LGBT rights in the United Kingdom

LGBT rights in the United Kingdom

British attitudes towards LGBT rights and homosexuality are regarded as some of the most liberal in the world.

British law provides for equal ages of consent, regardless of sexual orientation, at 16. Same-sex marriage is not legal, even though polls suggest a majority of the electorate support gay marriage.

In 2004, the Gender Recognition Act created a process for transsexual and transgender people to change their legal sex.

In 2005, the Civil Partnership Act created a parallel legal structure to marriage, giving homosexual couples all the rights and responsibilites of marriage, including the eligibility to apply to adopt children.

In addition, discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal in many fields, including housing, employment and the provision of goods and services. Most of these laws were passed in Britain, however some were passed at the EU level. The British military allows LGBT individuals to serve openly.

A compelling illustration of social attitudes towards homosexuality in the United Kingdom was provided in May 2007 in a survey by YouGov. The poll indicated that legislation outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was supported by 90% of UK citizens. It also showed some very positive public perceptions of gay people in particular.

There are very large gay communities in many UK cities, most notably in London, Manchester, Brighton and Birmingham. There are also some rural locations that have large gay populations: for example, Hebden Bridge in the Pennines was estimated to have the country's largest proportional population of lesbians in 2005. [ [ Hebweb news 2005: Lesbians head for the country ] ]

Pre 1950

In 1533 Henry VIII passed the Buggery Act 1533, which made homosexual acts an offence punishable by hanging. Even prior to this homosexuals were killed for religious reasons. In 1861 the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 removed the death penalty for homosexuality. However, homosexual acts still remained illegal and were punishable by inprisonment.


In the early 1950s the police actively enforced laws prohibiting sexual behaviour between men (some say this was a result of Central Intelligence Agency pressure following the BurgessMaclean spy scandal).Fact|date=February 2007 This policy led to a number of high-profile arrests and trials.

In particular, in 1953, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood were arrested and charged with having committed specific acts of indecency with Edward McNally and John Reynolds; they were also accused of conspiring with Edward Montagu (the 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu) to commit these offences. The Director of Public Prosecutions gave his assurance that Reynolds and McNally would not be prosecuted in any circumstances. The trial of Edward Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood began on 15 March 1954 in the hall of Winchester Castle. All three defendants were convicted.

The "Sunday Times" published an article entitled "Law and Hypocrisy" on 28 March 1954 that dealt with this trial and its outcome. Soon after, on 10 April 1954, the "New Statesman" printed an article called "The Police and the Montagu Case". A month after the Montagu trial the Home Secretary agreed to appoint a committee to examine and report on the law covering homosexual offences. The official announcement in the House of Commons was made on 18 April 1954 by Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth. In August 1954, the Home Office appointed a departmental committee of fifteen men and women "to consider… the law and practice relating to homosexual offences and the treatment of persons convicted of such offences by the courts."

The "Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution" (better known as the Wolfenden Report) was published on 3 September 1957 and recommended that "homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence", finding 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."

In October 1957, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, spoke in support of the Wolfenden Report, saying that "There is a sacred realm of privacy… into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude. This is a principle of the utmost importance for the preservation of human freedom, self-respect, and responsibility."

The first parliamentary debate on the Wolfenden Report was initiated on 4 December 1957 by Frank Pakenham. Of the seventeen peers who spoke in the debate, eight broadly supported the recommendations in the Wolfenden Report. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir, speaking for the government, doubted that there would be much public support for implementing the recommendations and stated that further research was required.

The 1958 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted to reject the proposals of the Wolfenden Committee.

In 1958 the Home Office asked sociologist Richard Hauser to survey homosexuality in Great Britain. One suggestion that arose from Hauser's work was that "the poor quality of the normal relationships between men and women in… society is responsible for much avoidable homosexuality". The Homosexual Law Reform Society was founded on 12 May 1958, mainly to campaign for the implementation of the Wolfenden Committee's recommendations.

Decriminalisation of homosexual acts - the 1967 Act

In 1965, in the House of Lords, Lord Arran proposed the decriminalisation of homosexual acts. In 1966 Humphry Berkeley made a similar proposal in the House of Commons; he ascribed his defeat in the 1966 general election to the unpopularity of this action. However, in the new Parliament, the maverick Labour MP Leo Abse took up the issue and used his mastery of Parliamentary tactics to ensure that the Bill progressed.

After almost ten years of campaigning, the Sexual Offences Bill was put before parliament in 1967 in order to implement some of the Wolfenden Committee's recommendations. Lord Arran, a sponsor of the Bill, made the following remarks at the third reading in the Lords:

Cquote|Because of the Bill now to be enacted, perhaps a million human beings will be able to live in greater peace. I find this an awesome and marvellous thing. The late Oscar Wilde, on his release from Reading Gaol, wrote to a friend:

:"Yes, we shall win in the end; but the road will be long and red with monstrous martyrdoms."

My Lords, Mr. Wilde was right: the road has been long and the martyrdoms many, monstrous and bloody. Today, please God! sees the end of that road. I ask one thing and I ask it earnestly. I ask those who have, as it were, been in bondage and for whom the prison doors are now open to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity. This is no occasion for jubilation; certainly not for celebration. Any form of ostentatious behaviour; now or in the future any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful and would, I believe, make the sponsors of the Bill regret that they have done what they have done. Homosexuals must continue to remember that while there may be nothing bad in being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good. Lest the opponents of the Bill think that a new freedom, a new privileged class, has been created, let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity. We shall always, I fear, resent the odd man out. That is their burden for all time, and they must shoulder it like men - for men they are.|20px|20px|Lord Arran

The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was accordingly passed. It maintained the general prohibitions on buggery and indecency between men, but provided for a limited decriminalisation of homosexual acts where three conditions were fulfilled. Those conditions were that the act had to be consensual, take place in private and involve only people that had attained the age of 21. This was a higher age of consent than that for heterosexual acts, which was set at 16. Further, "in private" limited participation in an act to two people. This condition was interpreted strictly by the courts, which took it to exclude acts taking place in a room in a hotel, for example, and in private homes where a third person was present (even where that person was in a different room).

The 1967 Act extended only to England and Wales, and not to Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, where all homosexual behaviour remained illegal. Organizations such as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and the Gay Liberation Front therefore continued to campaign for the goal of full equality.

1967-1994 - further reform and section 28

In 1979, the Home Office Policy Advisory Committee's Working Party report, "Age of Consent in relation to Sexual Offences", recommended that the age of consent for homosexual activities should be reduced to 18. No such legislation was enacted as a result. However, homosexual activities were legalised in Scotland on the same basis as in the 1967 Act, by section 80 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, which came into force on 1 February 1981. An analoguous amendment was also made to the law of Northern Ireland, following the determination of a case by the European Court of Human Rights (see "Dudgeon v. United Kingdom"); the relevant legislation was an Order in Council, the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982, [S.I. 1982/1536] which came into force on 8 December 1982.

The 1980s also saw a setback for LGBT rights. The availability in the libraries of schools run by the Inner London Education Authority of a book considered by some to 'promote' homosexuality led to protests and a campaign for new legislation. [cite news |first=Susanne |last=Bosche |title=Jenny, Eric, Martin . . . and me|url=,6000,130836,00.html |publisher=The Guardian |date=2000-01-31 |accessdate=2007-10-10 ] Consequently, in 1988 Parliament included in the Local Government Act a provision prohibiting "the intentional promotion of homosexuality" ["sic"] by any local authority and "the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". The provision was known as section 28, and amended section 2A of the earlier Local Government Act of 1986. Changes in the structure of local government since that date led to some confusion over the precise circumstances in which the new law applied, including the question of whether or not it applied at all in state schools.

An equal age of consent

In February 1994 Parliament considered reform of the law on rape and other sexual offences during the passage of the "Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill". Conservative MP Edwina Currie tabled an amendment to equalise the age of consent at 16. Many Labour MPs supported the amendment, including Tony Blair, who said:

Edwina Currie's amendment was defeated by 307 votes to 280. Those who voted for it included John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Paddy Ashdown and William Hague. Those voting against included David Blunkett and Ann Taylor. There were angry scenes outside the Palace of Westminster at the defeat of the amendment, when those involved in a demonstration organised by the group OutRage! clashed with police.

This vote was followed immediately by one on Sir Anthony Durant's amendment to lower the age of consent to 18. This amendment was passed by 427 votes to 162, and supporters included Michael Howard and John Major. It was opposed by such MPs as John Redwood, Michael Heseltine and John Gummer. An amendment tabled by Simon Hughes which was intended to equalise the age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals at 17 was not voted upon. The Bill as a whole was given a second reading in the Lords by 290 votes to 247. Lord Longford then sought to reintroduce 21 as the minimum age in the Lords, but this was defeated by 176 votes to 113. An amendment by the deputy Labour leader in the House of Lords, Lord MacIntosh of Haringey, that would have equalised the age of consent at 16, was rejected by 245 votes to 71.

In its decision of 1 July 1997 in the case of "Sutherland v. United Kingdom", the European Commission of Human Rights found that Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights were violated by a discriminatory age of consent, on the ground that there was no objective and reasonable justification for maintaining a higher minimum age for male homosexual acts. On 13 October 1997 the Government submitted to the European Court of Human Rights that it would in the summer of 1998 propose a Bill to Parliament for a reduction of the age of consent for homosexual acts from 18 to 16.

On 22 June 1998, the "Crime and Disorder Bill" was put before Parliament. Ann Keen proposed amendments to lower the age of consent to 16. The House of Commons accepted these provisions with a majority of 207, but they were rejected by the House of Lords with a majority of 168. Subsequently, the "Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill" was introduced on 16 December 1998 and, again, the equalisation of the age of consent was endorsed on 25 January 1999 by the House of Commons, but was rejected on 14 April 1999 by the House of Lords.

Those campaigning against the amendment said they were simply acting to protect children. Baroness Young, the leader of the campaign against the amendment, said, "Homosexual practices carry great health risks to young people".

The Government reintroduced the Bill in 1999. With the prospect of its being passed by the Commons in two successive sessions of Parliament, the Parliament Acts were available to enact the Bill should the Lords have rejected it a second time. The Lords passed the Bill at Second Reading, but made an amendment during committee stage to maintain the age of consent for buggery at 18 for both sexes. As the Bill had not completed its passage through the Lords at the end of the Parliamentary session on 30 November 2000, the Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin certified that the procedure specified by the Parliament Acts had been complied with. The Bill received Royal Assent a few hours later, and was enacted as the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000.

ocial reform and full legal equality

In the early part of the 21st century several pieces of new legislation were enacted, securing the full liberalisation of British law on homosexuality.

In the Adoption and Children Act 2002 Parliament provided that an application to adopt a child in England and Wales could be made by either a single person or a couple. The previous condition that the couple be married was dropped, thus allowing a same-sex couple to apply. The Lords rejected the proposal on one occasion before it was passed. Supporters of the move in Parliament stressed that adoption was not a "gay rights" issue but one of providing as many children as possible with a stable family environment rather than seeing them kept in care. Opponents raised doubts over the stability of relationships outside marriage, and how instability would impact on the welfare of adopted children. Similar legislation was adopted in Scotland. [ [ Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007, 2007 asp 4, s. 29.] ]

Section 28 was repealed in Scotland within the first two years of the existence of the Scottish Parliament, by the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc. (Scotland) Act 2000. [ [ 2000 asp 7, s. 34] ] A move to remove the provision in England and Wales was prevented following opposition in the House of Lords, again led by the Baroness Young. Following her death in 2002 it was finally repealed in a new Local Government Act, which took effect on 18 November 2003. During the passage of the Bill no attempt was made to retain the section, and an amendment seeking to preserve it using ballots was defeated in the House of Lords. This showed that a significant shift had taken place in the consideration of LGBT issues.

Following the adoption of an EC Directive in 2000, Regulations were introducted on 1 December 2003 providing for the prohibition of discrimination in employment on the grounds of sexual orientation. [ [ Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003, S.I. 2003/1661] ]

On 1 May 2004 the Sexual Offences Act 2003 entered into force. It swept away all of the previous sex-specific legislation, including the 1967 Act, and introduced instead neutral offences. Thus the previous conditions relating to privacy were removed, and sexual acts were viewed by the law without regard to the sex of the participants.

Parliament then went on to legislate for civil partnerships for same-sex couples on 18 November 2004 with the passage of the Civil Partnership Act. Such partnerships were civil unions, granting to the parties the same rights as a marriage. The first civil partnership ceremony is thought to have taken place at 11:00 (GMT) on 5 December 2005 between Matthew Roche and Christopher Cramp at St Barnabas Hospice, Worthing, West Sussex. [ [ First civil union in the United Kingdom] ] The usual 14 day waiting period was waived as Roche was suffering from a terminal illness. He died the next day. [ [ Partner of first civil union in the United Kingdom dies] ] The first civil partnership ceremonies after the statutory waiting period then took place in Northern Ireland on 19 December, with ceremonies following the next day in Scotland and the day after that in England and Wales.

On 30 April 2007 the Sexual Orientation Regulations came into force, following the introduction of similar provisions in Northern Ireland in 2006. They provided a general prohibition of discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexual orientation. Similar legislation had long previously been in force in respect of discrimination on the grounds of sex, race and disability. The introduction of the Regulations was controversial. A dispute arose between the Government and the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales over exemptions for Catholic adoption agencies. [ [ Archbishops' Letter] ] There were also arguments about the amount of Parliamentary scrutiny the draft Regulations received, their being considered for only 90 minutes in a Delegated Legislation Committee. [ [ HC Deb, Twelfth Delegated Legislation Committee, 15 Mar 2007; Draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007] ]

In October 2007 the Government announced that it would seek to introduce an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to create a new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. [cite news |first=Tony |last=Grew |title=Government approves incitement to gay hate law|url= |publisher=Pink News |date=2007-10-08 |accessdate=2007-10-10 ] This followed the creation of an offence on religious hatred that had proved controversial in 2006 (see Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006). Incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation is already illegal in Northern Ireland.

Other initiatives have included:

*The establishment of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights on 1 October 2007; the Commission is tasked with working for equality in all areas and replaced the previous commissions dedicated to sex, race and disability alone.

*The setting up of the [ Sexual Orientation and Gender Advisory Group] within the Department of Health.

*A provision of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 that a court must treat hostility based on sexual orientation as an aggravating feature for sentence. [ [ Criminal Justice Act 2003, 2003 c. 44, s. 146.] ]

*Guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service on dealing with homophobic crime. [ [ Crown Prosecution Service: Policy Statement] ]

*A commitment from the Government to work for LGBT rights at an international level. [ [ PROMOTING LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL AND TRANSGENDER RIGHTS OVERSEAS (06/02/06)] ]

A compelling illustration of social attitudes towards homosexuality in the United Kingdom was provided in May 2007 in a survey by YouGov. The poll indicated that legislation outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was supported by 90% of UK citizens. It also showed some very positive public perceptions of gay people in particular, but recognised the extent to which prejudice still exists. [cite news |first=Hugh |last=Muir |title=Majority support gay equality rights, poll finds|url=,,2086335,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=11 |publisher=The Guardian |date=2007-05-23 |accessdate=2007-10-10 ]

Northern Ireland

Currently, the sexual age of consent is 17 for Northern Ireland. New sexual offences legislation under the "Sexual Offences NI Order 2008" will became effective from September 2008 for Northern Ireland, meaning the sexual age of sexual consent will be 16, that will be in line with the rest of the UK and all sexual offences will become gender-neutral.

* Age of consent Europe

Summary table



* [ Sutherland v. United Kingdom] - 25186/94 [2001] ECHR 234 (27 March 2001)
* [ DTI Women and Equality]

ee also

* Civil partnerships in the United Kingdom
* Same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom
* Section 28
* Gender Recognition Act 2004
* Gay Liberation Front
* Hall-Carpenter archives
* Human rights in the United Kingdom
* LGBT rights by country
* LGBT culture in Ireland

External links

* [ Database of the United Kingdom's openly gay and lesbian politicians]
* [ LGBT History Month, United Kingdom]

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