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The History of LGBTQ+ in the UK

Last updated on 27th March 2023

Being LGBTQ+ in the UK is a much easier experience today than it has been over the recent decades. That’s not to say there is complete equality for those who identify as LGBTQ+; there are still challenges to face for the nation to have complete equality and no hatred.

Whilst there is clear data that shows opposition to people engaging in same-sex relationships has dramatically reduced in recent years, conversely a survey by Stonewall reports that 21% of LGBT people were victims of hate crime in 2017.

The landscape of LGBTQ+ rights has changed immensely and there are some important milestones that have been achieved. The nation has moved from the death penalty only 160 years ago, to no laws on the books that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people; it’s been a long and hard-won situation.

To help you understand what the struggles have been, and who has worked to overcome them, we’re going to cover:

  • What’s meant by the term LGBTQ+.
  • How the legal position on same-sex marriage has evolved.
  • Which groups, organisations, and people have helped drive change.
  • How the push for equal rights has shifted focus through the years.
  • The future of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK.

Enabling you to be fully aware of how we got where we are and giving you details to help you have informed conversations where needed in your professional life.

What does LGBTQ+ mean?

The initialism LGB became the normal way to refer to a range of sexualities in the early 1990s in the UK. Over the years, it’s changed and evolved to become more inclusive and cover a range of different identities that are cisgender and heterosexual.

Here’s a brief rundown of what the letters mean, as well as the ones that the “+” covers:

  • Lesbian is a term used to describe women who are attracted to other women.
  • Gay can mean men who are attracted to men and is also used by many women who are attracted to women.
  • Bisexual describes a person who is attracted to people of other genders as well as their own.
  • Transgender is used for people who identify as a different gender identity than the one they were assigned at birth.
  • Queer is a term used to describe someone who’s not cisgender and not heterosexual, covering a range of identities and orientations. Previously used in a derogatory way, it’s being reclaimed by people who don’t want to be put in a category. Q can also refer to Questioning, for someone who is exploring their sexual and gender identity.
  • Intersex is the first letter behind the + and refers to people who were born with ambiguous sex organs and who don’t have either XX or XY chromosomes.
  • Asexual or Ace means a person who doesn’t feel sexual attraction for any gender. There can be another A for Ally; a person who supports the LGBTQ+ community whilst being cisgender and heterosexual.
  • Pansexual describes a person whose sexual attraction isn’t attached to gender, sex, or identity and can also mean they are fluid with their own identities.
Gay men celebrating at their wedding now that is is legal to marry

The history of the LGBTQ+ movement

We’re going to give you a rundown of some important LGBTQ+ dates in history, in terms of movements, moments, and laws. LGBTQ+ historical figures are also important to touch on and we’ll point out some activists along the way, too.

Pre-20th Century LGBTQ+ rights in the UK

1533 saw the introduction of the Buggery Act, championed by Henry VIII. It outlawed sodomy and made it punishable by the death penalty. The last execution under this medieval Act was as recently as 1835.

1861 saw the passing of the Offences Against the Person Act which replaced the death penalty for same-sex relations with a minimum 10-year prison term.

The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act made all same-sex activity illegal for men, not just anal sex. The law didn’t cover women’s activity. It was this law that saw Oscar Wilde serve two years of penal labour for “gross indecency” in 1895-7.

“To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul,” wrote Wilde whilst in prison. He was a subtle advocate for gay rights whilst trying to protect himself from legal proceedings.

Early 20th Century LGBTQ+ dates to note

In 1946 Michael Dillon wrote the book Self: A study in Endocrinology. It was an autobiographical account of his transition and surgery to become Michael.

Soon after, in 1951, Roberta Cowell became the first person in the UK to have a vaginoplasty procedure. Having been a spitfire pilot in World War II, she went on to be a successful racing car driver.

1952 saw Enigma code breaker Alan Turning convicted of “gross indecency” – a euphemism for same-sex activity. He opted for chemical castration which meant he took female hormones. Within two years of his conviction, he was found dead, a victim of suicide.

As of 1954, there were 1,069 men in prison for same-sex activity, aged on average 37.

That same year, following some Conservative politicians being involved in legal cases involving accusations of being gay, and fears that gay civil servants could face blackmail by the USSR, the Wolfenden Commission was established.

It reported in 1957, recommending that gay sex that was consensual should not be illegal and asserted that being gay was not a disease. Notably for the time, the Archbishop of Canterbury agreed with the report’s findings.

Following the Wolfenden report, the Homosexual Law Reform Society was formed in 1958.

In 1965 Lord Arran and Labour MP Leo Abse tabled a paper to decriminalise homosexuality. After two years going through parliament, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised sex between two men as long as it was:

  • Consensual.
  • Private.
  • Between parties over 21.

Which, although was progress, did impose tough restrictions in practice through court judgements. Gay men still couldn’t have sex in a hotel or even whilst there was someone else in the house, even in a different room.

Around the same time, in 1966, the Beaumont Society was formed with the aim of educating and informing the public on transgender issues. It’s still the largest transgender organisation in the UK.

Gay Couple Holding Hands Ou

Modern LGBTQ+ rights in the UK – Late 20th Century

1970 saw the foundation of the Gay Liberation Front. They were seen as radical for the time and challenged gay people to understand the institutional discrimination they faced. Following marches in London for two years, the GLF organised the first Gay Pride March in 1972.

The GLF disbanded in 1973, the same year the Campaign for Homosexual Equality was founded, which campaigned to harmonise the age of consent with heterosexual sex.

Maureen Colquhoun was elected a Labour MP in 1974 and, after leaving her husband, she began a relationship with magazine publisher Babs Todd in 1975. She was the first openly gay member of parliament. Her outing as gay and vociferousness in her feminism led her to be deselected by her local party in 1978.

Also in 1974, the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard was founded and is still a point of contact and support for gay people in the UK.

Significant to the LGBTQ+ movement, although not initially from the UK, in 1978 Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag as a symbol for LGBTQ+ people. He was inspired to do so by Harvey Milk, and it is still the widely accepted symbol of LGBTQ+ people.

In 1983 the AIDs virus was discovered and soon after, in 1985, there was a lifetime ban on men who have sex with men (MSM) donating blood in the UK.

The Stonewall riots began in 1969 in the USA, but it wasn’t until 1988 that a Stonewall organisation was founded in the UK by Sir Ian McKellan and other activists in response to the Local Government Act of the same year.

Why would a movement for LGBTQ+ people respond to a law for local government? In the Act was Section 28 which banned the promotion of homosexuality in government-funded schools.

Following a slew of acts of violence against gay people, notably Michael Booth being kicked to death in Ealing in May 1990, OutRage was formed the next day. One of their main campaigns was against how the police treated the LGBTQ+ community, with the tagline “protection, not persecution”.

In 1994, there was a vote in parliament to reduce the age of gay consent to 16, in line with heterosexual sex. This was voted down, although in a subsequent vote the age was lowered from 21 down to 18.

Mermaids, an organisation set up to support transgender children and their parents, was founded in 1995.

By 1997, the European Court judged on a case taken by Euan Sutherland against the UK government claiming that it was unreasonable to have a different age of consent for gay sex. He won the ruling and the UK government promised to change the law.

This change didn’t come easy, and eventually was passed on a procedural technicality. Although the first bill passed the Commons in 1998, it was voted down by the Lords, and again in the next parliamentary session.

Because the law had been passed by the Commons twice over two different parliaments, it was able to become law without the consent of the Lords. Under the Sexual Offences Act 2000, the age of consent for all sex – gay, lesbian, and heterosexual – was harmonised to 16 years old.

The same year, the Human Rights Act was passed. This protected sexual orientation as a characteristic and ensures that people cannot be discriminated against because of who they are attracted to.

1999 saw the London nail bombings – three attacks carried out by the racist and homophobic Nazi, David Copeland. One of the bombs was placed at the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho and was specifically targeting the gay community in the area. Three people were murdered and Copeland, who acted alone, was imprisoned for his crimes.

Acceleration of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK in the 21st Century

After the turn of the new century, there was an increase in laws that promoted the equality of LGBTQ+ people. The first was with the Sexual Offences Act 2000 which came into effect in 2001 lowering the age of consent for all sex to 16, as we noted above.

The same year, it was ordered that the military in the UK could no longer enforce the law that banned gay people from serving. It took many more years to actually see the change in the law, which we’ll cover in our timeline.

In 2003, following years of protests from LGBTQ+ movements, the Local Government Bill repealed Section 28. From that point, teachers were allowed to address issues around gay lifestyles in the same way as heterosexual lifestyles.

The following year, in 2004, the Gender Recognition Act was passed. This bill allows people in the UK to change their gender and apply for a new birth certificate with their chosen gender. It does require a two-year transition but there are no requirements to undergo reassignment surgery.

The same year, Civil Partnerships became an option for gay couples. This was a way to legally recognise couples in terms of inheritance and consent during medical procedures, for example, but wasn’t equal to marriage.

2005 saw policy change in the UK to allow gay people to adopt children across England and Wales, with Scotland doing the same in 2009 and Northern Ireland following suit in 2013. The first civil partnership in the UK was between Matthew Roche and Christopher Cramp on 5th December 2005. Notably, Elton John and his partner David Furnish were also some of the first civil partners, having their ceremony in December 2005, too.

In 2007, sexual orientation regulations confirmed that there could be no discrimination for the provision of goods and services due to sexual orientation. This led to backlash from the Catholic Church and particularly Catholic adoption agencies who did not want to be forced to place children with gay parents. There have been many legal challenges and appeals over the years, all of which have been lost.

Gay women were finally given equal access to IVF treatment and the right to have both mothers on their child’s birth certificate under the Human Fertility and Embryology Act 2008.

2009 was the year that David Cameron, the Conservative leader although not yet Prime Minister, publicly apologised for his party having introduced Section 28 back in 1988. The same year, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly apologised for how Alan Turing, recognised as a genius who saved millions of lives in WWII and invented modern computing, was treated – see what happened to him further up in 1952.

The Equality Act 2010 was a landmark piece of legislation that brought together much of the legislation about equality that had been passed in the previous few decades. Enshrined in this Act was the principle that no one can be discriminated against for their sexual orientation.

As of 2011 the ban on MSM donating blood – see 1985 – was lifted, and instead, if a man had not had sex with another man for at least 12 months he would be accepted as a blood donor.

The first Trans Pride Parade was held in Brighton in 2013 and is still an annual event. Also in that year, the Queen granted a posthumous royal pardon to Alan Turing, again in recognition of his abhorrent treatment in 1952.

Also in 2013, Ofsted, the schools inspector, released guidelines on bullying including how to deal with bullying due to sexuality.

Nine years after civil partnerships first became an option, full marriage rights were granted to gay couples in 2014. This finally gave every person in the UK the right to marry who they wanted, regardless of gender. At the forefront of campaigns for gay rights for years, Elton John converted his civil partnership to a marriage in December that year.

In 2016, the ban on gay people serving in the military was legally lifted, although as we noted earlier it was functionally allowed back in 2000 when it was decided to ignore the law.

A landmark law in 2017, the Policing and Crime Act, extended a judicial pardon to all the men who had been convicted under sodomy laws, with Scotland doing the same in 2018 and going further by automatically removing convictions for all living people affected.

The Merchant Shipping (Homosexual Conduct) Act 2017 repealed the last law in the books in the UK that discriminated against gay people. It removed the law that said openly gay people must be kicked out of the UK’s merchant navy.

Following some controversies around “gay conversion therapy” – the incorrect belief that gay people can be cured – the Church of England confirmed their stance against the process. The same year the NHS affirmed they in no way endorse the practice either.

2017 was a busy year for changes to laws and regulations for gay people, with a change in blood donor status, too. The rule for MSM from 2011 that gave a 12-month deferral was reduced to three months.

The next year, 2018, the Church of England endorsed sex education for the schools it runs including education on same-sex relationships. The Ministry of Education also confirmed that LGBTQ+ issues should be taught in the national curriculum, with the rules coming into force in 2020. There is no faith-based opt-out.

As of 2020, the rules on blood donation for MSM will be updated to allow men who have been in a relationship with the same partner for at least three months to donate. The rules are expected to be implemented in 2021.

Homosexual couple in forest cuddling

LGBTQ+ activism in the 21st Century

A lot of what happened in the 21st century in terms of the rules and laws we’ve discussed was a direct result of campaigning and pressure through the preceding decades. Even now, there is online activism against discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community.

Those who claim that trans women aren’t women are regularly challenged online, with some groups advocating a boycott of author JK Rowling for her anti-trans comments and Tweets, for example.

LGBTQ+ rights in the UK aren’t fully settled, with increases in crime and campaigns still to be fought in regards to transgender rights surrounding recognition and access to medication as well as physical and psychological treatments.

Although not perfect, the history of LGBTQ+ rights has been on a positive trajectory for years, and should remain on the path for social equality now that legal equality has been enshrined.

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About the author

Joanne Rushton

Joanne began her career in customer services in a UK bank before moving to South East Asia to discover the world. After time in Malaysia and Australia, she settled in Hanoi, Vietnam to become an English teacher. She's now a full-time writer covering, travel, education, and technology.

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