To highlight LGBT+ History Month we are looking at how the law has changed for the better for the LGBTQIA+ community and the brilliant legal minds who fought for that change.
By Editorial Team. Published 2 February 2022. Updated 1 February 2024.
Between 1957 and 1967, the law and society changed in many ways. In 1957, the Wolfenden Committee published a report, recommending that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”.
The first parliamentary debate on the Wolfenden Report was initiated on 4 December 1957 by Labour MP Frank Pakenham (Lord Pakenham). However, despite the best efforts of the report the wider government did not plan to reform the law for LGBTQIA+ relationships. The Lord Chancellor, Viscount Kilmuir, was quoted as having said: “I am not going down in history as the man who made sodomy legal.”
The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, and the British Medical Association supported the report. Despite the overwhelming backing of such prolific bodies, the recommendations were rejected by the government.
A blow for early LGBTQIA+ rights but it didn’t stop there. The following year, the Homosexual Law Reform Society was founded by academic Tony Dyson to campaign for the legalisation of same-sex relationships in the UK. Many MPs and celebrities of the time, including former labour prime minister Clement Attlee, publisher Victor Gollancz, and poet Stephen Spender, supported the group, and most of the founders of the new group were not homosexual themselves, proving that the issues involved affected the wider society.
This was significant as it gave socially isolated individuals a guiding light to start to make contact and form communities. In 1960, over a thousand people attended the first Homosexual Law Reform Society public meeting in Caxton Hall.
The society was soon joined by others. In 1963, the Minorities Research Group became the UK’s first lesbian social and political organisation and began to publish “Arena Three”, a monthly journal. In the first issue, its mission statement read that it aimed: “To conduct and to collaborate in research into the homosexual condition, especially as it concerns women; and to disseminate information and items of interest to universities, institutions, social and education workers, writers, poets, editors, employers and, in short, all those genuinely in quest of enlightenment about what has been called "the misty, unmapped world of feminine homosexuality."
In 1964, The North Western Homosexual Law Reform Committee (NWHLRC) was also founded to promote legal and social equality for lesbians, gay men and bisexual people.
In 1966, Trans support group, The Beaumont Society, was set up to provide information and education to the public, the medical profession, and legal professions on transvestism and to encourage research.
During this decade of change, the Homosexual Law Reform Society became much more active in their goal of decriminalising LGBTQIA+ relationships. This led to The Sexual Offenses Act 1967, arguably the most significant change in the legal system for society.
The Sexual Offences Act 1967 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom (citation 1967 c. 60). It decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have attained the age of 21.
The sixties were an era of change. Liberalism took a firm hold of law and politics leading to the more inclusive world we live in today. Although much has been done, more can still be done to make our world the perfect world for the next generation to come out in.
You can read the contents of the important historic Wolfenden Report in full here.
In more recent times, we have seen huge leaps in LGBTQIA+ rights.
2001 - The UK Government lifts ban on lesbians, gay and bisexual people serving in armed forces. Previously, those serving in the armed forces had to keep their sexuality secret for risk of being dismissed. Also in 2001, the age of consent for gay/bi men was lowered to 16 to match those of heterosexual relationships.
2002 - The Adoption and Children Act 2002 allowed gay and lesbian single people, as well as same-sex couples, to adopt a child in the UK. Prior to this, neither same-sex couples or unmarried heterosexual couples could adopt a child.
2003 - The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations came into effect. Until this time, employers could discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people by not hiring them or promoting them, based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The new legislation made it illegal to discriminate against lesbians, gay and bisexual people at work.
2004 - The Civil Partnership Act was introduced by the Labour Government giving same-sex couples the same rights as married heterosexual couples in the UK. The Gender Recognition Act also rose in 2004, giving trans people full legal recognition in their appropriate gender allowing trans people to receive a new birth certificate.
2008 - Same-sex couples were now recognised as the legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated sperm, eggs or embryos under The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.
2010 - The Equality Act 2010 legislated for equal treatment in access to employment as well as private and public services, regardless of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
2013 - The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act came into play. Although LGBTQIA+ couples could enter into Civil Partnerships, they were not allowed to marry. This Act gave same-sex couples the opportunity to get married. Same-sex couples already in a Civil Partnership could also now translate this to a marriage, and the first same-sex marriages took place in England and Wales on 29 March 2014.Also in 2013, Alan Turing received a posthumous royal pardon. Turing, the cryptographer who helped win the second world war, had previously been convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and was chemically castrated.
2017 - The ‘Alan Turing law' began, turning his legacy into a positive step for the LGBTQIA+ community. The Policing and Crime Act 2017 pardoned all historic instances of criminal convictions of gross indecency against men.
2020 - This year on 13 January, we saw same-sex marriages become legal in Northern Ireland.
2021 - The UK Government launched a consultation on how to make coercive conversion therapies which seek to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity illegal. The introduction of new legislation is expected by spring 2022.
The path for equality for the LGBTQIA+ community is firmly rooted in the law. But with the law having evolved so much since the 60s, we find ourselves now having to focus on the personal prejudices within society and how we can combat those by education and inclusion. Statistics from UK police in 2020 reported that only one in five hate crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community are reported, which leaves us with the task of ensuring the future generation live in a world where it is not only safe not to be heterosexual but to feel supported enough by society to have a voice against those who refuse to acknowledge the rights of this community.
Discover how we celebrate diversity within law on our Diversity Matters homepage.