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Milestones in UK lesbian & gay legal history

Country Rights | Hanky Codes | LGBTQ+ Flags | Slang dictionary | UK Gay & Lesbian History

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.

alan turing on £50 bank note
£50 note commemorating wartime code-breaker Alan Turing who was convicted of a gay offence in the 1950s, courtesy of BoE.

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.

You can read more on our LGBT+ History Month: an opportunity for reflection article.

 

Year
Description
1533
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.
1861
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.
1885
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.
1957
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.
1967
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.
1980
Scotland de-criminalised sex between two men over the age of 21 ‘in private’.
1982
Northern Ireland The Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982 de-criminalises sex between two men over the age of 21 'in private'.
1983
Guernsey UK Crown Dependency, de-criminalises sex between two men.
1988
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.
1992
World Health Organization (WHO) finally de-classified homosexuality as a mental illness.
1994
Isle of Man UK Crown Dependency, de-criminalises sex between two men.
1994
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.
1997
UK Government recognises same-sex partners for immigration purposes.
2000
The UK Government lifts the ban on lesbians, gay men and bi people serving in the armed forces.
2000
Scotland abolishes Section 28.
2001
Age of consent is lowered to 16, making it the same as the age of consent for straight people.
2002
Adoption and Children Act chapter 38 grants equal rights to same-sex couples applying for adoption.
2003
England, Wales and Northern Ireland abolishes Section 28.
2003
Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations became law in the UK, making it illegal to discriminate against lesbians, gay and bisexual people in the workplace.
2003
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.
2004
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.
2005
The Adoption and Children Act 2002 allows unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, to apply to adopt children.
2006
Isle of Man abolishes Section 28
2007
The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 makes it illegal to discriminate against someone in the provision of goods, facilities, services and education on the grounds of sexual orientation
2007
Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007 gives same-sex couples in Scotland equality in adoption and fostering
2008
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 recognised same-sex couples as legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated eggs, embryos or sperm.
2010
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
2011
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.
2011
The Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 allowed religious premises to be used for the formation of civil partnerships (at the time the only civil legal union available to people of the same sex).
2012
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.
2013
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.
2014
Scottish Government passes legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry in Scotland.
2016
The Isle of Man legalises same-sex marriage.
2017
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'.
2018
In Scotland, the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons_and_Disregards) Act 2018 meant gay and bisexual men would receive automatic pardons for historical convictions for homosexual behaviour.
2018
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.
2020
Same-sex marriage becomes legal in Northern Ireland.
2023
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.


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