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Below is a timeline of the most important legal milestones on lesbian and gay equality* in the UK including the eventual decriminalisation of homosexuality between men,
a gradual process that took place between 1967 and 2003 in England & Wales and on other timelines in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It chronicles the main changes in the
law affecting lesbians and gay & bisexual men in the UK over the last 500 years. The near-by Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, which are not part of the UK,
also decriminalised homosexuality under their own timelines.
Same-sex relationships between men and women have historically been treated differently in law in the UK. Men were usually exposed to legal penalties for sexual relations
with other men but women were not usually included in penal legislation.
Over the 20th century, progress was slow in decriminalising homosexuality and enabling civil rights but it accelerated in the late 1990s and 2000s. Astonishingly,
the UN World Health Organization only finally removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1992, 25 years after homosexuality between men had
been partially legalised in the UK.
The Buggery Act 1533 (sodomy law) of England given Royal Assent by King Henry VIII outlawed male anal sex and made it punishable by death. This was the principal parliamentary law regulating homosexuality until the late 19th century.
The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 among many other wider criminal law measures abolished the death penalty for men who had anal sex with other men, replacing it with a ten years imprisonment.
The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was introduced as an overhaul of sexual criminal law and covered brothels, prostitution and other aspects of sexual behaviour for society as a whole; the law is notorious for gay men. This is because it criminalised "gross indecency between males", in other words, all sexual activity between men, not just anal sex; gross indecency did not need a witness, meaning that consenting men who had a liaison in private could be prosecuted, It became known as the 'Blackmailer's Charter'. A few years later, the law was used to prosecute famous pioneering gay playwright Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced to two years' hard labour, as well many other thousands of gay men for the next eighty years. This included Alan Turing, the computer and code breaking genius, who in the 1950s was forced to choose chemical castration or go to prison. Lesbians were not included in this law as it was not considered at the time that many women indulged in such behaviour.
The Wolfenden Report was published. It recommended the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK and paved the way, ten years’ later, for the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. By 1954 more than a thousand gay men were in prison under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 and many more had experienced blackmail.
The Sexual Offences Act de-criminalised sex between two men over 21 and 'in private'. It did not extend to the Merchant Navy the Armed Forces, or in Scotland, Northern Ireland or the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (not part of the UK), where sex between two men remained illegal.
Scotland de-criminalised sex between two men over the age of 21 ‘in private’.
Guernsey UK Crown Dependency, de-criminalises sex between two men.
At the height of the paranoia over HIV/AIDS, UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, introduced Section 28 (Clause 28) of the Local Government Act. The Act states that local authorities "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained [state funded] school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". This was the first anti-gay law for almost a century and caused great controversy.
World Health Organization (WHO) finally de-classified homosexuality as a mental illness.
Isle of Man UK Crown Dependency, de-criminalises sex between two men.
In a compromise deal, the UK Parliament voted to lower the age of consent to 18 still a discriminatory two years higher than that for heterosexuals. The age of consent for same-sex relations between women was not set.
UK Government recognises same-sex partners for immigration purposes.
The UK Government lifts the ban on lesbians, gay men and bi people serving in the armed forces.
Scotland abolishes Section 28.
Age of consent is lowered to 16, making it the same as the age of consent for straight people.
Adoption and Children Actchapter 38 grants equal rights to same-sex couples applying for adoption.
England, Wales and Northern Ireland abolishes Section 28.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 removed prohibitions and penalties for men who engaged in same-sex behaviour in a group so bringing the law into line with that for heterosexual people.
The Civil Partnership Act 2004 is passed, granting civil partnership in the United Kingdom. For the first time, the Act enabled same-sex couples to enjoy the same civil rights, legal protections and responsibilities as married heterosexual couples in across the whole of the UK.
The Equality Act 2010 gives protected characteristic of gender reassignment for people who is to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone the purpose of reassigning the person's sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex
England's Department of Health lifted the discriminatory lifetime ban on men who have sex with men from donating blood. This was conditional on men abstaining from sex with another man for one year, whether or not condoms were used, before they could donate blood.
The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 among other provisions offered pardons to men for a narrow range of historical gay sex convictions including removing such offences from criminal records.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 introduced civil marriage for same-sex couples in England and Wales. The legislation allowed religious organisations to opt in to marry same-sex couples should they wish to do so and protected religious organisations and their representatives from successful legal challenge if they did not wish to marry same-sex couples.
Scottish Government passes legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry in Scotland.
The Isle of Man legalises same-sex marriage.
The Government issued a posthumous pardon to all gay and bisexual men who were convicted under old draconian sexual offences laws, that enabled police to criminalise people for being gay or bisexual. The general pardon is modelled on the 2013 royal pardon granted by the Queen to Alan Turing and so is known as 'Turing’s Law'.
The UK Government announced that it will bring forward proposals to ban conversion therapy at the legislative level, a controversial set of practices that seek to alter a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. However, as of October 2023 this pledge has not been fulfilled.
Same-sex marriage becomes legal in Northern Ireland.
In September the Conservative government did not introduce legislation on banning conversion therapy, despite promising protection against these practices over the previous five years.
*this article only covers lesbian and gay legal history in the UK – not Trans and other LGBTQ equality communities which have a different legal history.