A Legal History of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK
by Laxmi Mall and Rose Bobby
The past month was the month of June and also the month of Pride. Pride Month is dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ+ communities across the world and to commemorate the Stonewall riots of June 1969. In this article, we discuss key UK legislations from the 1800s until the present, and how the rights of LGBTQ+ people became increasingly recognised within UK law.
- The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 – This law made all homosexual acts illegal, whether or not a witness was present, so even acts committed in private could be prosecuted. Under Section 11 of this law, Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for ‘committing acts of gross indecency with male persons’.
- Sexual Offences Act 1967 (PDF) – This law was the first time when homosexuality was partially legalised, as it permitted same-sex acts in the UK between men over the age of 21, if conducted in private. This was a step in the right direction when catering for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the UK, however there was still a long way to go. The age of consent was still higher for homosexual acts between men (compared to age 16 for heterosexuals and lesbians).
- Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 – Section 28 or Clause 28 of this legislation banned local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’, and prohibited councils from funding the teaching of ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. This law existed from 1988 until 2003 and affected LGBTQ+ people, including children who were in school during that time.
- Divina De Campo, a contestant from RuPaul’s Drag Race UK explained how children bullied him for being gay but teachers felt they could not step in because of Section 28. It is troubling to imagine all the other teachers in the UK during that time who may have felt as if they could not step in during similar circumstances, because they were worried it would appear as if they were ‘promoting homosexuality’. Since the law was repealed in 2003 there has been a movement towards a more inclusive Relationships & Sex Education in schools but there is still some backlash against an LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum.
- The Bolton 7 (1998) – A group of seven gay and bisexual men were convicted on 12 January 1998 for gross indecency under section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (PDF). Despite the fact that the 1967 version of this Act legalised homosexuality between men, these men were convicted under the 1956 Act because they had sexual relations with more than two men, which was still illegal at the time.
- The Civil Partnership Act 2004 – This Act allowed same-sex couples to legally enter into a binding ‘civil partnership’ which is largely similar to a civil marriage. Same-sex couples in civil partnerships have the same rights as married couples, but same-sex marriage was still illegal at the time. Initially, only same-sex couples could enter civil partnerships but as of 31 December 2019, it is now possible for opposite-sex couples to enter into a civil partnership as well.
- The Gender Recognition Act 2004 – This Act gave trans people full recognition of their gender, allowing them to change their legal gender and acquire a new birth certificate. However, options are still limited, up until this day, as you can only be legally recognised as either ‘male’ or ‘female’. Changes have been promised but government are still missing deadlines. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community have identified the process as far too bureaucratic in nature and deem it to be an emotionally exhausting endeavour simply for legal recognition.
- The Equality Act of 2010 – This Act legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society due to certain protected characteristics that they may have, such as protection against discrimination due to an individual’s gender reassignment. This means that people must not be discriminated against based on the physiological reassignment of the attributes of their sex.
- Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 – Prior to this Act, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 allowed same-sex couples to have civil partnerships but they were not able to legally marry like opposite-sex couples were able to. This Act gave same-sex couples the opportunity to get married just like any other couple. Same-sex couples who were in civil partnerships prior to the enactment of this law had the opportunity to convert it into a legally recognised marriage. This Act came into effect in 2014 and the first legally recognised same-sex marriage of England and Wales took place on 29 March 2014.
- Alan Turing – Homosexual acts between men were illegal in England and Wales until the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which was after Alan Turing’s lifetime. Turing was a computer pioneer and codebreaker who broke the German Enigma codes during World War II. Turing was convicted of gross indecency because of his sexuality in 1952 and was subsequently banned from government work. Turing was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013 under the royal prerogative of mercy. It unfortunately took more than half a century for the state to acknowledge the injustices faced by Turing and countless other men who were convicted for their sexuality. ‘Turing’s law’ or the ‘Alan Turing law’ is an informal term for the UK law, within the Policing and Crime Act 2017, which issued posthumous pardons upon thousands of men who engaged in consensual homosexual relations and were imprisoned or fined for this reason.
- Conversion Therapy – The House of Commons questioned on Twitter whether conversion therapy should be made illegal. Conversion Therapy aims to alter a person’s sexual orientation based on the assumption that being lesbian, gay, bi or transgender is a mental illness. The government had promised to ban conversion therapy back in 2018, however July 2 of this year marked two years from the day this promise was made, yet there is no legislation to date. This remains an ethically deplorable and psychologically damaging issue for the LGBTQ+ community.
Since same-sex marriages are legal in all UK countries, including in Northern Ireland which legalised same-sex marriages from 13 January 2020, it can seem like UK law has progressed very far when recognising the equal rights of LGBTQ+ people. However, there is still a long way to go. In more recent news, there have been concerns over the government’s plans regarding the consultation of the Gender Recognition Act. There is a considerable fear that the amendment of this law will make it more difficult for trans people to transition and access toilets and changing room facilities.
Globally, the criminalisation of homosexuality remains prominent as in certain countries, LGBTQ+ people can even receive death penalties or life sentences merely for their sexuality. This further reflects why it is vital that we continue to celebrate Pride as discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community unfortunately continues to occur in the UK and worldwide, both legally and otherwise.