LGBT rights in the UK are improving, thanks to the activities of campaigners across the country. In order to develop a proper understanding of current LGBT rights, it is important to understand the history of LGBT rights in the UK.
19th Century Laws
The LGBT community in the United Kingdom has experienced a turbulent history, in part due to the predominantly Christian heritage of the nation. Christian values and teaching on homosexuality and gender identity helped to shape historic laws. However, the laws were largely focused on male homosexuality, rather than lesbian relationships or female homosexual acts. Until 1861, English law allowed for the death penalty to be given to people found guilty of engaging in male homosexual sexual activities. The Offences against the Person Act 1861 removed the possibility of the death penalty, however homosexuality between men was still punishable by a potential prison sentence. Author Oscar Wilde was famously sentenced to 2 years of penal labour after being convicted of homosexuality.
During the nineteenth century, the laws preventing homosexuality were often used in a more political way, rather than as an attempt to completely prevent homosexuality in the UK. Police allowed some homosexuality to occur, as long as it was carefully concealed. On the other hand, some politicians or members of high society would use the laws as leverage to discredit their opponents. Homosexuality was also considered as a mental illness. Some doctors or religious groups took steps to try to “cure” LGBT people.
20th Century Laws
During the early twentieth century, police began to increase their efforts to enforce the laws prohibiting homosexual offences. By 1954, there were over 1000 men in prison for homosexuality (with some homosexuals convicted of “gross indecency”). Some men were offered the option to take female hormones (“chemical castration”) rather than go to prison.
Alan Turing, who had played an integral part in the code-breaking efforts during World War II, was convicted of homosexuality and chose the chemical castration option. He committed suicide 2 years after his conviction. There are still men in the UK who are living with the effects of having a criminal record because of their convictions for homosexual offenses. For many of these men, the effects were much wider reaching than the time which they were incarcerated for. They were subsequently excluded from certain job options because of their criminal conviction. Others were considered to be sex offenders and vilified by society. Many men lost the support of their families and networks.
The Wolfenden Report
In 1957, the Wolfenden Report recommended that homosexuality between consenting adults should no longer be considered as a sexual offence and that it should not be considered as a disease. Despite these recommendations, the government did not change the laws until 1967. Although certain homosexual acts were still considered to be indecency offences, there was a limited decriminalisation of other activities. The laws allowed for homosexual acts which were consensual, in private and only involved people who were over the age of 21. The age of consent was 5 years older than the age of consent for heterosexual couples. These new laws only applied in England and Wales.
The European Commission Of Human Rights
Campaigners continued to advocate for the age of consent to be lowered to the same age as the age of consent for heterosexual couples. In 1994, the age of consent was lowered to 18, however this was still out of line with the age of consent for heterosexual sex. In 1997, the European Commission of Human Rights ruled that there was no justification for the higher age of consent for same-sex partners, and that the existing UK rules amounted to discrimination. The age of consent for male same-sex partners was finally equalised to 16 in 2001. The legislation also codified an age of consent for female same-sex partners, as this was not previously set out in law.
The Policing And Crime Act
In 2017, the Policing and Crime Act officially gave posthumous pardons to thousands of men from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who had been convicted of homosexual sexual offences under the old laws. This law was colloquially known as the “Alan Turing” law. Scotland is also in the process of enacting its own legislation to pardon some people who were convicted by the Scottish legal system.
The British Military
The British military has allowed LGBT people to serve openly since 2000. An in-depth study has shown that allowing LGBT people to serve in the military has had no perceivable impact on the operational effectiveness of the military. Same-sex military spouses are given all of the same rights that heterosexual couples have. The British military actively recruits LGBT people and often has a recruitment stall at Pride events around the country.
The Gender Recognition Act
The Gender Recognition Act 2004 allows transgender people to acquire a new version of their birth certificate, showing their acquired sex. However, transgender people are required to produce a body of evidence to show that they have lived as their acquired gender for at least 2 years. There are still some concerns over rights for transgender people who are currently married. As part of the legislation, some people may be required to get their marriage annulled. If one partner refuses the annulment, it can hold up the gender recognition process. Advocates argue that this gives the partner an unfair leverage over the transgender individual who is seeking gender recognition.
Since 2005, single LGBT people and same-sex couples have been eligible to adopt and foster children, as long as they meet all of the rest of the adoption criteria. Although there were some objections from conservative and religious voices, (who supported “traditional” family structures), it was decided that LGBT people were able to provide a safe, stable and nurturing environment for children.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 allowed lesbian couples to have equal presumptions of parentage in cases where a child had been conceived as a result of IVF or assisted insemination. Both partners were eligible to be classed as parents on the child’s birth certificate, regardless of whether they had physically carried the child during pregnancy. Despite some conservative and religious voices arguing that the absence of a “father” would have a detrimental effect on the child, the legislation was passed. This legislation helped to give lesbian couples much better opportunities to start a family.
The Civil Partnership Act
In 2004, the Civil Partnership Act was passed to allow same sex couples to enter into a civil partnership with one another. A civil partnership gave couples many of the same rights and responsibilities that heterosexual couples would have with a civil marriage, however there were some subtle differences. A civil partnership could take place in any approved marriage venue in the country, although religious venues were not compelled to perform ceremonies if they did not want to. Couples were required to give 14 days’ notice before the ceremony. The very first civil partnership in the UK occurred on the 5th December 2015. One of the parties was suffering from a serious terminal illness and they were therefore allowed to waive the standard notice period.
As of 2014, same-sex couples have been allowed to enter into civil marriages across most of the United Kingdom. This gives them all of the same rights and responsibilities that are afforded to heterosexual married couples. Religious venues can perform same-sex marriages, although the central church normally has to opt-in. The law means that religious venues cannot be forced to perform marriages for same-sex couples, even under anti-discrimination legislation.
The Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act 2010 helped to give LGBT people extra rights to fight discrimination. The act protects certain characteristics against discrimination, including gender reassignment and sexual orientation. It is a wide-ranging piece of legislation which covers discrimination in employment, and the public and private sectors. However, the legislation does not give transgender or transsexual individuals access to any services which are gender-specific. There are also a few occupations which are exempt from the employment discrimination criteria, including; members of the clergy and roles where cultural sensitivity may be required.
If you feel that you have been targeted by homophobic abuse or deliberate discrimination because of your sexual orientation or your gender identity, then you may be able to take action. Violence and intimidation should always be reported to the police. If homophobic intent can be proven, then the legal system is able to hand out a stronger sentence.
You may be able to bring a civil case against an employer or a business if you can show that they directly or indirectly discriminated against you because of your sexual orientation or gender reassignment.
If you have been assaulted either physically or mentally you are advised to seek legal advice as you might have a right to compensation. Many solicitors are able to offer their services on a no-win, no-fee basis. You will be able to explain your situation to them, and they should be able to advise you about whether you have a valid claim for personal injury compensation. You may be asked to gather evidence to help to support your claim, so that the solicitor can give you an accurate representation of how much the claim could be worth.