Progression of LGBTQ+ rights in England and Wales

4th June 2021

As a history graduate and lawyer, I have always been fascinated by the prospect of change and progress within society. Advancement in medicine, science and technology has certainly changed our lives for the better. As a reminder of how much the world has progressed, below are some examples that underpin some of the major legal changes the British society underwent in the last 200 years:

  • The Education Act 1870: established a system of 'school boards' to build and manage schools in areas where they were needed with a view of ensuring that no child should miss out on an education due to circumstances.
  • The Representation of the People Act 1918: gave women the right to vote.
  • 1944 Education Act: made education free for all children up to the age of 15.
  • The National Health Service Act 1946: established the principle that healthcare should be free at the point of service.
  • The Suicide Act 1961: decriminalised the act of suicide in England and Wales.
  • The Sexual Offences Act 1967: legalised homosexual acts in England and Wales.
  • The Abortion Act 1967: legalised abortions on certain grounds by registered practitioners.

One group of society that has seen an enormous transformation in the last few decades is the LGBTQ+ community. This blog will focus on the history of LGBTQ+ legal rights to celebrate and highlight the progress the community has made in the last few hundred years.

Dark ages

The Buggery Act of 1533, passed by Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII targeted outlawed sodomy in Britain and made it punishable by death. Section 61 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 abolished the nominal death penalty put forward by the Buggery Act 1533 and instead made it punishable by a minimum of 10 years imprisonment. 24 years later, during the peak of Victorian “morality”, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (commonly known as the Labouchere Amendment) went one step further to strengthen the existing legislation against homosexuality, making any male homosexual act illegal. The vague and ambiguously worded section 11 of this legislation made “gross indecency with male persons” a crime and led to the prosecution of famous figures such as Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing.

Changing tide and push for reforms

The situation began to change post World War II. A significant rise in arrests and prosecutions of homosexual men were made after World War II, with such arrests involving many high ranking officials within the government. This increase in prosecutions called into question the legal system in place for dealing with homosexual acts. The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (commonly known as the Wolfenden Report) was published in 1957. The committee, led by Sir John Wolfenden, recommended that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should “no longer be a criminal offence.” The report also focused on protecting the public, as opposed to scrutinising the public lives of individuals. While today, this recommendation may not be seen as particularly groundbreaking, this report was certainly seen as being progressive in an era where people were persecuted for their beliefs. 10 years later, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 was implemented partially legalising same-sex acts in the UK between men over the age of 21, as long as such acts were conducted in private. Around the same time, the Beaumont Society was set up to educate the general public, medical and legal professions on the transgender community. The organisation is still running and is now the UK’s largest and longest running support group for transgender people and their families.

The 1970s also saw a surge in progressive reforms:

  • June 1972 saw the introduction of Gay News, Britain’s first gay newspaper. It reported on discrimination and political and social advances but also campaigned for law reform. Although the newspaper ceased publication on 15 April 1983, it no doubt provides a milestone for British society.
  • 1976 saw the Lemon v. Whitehouse – Blasphemy Trial. In this case, Mary Whitehouse, founder of the Nationwide Festival of Light and the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, took Gay News to trial for blasphemy as a result of Gay News publishing a homoerotic poem involving Jesus Christ. Although Gay News ultimately lost the case, the legal costs were covered by community donations, known as the Gay News Fighting Fund, including a £500 donation from the comedy troupe, Monty Python.

Pushback in the 1980s

Despite the positive progress, the 1980s saw a halt in the reforms. Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, introduced by the Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher, banned local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality ’ and prohibited councils from funding educational materials and projects perceived to “promote homosexuality”. The legislation prevented the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues and stopped pupils from receiving the support they needed. The 1988 act came at a time during which HIV/AIDS cases were on the rise and were mostly associated with gay and bisexual men, heightening prejudice and stigmatisation. Section 28 was, thankfully, repealed in 2003 by Tony Blair’s government.

Progress, to date

The last 20 years saw a final push towards equality in the form of a wave of progressive legislations:

  • The Adoption and Children Act 2002 allows unmarried people and same-sex couples in England and Wales to adopt children.
  • In 2004 the Civil Partnership Act 2004 allows same-sex couples to legally enter into binding partnerships.
  • The Gender Recognition Act 2004 gives transgender people full legal recognition of their gender, allowing them to acquire a new birth certificate (although limiting gender options to ‘male’ or ‘female’).
  • The Equality Act 2010, in strengthening the Gender Recognition Act 2004, gives LGBT employees protections from discrimination, harassment and victimisation at work.
  • The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 allows same-sex couples in England and Wales to marry.

What next?

After facing years of oppression and subjugation, the LGBTQ+ community are now seeing positive changes. While admittedly, the fight for LGBTQ+ rights continues it is nevertheless important to celebrate the positive achievements and developments the community has undergone from a legal perspective.

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Anamitra Mukhopadhyay is a Solicitor located in Londonin our Intellectual Property department

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