Over the course of several decades, and thanks to the commitment of pioneering human rights activists, LGBTQ+ rights have made huge progress in recent years. However, recent events have brought about a nervousness that these rights in the UK could start to move backwards. There is an unease that laws protecting members of the LGBTQ+ community are at risk of being set back decades.
To mark LGBT History Month in February, we explore the turbulent history of LGBTQ+ laws in the UK, from Section 28 to gender reforms - and what the future might hold for this community.
A brief history of LGBT laws in the UK
The shifting culture of the late 1960s brought about the first significant legal LGBT+ milestone in UK law and politics. After many years of campaigning for LGBT rights, eventually The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed. This move decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to be at least 21, but only in England and Wales.
This was very much just the beginning, as homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which didn’t change until legislation was passed in 1980 and 1982 respectively. The decriminalisation laws also stipulated a higher age of consent for homosexuality, which was not equalised until the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act of 2000, after years of pressure from activist groups.
Further inequalities in rights and protections have also been addressed through campaigning and activism in recent years. In 2004, the Civil Partnership Act gave same-sex couples the same rights under the law as married couples without the religious component of marriage, and the Gender Recognition Act allowed transgender people to legally change their gender via a medicalised process. The Civil Partnership Act was eventually amended to provide joint adoption rights for same sex couples in 2005 (England & Wales), 2009 (Scotland), and 2013 (Northern Ireland).
Legislation was passed in 2010 that ensured protection from discrimination due to protected characteristics, including both sexual orientation and gender reassignment, in the form of the Equality Act. This seeks to address common sources of inequality in the workplace, education, healthcare, and other public sector organisations. Equal marriage was eventually legalised in England and Wales in 2013, with Scotland and Northern Ireland following in 2014 and 2019 respectively.
However, this significant legal progress to gain rights and protections for the LGBT+ community has not been without challenges and difficulties, as demonstrated by the somewhat incremental progression over the course of the last 56 years since decriminalisation. During this period of progress, government policymakers have also passed legislation that has set back LGBT+ equality, such as Section 28.
Section 28 explained
The passing of Section 28 in 1988 meant that local authorities and schools were restricted from ‘promoting homosexuality’. This meant that representation and acknowledgement of LGBT+ identities were erased from schools and teachers were threatened with disciplinary action for discussing homosexuality or effectively challenging homophobia. In many cases, this led to increased homophobic bullying, a lack of support or guidance for LGBT+ teens and young adults, which in turn increased the risks to these young people who did not have a conventional support network. The legislation also stunted vital communication and education as the LGBT+ community struggled with the AIDS epidemic and allowed ignorance and discriminatory attitudes to grow amongst the general public due to a lack of education and awareness. Section 28 was eventually overturned in Scotland in 2000 and in England and Wales in 2003, but not after causing significant harm to many generations of LGBT+ people who grew up during this time. The topic of LGBT+ education in schools is once again back in focus, with a growing campaign to remove LGBT+ education from the curriculum and return to a Section 28-style ban on discussion of the topic in schools.
What challenges do we face to LGBT+ rights now?
While there are many positive developments to celebrate from the legal progress we have seen in the last few decades, the existence of Section 28 demonstrates how this progress is rarely linear nor without setback, and how easy it is for lawmakers to implement legislation that is harmful to marginalised communities. LGBT+ organisations such as Stonewall are still campaigning for further legal protections for the LGBT+ community, for example, in support of long-awaited legislation to make conversion therapy illegal, and a meaningful review of the current Gender Recognition process following a public consultation in 2018. Unfortunately, research shows a troubling rise in anti-LGBT+ rhetoric, discrimination, and hate crime incidents in recent years, which highlights significant challenges for progress in this area. These challenges and issues are disproportionately felt by the trans community, who have been directly impacted recently by a significant legal challenge in Scotland and polarised media debate.
This topic became more prevalent in early 2023, with Rishi Sunak’s controversial move to use Section 35 of the Scotland Act to block the Scottish government’s landmark gender reforms, as well as a growing petition to bring back Section 28. Although this move was rallied against, Downing Street’s unprecedented veto of the gender recognition reform bill was rules as lawful by Scotland’s highest court in December 2023.
This is the first time in history we’ve seen the section 35 mechanism used, and many are calling it this Government's version of Section 28’ - a highly controversial bill from Margaret Thatcher that banned the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in UK schools.
What is a Section 35 Order?
This order gives UK government the power to block a bill passed in Scotland before it proceeds to Royal Assent to be made law.
The use of this order to block Scotland’s ground-breaking new gender reform laws has triggered huge protests across Scotland. Meanwhile, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has described it as “a full-frontal attack on our democratically elected Scottish parliament.[i]”
How easy is it to overturn the laws protecting the LGBTQ+ community?
There is a growing concern around the protection of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK. Most recently, we’ve seen a petition gathering more than 190,000 signatures demanding the government brings back Section 28. At more than 100,00 signatures this petition will now be debated in Parliament.
Combined with the Prime Minister’s controversial move to block Scotland’s gender reform laws, it is fair to say this nervousness among the community is somewhat justified. If we do start to see the laws protecting the LGBTQ+ community erode, then equal rights will be set back decades.
The encouraging news is that it isn’t quite so simple to overturn or change a law in the UK. Some petitions such as the one mentioned above may gather some traction and even warrant debate in Parliament. However, to officially set something like this into UK law takes several rounds of debate in either the House of Commons or House of Lords, before proceeding to Royal Assent.
That isn’t to say these laws are completely safe. More than anything, what this means is that it’s perhaps more important now than ever before to make your voice heard and protect LGBTQ+ rights in the UK.
What can allies do to support the LGBTQ+ community?
Many people outside of the LGBTQ+ community would like to show their support but are unsure how or are nervous of doing it in a way that isn’t helpful. Here are a few ideas how anyone can support LGBTQ+ lives every day, not just within LGBTQ+ History Month.
- Educate yourself - Read LGBTQ+ publications; history, fiction, poetry, research, biographies and more. Not only will this increase your understanding and empathy of lives different to your own, but it’ll also fund more of these vital stories being published in the future.
- Add pronouns to your email signature and social media – Adding your pronouns to online accounts signals that you don’t take how you address someone for granted. It shows that you care about referring to someone in the correct way and that you’re open to that conversation. When being an active ally, language matters.
- Be prepared to make mistakes – Sometimes mistakes can be made, even if they come from the most well-intentioned places. As long as you apologise, be open to learning and strive to improve, it’s doubtful that anyone will fault you.
- Speak up but know when to step back – Stand up for inclusivity, vocally supports pride celebrations and other ways LGBTQ+ lives can be supported. However, if you are naturally outgoing, remember to prioritise the LGBTQ+ voices around you. Support is so important but remember that a person’s lived experience is vital.
- Stand up against demeaning language – Sadly, some people still think anti-LGBTQ+ jokes are acceptable. Where you can, explain why this language is offensive and harmful. This can be incredibly difficult, especially in the workplace, so make yourself and others aware of any reporting processes you have. Some LGBTQ+ people may feel uncomfortable reporting this kind of behaviour. Reporting any kind of discriminatory language is a responsibility for all of us, not just the people the abuse is aimed at.
Read more about the history of LGBTQ+ laws in the UK in another one of our blog posts, or attend our upcoming Real World Lecture: Does the law support the LGBTQ+ community event on 28 February.