It was only under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1881 that the death penalty was removed. Nonetheless, section 61 dictated a minimum imprisonment term of ten years. This did not mean that attitudes towards homosexuality had changed.

In 1885 the Criminal Law Amendment Act made all kinds of homosexual activity illegal. Victorian poet and playwright Oscar Wilde would fall prey to this act: he was imprisoned for two years of hard labour for gross indecency.

This law persisted well into the 1950s when the UK police actively attempted to enforce the prohibition of homosexuality. This was because the Cold War created paranoia among government circles and homosexuals were suspected of being communist spies. The hysteria culminated in Alan Turing's chemical castration in 1952.

Alan Turing was born in 1912 and is best known for developing a device called 'the Bombe' which successfully cracked the German Enigma code as early as 1943 during the Second World War. Turing was one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century who laid the groundwork for the invention of computers with his theoretical Universal Turing Machine.

LGBTQ Rights UK Alan Turing StudySmarterFig. 2 - Alan Turing (aged 16)

His work was key in breaking the German Enigma codes during World War II; his achievements were estimated to have helped to save as many as 14 million lives by shortening the Second World War by two years. In 1945, Turing received an OBE in recognition of his work. Despite this incredible feat of human intellect and achievement, Turing was brutally persecuted by the UK government because of his sexuality.

In 1952, Turing was arrested for homosexual activity yet he avoided prison by accepting a procedure of chemical castration. In 1954, Turing was found dead from suicide by cyanide poisoning. Only in 2013 was the original, homophobic conviction of 'gross indecency' officially overturned by the British government.

LGBTQ Rights UK: Decriminalisation

The first real attempt to reconsider the status of homosexuality was made by the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, otherwise known as the Wolfenden Report of 1957. The report stated that

homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects.2

Despite the report, it would take another decade for homosexuality to be decriminalised. In 1965 Lord Arran proposed in the House of Lords that homosexuality be decriminalised and he was supported by Labour MP Leopold Abse in the House of Commons in 1966. Finally, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 partially decriminalised homosexuality under three conditions:

  1. That the act was consensual.
  2. That it was private.
  3. That it took place between adults over the age of 21.

The courts interpreted the term 'private' very strictly. For example, homosexual acts in a hotel or a third party's household were not considered private. The rigid framework under which homosexuality was to be allowed betrayed the fact that social attitudes were still hostile. For example, the age of consent for heterosexual acts was only 16 in comparison to the much higher 21 years for homosexual acts.

Importantly, the Act only applied to England and Wales. As a result, demonstrations sparked around Scotland and Northern Ireland. Homosexuality was decriminalised by the Criminal Justice Act of 1980 in Scotland and the Homosexual Offences Order of 1982 in Northern Ireland.

The fight for an equal age of consent

In 1994 Conservative MP Edwina Currie proposed that the age of consent for male homosexual acts be lowered to 16 to match the heterosexual one, but her motion was defeated in the House of Commons 307 to 280. This sparked outrage from the LGBT community, leading to protests outside Buckingham Palace. The LBGT political group OutRage! organised the demonstrations.

Subsequently, three more attempts were made to lower the age of consent but were all defeated in the House of Lords. However, in 1997 the European Commission of Human Rights stated that a higher age of consent for homosexuals was a violation of human rights. As a result, parliament reintroduced bills to legalise homosexual activity at 16. At last, the Sexual Offences Act of 2000 lowered the age of consent for male and female homosexual acts to 16.

Other LGBTQ+ marginalisations

Besides male homosexuality, other members of the LGBTQ+ community have also been marginalised in the UK both legally and culturally.

LGBTQ Rights UK: Lesbianism

Female homosexuality has never been made illegal. This is not because of equality but rather due to a lack of recognition.

  • The Criminal Law Amendment of 1921 was to explicitly prohibit lesbianism, but it was never approved.

  • The House of Lords was afraid that the Act might encourage women to engage in lesbianism and it was also commonly perceived that lesbianism was extremely rare.

  • Stigmas against lesbians are still prevalent in Britain. Lesbianism has escaped legislation because of its perceived illegitimacy, another example of homophobia and marginalisation.

LGBTQ Rights UK: Bisexuality

Likewise, bisexuality has never been made illegal, but the term was often not taken seriously in society.

  • The London Bisexual Group was formed in 1981 and was the first of its kind which represented sexual identity.

  • Pansexuality has also been used since the 1990s to describe an attraction to 'all genders' in attempts to remove the gender binary that can be associated with bisexualism ('both genders' implying only two).

LGBTQ Rights UK: Transgenderism

Transgenderism has been an uphill struggle throughout Modern British history.

  • As we mentioned before, the first vaginoplasty in the UK was performed in 1951 for Roberta Cowell but was an illegal procedure at the time.

  • In 1980, gender dysphoria was first diagnosed in the US and a diagnosis would allow gender reassignment surgery to be performed on an individual.

  • The 2004 Gender Recognition Act allowed transgender individuals to be legally recognised as their identified gender. Despite the progress made for transgender legal rights, there is still a long way to go.

  • Recently, the 2022 pledge by the UK government to legally ban LGBT conversion therapy has been altered to discount transgender individuals.

  • Culturally, transgender people are still marginalised and persecuted, with Stonewall reporting in 2018 that two in five transgender people have been subjected to hate crimes.

LGBTQ Rights UK: The Gay Liberation Front

The Gay Liberation Front was a direct result of the Stonewall Riots. After the riots, many members of the LGBT community believed that a more organised effort to achieve equality should be made. The GLF was created in the US in July 1969 and immediately staged protests against the unfair treatment of the LGBT community.

LGBTQ Rights UK Picture of the Stonewall Inn in New York during 2016 Pride StudySmarterFig. 3- The Stonewall Inn has become a legendary place for the LGBTQ movement in the U.S. The 1969 police raid of the bar ignited riots across the country

The Stonewall Riots

The Stonewall Riots were a catalyst for the LGBT equality movement. On 28 June 1969 the Stonewall Inn of New York, a gay bar, was raided by the police. Multiple people were arrested and violently manhandled, whilst those suspected of cross-dressing were forced into toilets to have their sex checked.

The LGBT community of the US had experienced multiple unfair raids up to this point. Frustrated by the police's constant harassment the bar owners and many residents of the area surrounded the Inn and burst into a six-day riot which included violent clashes with the police.

Following this, a branch of the GLF was founded in the UK in 1970. Its first meeting took place in a basement classroom of the London School of Economics. The GLF organised weekly meetings which aimed to organise protests and raise awareness of LGBT issues.

Their most high-profile protest included disrupting the Festival of Light.

  • This was an organisation created by British Christians who were alarmed at what they viewed as an increasingly permissive society.

  • They staged mass rallies in Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square in September 1971 leading to the Methodist Central Hall at Westminster.

  • The GLF deliberately disrupted these by staging their own protest. Many sounded horns and threw mice whilst others gained access to the basement of the church and shut off the lights.

  • In a movement to be repeated in the Pride of 1972, men dressed in drag stormed into the church and started kissing each other.

The GLF UK did not last long, however. Internal disputes heightened leading to the division of the Front into many smaller organisations. It was disbanded in 1973.

The Legacy of the GLF

Despite it being short-lived, the GLF had a huge impact on the UK LGBT equality movement. As historian Shaun Cole argues, the GLF advocated

'coming out' and the belief that 'gay is good', with the GLF manifesto acknowledging and urging the rejection of 'masculine' and 'feminine' societal roles.3

Their campaigns inspired the youth of the 1970s and led to the creation of many other LGBT-friendly organisations. These include the Switchboard, a helpline for LGBT persons, Gay News and Gay's the Word, the oldest LGBT-focused bookshop in the UK!

LGBTQ pride month in the UK

The concept of a sense of 'pride' in being gay or lesbian came to the forefront in the UK after the Stonewall Riots. The first gay pride march was a week-long protest held between London's Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square, starting on 1 July 1972.

Instrumental in organising the pride march were the activities of the Gay Liberation Front. 2000 people in total turned up.

During the event, people marched through the streets of London in either drag or clothes with positive messages towards homosexuality. The protest culminated at Trafalgar Square where the demonstrators spontaneously started kissing to celebrate homosexual love.

The march has continued to take place every year and since 1983 was officially called the 'Gay and Lesbian Pride'. The event evolved into a free music festival celebrating all sexualities and gender identities and since 1996 it has been renamed 'Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride'.

Fun fact: London was the first city to host a Europride in 1992! This is a pan-European event which celebrates the LBGTQ+ community.

Stonewall Equality Limited and LGBT rights in Britain

The 1980s brought about a new challenge for the LGBT community. The HIV epidemic broke out as a wave of homophobic hysteria around the world. Once again homosexuals were being portrayed in a negative light. This was because it was believed that HIV was mainly spread through homosexual activity whilst many religious groups argued that HIV was God's punishment for homosexuality.

As a result, there was a conservative turn in society with churches condemning homosexuality. In 1986, Rev Robert Simpson told the Sun,

I'd shoot my son if he had AIDS.4

This hostile attitude reached a peak when Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government enacted the Local Government Act in 1988. Section 28 prohibited all dissemination and promotion of homosexual activity. It seemed a tragic backtrack for the LGBT movement.

Stonewall Equality Limited was created in 1989 to oppose the Local Government Act, and since then, it has become the most influential LGBTQ+ organisation in Europe. They finally managed to successfully argue for the removal of section 28 in 2003.

Notable achievements of Stonewall Equality Limite include:

  • Successfully opposing the unequal age of consent by sending a complaint to the European Commission of Human Rights in 1997.
  • Successfully opposing the prohibition of homosexuals in the army in 2000.
  • Campaigning for the recognition of violence against the LGBT community as a hate crime in the Criminal Offences Act of 2003.

Did you know? Stonewall Equality Limited is still operating today although it has come under controversy. In 2021 the BBC removed its direct affiliation from Stonewall suggesting that it does not take a neutral stance in the gender and sexuality debate. Do you think Stonewall could or should be neutral?

LGBTQ Rights UK: Civil partnership and marriage

The 2000s marked another turning point in the recognition of LGBT rights. The Civil Partnerships Act of 2004 allowed same-sex couples to form civil partnerships. These are a different type of union than marriage but offer the same rights and responsibilities as civil marriage. Since 2011 couples have been allowed to seal a civil partnership in religious venues and have religious readings recited if the venue in question approves it.

In 2013, the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act was approved by Parliament and legalised same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Scotland followed with the Marriage and Civil Partnership Act of 2014. Same-sex marriage became legal in Northern Ireland in 2020, following the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act of 2019.

Future of the UK LGBTQ+ movement

Although the equality movement has created massive change for the LGBTQ+ community, the fight for equality continues. For example, conversion therapy is a highly controversial issue. In October 2021 the Government issued a statement in which it committed to banning conversion therapy:

The United Kingdom is a global leader on LGBT rights and is committed to banning the coercive and abhorrent practise of conversion therapy...5

Nonetheless, conversion therapy continues to be legal, leading the LGBTQ+ equality movement to continue to lobby and protest for its prohibition. As of April 2022, the legal ban on conversion therapy is still going through British Parliament but has recently excluded transgender individuals from the ban, demonstrating the continued legal struggle to establish LGBTQ+ rights in Britain.

LGBTQ Rights UK - Key takeaways

  • The first legal prohibition of homosexuality was enacted in 1533 under the Buggery Act. The Act made homosexuality punishable by hanging.
  • The Wolfenden Report of 1957 was the first official statement which opposed the argument that homosexuality is a disease and posited its decriminalisation.
  • The 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised homosexuality under the condition that the act was consensual, private, and amongst adults over the age of 21.
  • The first Pride march took place in 1972 between Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square.
  • The Gay Liberation Front was founded in 1970 as a response to the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in the US. They were instrumental in organising Pride.
  • Stonewall Equality was founded in 1989 to oppose the 1988 Local Government Act.
  • Same-sex marriage was legalised in 2013 in England and Wales, in 2014 in Scotland, and in 2020 in Northern Ireland.

References

  1. Michael Kirby, 'The Sodomy Offence: England's least lovely criminal law export?', Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in The Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and Change, 2013.
  2. Home Office and Scottish Home Department, 'Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution', 1957.
  3. Shaun Cole, 'Gay Liberation Front and Radical Drag, London 1970s', QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 2017.
  4. Russell T. Davies, ‘I looked away for years. Finally, I have put Aids at the centre of a drama’, The Guardian, 2021.
  5. Government Equalities Office, Banning Conversion Therapy, 2021.
  6. Fig. 3 - Stonewall Inn Pride weekend 2016 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stonewall_Inn_16_pride_weekend_2016.jpg) by Rhodondendrites (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Rhododendrites) Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about LGBTQ Rights UK

The LGBTQ activism started to gain significant traction in 1969 when the Gay Liberation Front was created in response to the Stonewall Riots in New York. In the 1980s, activists coined the acronym LGBT and it has expanded to LGBTQ+ in the years since to include all genders and sexualities. 

LGBTQ is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning. The LGBTQ+ movement supports individuals of all genders and sexualities to reach equality in society.

In the UK, the largest LGBT community exists in Liverpool, with an estimated 94,000 members of the community living in the city. In the US, New York has the largest LGBTQ community with nearly 300,000 members.

Originally the rainbow was used to represent the broad spectrum and diversity of sexuality and gender in the LGBTQ+ movement in San Francisco in 1978 and has been used globally since. The original flag was designed by Gilbert Baker and each colour was symbolic as follows:

  • Pink - sexuality
  • Red - life
  • Orange - healing
  • Yellow - the sun
  • Green - nature
  • Turquoise - art
  • Indigo - harmony
  • Violet - the soul

Different flags have become a way for different members of the LGBTQ+ movement to identify themselves. 

The first instance of decriminalisation was with the 1967 Sexual Offences Act which partially decriminalised male homosexuality. In 2004 the Civil Partnership Act allowed same-sex couples to be legally coupled. The 2010 Equality Act protected the LGBT community in the workplace and was a landmark for LGBT rights, but much more still needs to be done for the transgender community and LGBT rights in general.

Final LGBTQ Rights UK Quiz

Question

When was male homosexuality partially decriminalised with the Sexual Offences Act?

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Answer

1967

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Question

When was the Equality Act put in place in the UK?

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Answer

2010

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Question

Which movement was created after the Stonewall Riots in 1969?

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Answer

The Gay Liberation Front

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Question

What did the Sexual Offences Act of 2000 achieve for LGBT equality?

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Answer

Homosexual age of consent was lowered to 16

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Question

Why was Roberta Cowell significant for the LGBT community in 1951?

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Answer

First person in the UK to have a vaginoplasty

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Question

How did the Stonewall riots get its name?

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Answer

The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, was raided by police in 1969

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Question

When was the first gay pride march in the UK?

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Answer

1st July 1972

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Question

When did the HIV/AIDS epidemic start in the UK?

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Answer

1981

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Question

When was Stonewall Equality Limited created?

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Answer

1989

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Question

In what years were the Civil Partnerships Act and Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act legalised?

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Answer

2004 and 2013 respectively

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