An overview of the history of gay rights in Britain (and in nations across the world) could easily be perceived as evidence for Francis Fukuyama’s theories of history having an end point – that homosexual men and women obtain full rights and acceptance in all societies and therefore their story ends. A closer look however reveals quite a different story and an interesting way of looking at the histories of marginalised groups.
Though local laws existed against such acts, 1290 marked the first time homosexuality was explicitly punished in British legislation. Over the course of the Plantagenet and Tudor dynasties, successive legislation was implemented including a death penalty for homosexuality and the specific banning of sodomy (both heterosexual and homosexual). Though less is known about the enforcement of these laws, if considering the commonality of practice of homosexuality in the age of the Roman Empire and its – albeit, small – acceptance, it would almost appear that medieval and early modern Britain saw a reverse in progress regarding gay rights.
1861 marked what could be considered the history of modern gay rights, with the repeal of the death penalty of homosexuality and the beginnings of acceptance of the use of the term homosexuality in literature. However, this term itself, which was seldom used prior to Victorian period, placed a direct label on men and women who practiced same-sex relations, which arguably increased the social taboo of the topic. This had widespread ramifications within the British Empire whose consequences can be seen in today’s headlines; this is best exemplified by the controversy over Cameron’s decision to withdraw foreign aid to nations where homosexuality is illegal, many ex-British colonies only having this legislation as a result of British colonial law.
The twentieth century has seen the most rapid progress in gay rights with the decriminalising of homosexuality in 1967 in England and Wales (followed over a decade later by Scotland and then Northern Ireland), the equalising of the age of consent at 16 between heterosexual and homosexual sex in 1994 and the enactment of Civil Partnerships for same-sex couples in 2005. Earlier this month, the same-sex marriage bill was passed in the House of Commons and though it has yet to go through the Lords and has factionalised the Conservative Party, it looks set to be implemented before the next general election.
From this analysis, it looks as though homosexuals, like many other marginalised groups in society, were not always marginalised. It was through social change and what Foucault would deem an obsession with sexuality in Victorian Britain that caused the need for progression in gay rights in the first instance. Though more current legislation indicates that the history of gay rights could soon be over, social acceptance of homosexuals continues to waver and given the complexity of the issue, new elements are likely to come to light as marriage enters the locus of historical analysis of homosexuality.