Gay Rights in the UK: Daniel Parker writes a brief history of a long struggle
The year was 2014. The month was March. And the vibes were very, very gay. Yes, it was 13th March 2014 and, in a historical moment, same-sex marriage was fully legalised in England and Wales. Whilst the atmosphere on the streets that day matched those eccentric and vibrant celebrations witnessed at the Pride marches we see here in Brighton every year, what the gay community has been through to get to this stage means every day of marriage, consent and adoption equality is another day further away from the discrimination and abhorrent scapegoating that heralded the new law last year. So, how did we get to this stage? What was the journey of gay rights in the UK? Well, whack out your rainbow flags and let’s get going.
We start our journey as recently as the mid 20th century with homosexuality being totally illegal in the UK after the passing of the ‘Buggery Act’ in 1533. It wasn’t until The Wolfenden Committee was set up in 1954 that the gay rights movement sparked into life. The men and women of this committee brought the gay rights movement out of hibernation and into the public eye by directly recommending to the House of Commons that “homosexual acts should not be seen a criminal offence”. The ‘Sexual Offences Act’ was promptly passed decriminalising homosexuality but only in a limited sense. Homosexuals needed to be 21 to perform sexual acts and the rather ambiguous and unnecessary ‘privacy clause’, which declared homosexuals ‘must do their acts in private’, meant homosexuality was still not socially accepted throughout the UK. Whilst the act, passed in 1957, still was a far stretch from full equality with heterosexuals, it was indeed this breakthrough Act Of Parliament that set the ball rolling for what was to be a whirlwind 60 years of progression for gay rights.
To the 70s! Whilst actual legislation was few and far between, the gay rights movement itself was gathering up a very large head of steam. Only a few years after the Stonewall riots in America, the first Brighton pride march took place in 1971, a small gathering from members of the Sussex Gay Liberation Front marching through the streets of Brighton that directly led to the first Gay Pride march the next year in London. The Gay Liberation Front was also formed in the early 1970s with high profile names such as Cliff Richard, and members of Parliament openly supported the group.
Whilst the 70s did see gay activism grow and grow, the end of the decade still saw no legislation or recognition for transsexuals living in the UK, leaving the group with no identity rights or legal protection by 1979. The 70s also saw the reaffirmation of the banning of same- sex marriage with marriage declared under common law as ‘between a man and a women’, taking the wind out of the sails of the LGBTQ+ movement as we moved into the 1980s.
Indeed, the 1980s was a decade of fierce determination surrounding the LGBTQ+ community; with various events leading to a rapid need for immediate change in legislation in the UK, we saw activism turn into a desperate need to save lives. In 1981, the first case of AIDS was recorded in the UK with a 49-year-old man being taken to an unequipped hospital in Brompton, London, passing away just 10 days later. Whilst the first UK AIDS charity was later set up in 1982, the stigma of AIDS as a ‘gay epidemic’ in the UK meant that legislation protecting those with the illness was non-existent.
In fact, the health minister of Thatcher’s government, Kenneth Clarke, enacted legislation that meant some sufferers of the AIDS virus were to be detained in hospital against their will, potentially preventing people from coming forward for treatment. Whilst the rise of AIDS in the UK was hitting an all time high, with 108 reported sufferers and 46 deaths in the decade, the 80s can claim one of the biggest victories for gay rights since the marriage equality of 2014.
After the creation of movement of the group ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’, who successfully helped struggling mining communities in their year long strike from 1984 to 1985, the Labour party enacted full LGBTQ+ rights into the party’s manifesto, the first of any major party sitting in parliament, with huge help from the mining unions.
By the 1990s, gay activism was well and truly set in place with the huge variety of movements and groups being formed in the 80s and fully established by the 90s. Now the 90s was a push for genuine concrete legislation that would bring about full equality for the LGBTQ+ community. Indeed, this push for legislation was ultimately met with firm disappointment and, whilst hundreds were still dying of AIDS, no laws were passed by the governments of the decade. Whilst Conservative Member of Parliament Edwina Currie attempted to pass a law bringing the age of consent down for homosexual relations to the same as heterosexual relations, 16, it was swiftly defeated with the age of consent only being lowered to 18.
It took until the 21st century for legislation on gay rights to be fully achieved in the UK and there was certainly a lot of it in quick succession. Right, here we go! Homosexuals were no longer banned from the armed forces as of 2000, the age of consent was officially equalised in 2001, the right for same-sex couples to adopt was legalised in 2002, civil partnerships were legalised in 2004, the ‘Equality Act’ of 2006 made it illegal to discriminate in the work place on ground of sexual orientation and (phew!) in 2014 same-sex marriage was officially legalised!
Hooray! So we are back to where we started all those many words ago with the final piece of gay rights legislation to date: marriage equality. What is certainly most frightening about the various gay rights achievements is that they have all happened within our relatively short lifetimes. Indeed, everyone at this very university, reading this today, will have been born into a society where the simple act of marriage or even serving our country would have been illegal for people who were born into a different sexual orientation. And while the actual legislation for full gay rights equality has only been put in place over the past 15 years, it was the groundwork we’ve seen in the decades leading up to it that were truly vital.
2015: the end of our journey. We can see gay rights, on a legislative basis, at their strongest ever. While perhaps society as a whole is yet to see the LGBTQ+ community as fully equal, with phrases like ‘gay’, ‘fag’ and ‘batty boy’ still being brandished around as negative and derogatory adjectives, what we can see is our UK legislators have finally done their bit for gay rights after a long, long struggle.
Although there is still plenty of work to be done, let us celebrate where we’ve come from and where we are now as a community. See you at Pride 2016!
Image: Wikimedia Commons