Over the past 50+ years, the rights of LGBT+ people have gone from relatively non-existent to an almost equal standing with heterosexual, cisgendered people. The UK is one of the foremost countries leading the change in how LGBT+ people are treated, and last year we were able to celebrate 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised sex between two men.
This decriminalisation, however, stipulated that the men must be over 21 and conduct themselves ‘in private’. This did not encompass Scotland, Northern Island, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or the Armed forces, but it served as a reactionary point. Two years later, the Stonewall riots in America brought the issue of LGBT+ rights to the fore.
This forward momentum was stalled in 1971, when the Nullity of Marriage Act banned same-sex marriage in England and Wales. A year before, the Corbett v Corbett divorce case established a precedent that one’s gender could not legally be changed from their assigned gender. This was a huge blow to the transgender rights movement. Though it seemed like the law was throwing up impassable barriers, 1972 saw the first UK-based Pride in London. Around 2000 people attended, which may seem small, considering the many thousands who now flock to Pride. It is estimated that around 750,000 people attended London Pride in 2014. Without those first 2000, Pride would not be the amazing event it is today.
In 1980, sex between two consenting male adults was decriminalised in Scotland, with the same stipulations as the 1967 change to the Sexual Offences Act (Northern Ireland would follow in 1982). It was in this year that the first Black Gay and Lesbian Group was formed in the UK. A year later, Northern Ireland’s criminalisation of same-sex acts was found to violate the European Convention of Human Rights. However, in 1988, Margaret Thatcher introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which states that local authorities could not ‘promote’ homosexuality. In response to this, Stonewall UK was formed, with such prominent activists as Sir Ian McKellen leading the charge.
Thankfully, the 2000s saw more change. In 2000, LGB people were officially allowed to serve in the armed forces, and the age of consent for gay men was lowered to 16. Equal rights for adoption were granted in 2002. In 2003, Section 28 was repealed, and Employment Equality became law.
In 2004, the Civil Partnership Act was passed. It was not until 2013 that the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act was passed in England and Wales, giving LGBT+ people access to the same marriage as straight, cisgendered people. The Gender Recognition Act was also passed in 2004, allowing people who did not identify with their assigned gender the full rights and recognitions of the gender they really were. Six years later, the Equality Act officially added gender reassignment as a protected characteristic. Just last year, the Government granted a posthumous pardon to all gay and bisexual men convicted under pernicious sexual offence laws in the last century.
The impact of these changes in law to society have been impossible to quantify but, without a doubt, they have been positive. LGBT+ rights are now, for the most part, protected by the law and there is much more freedom for LGBT+ people to be who they truly are. In terms of societal views, LGBT+ people have become much more accepted, though the fight for complete acceptance is ongoing. The Pulse Massacre in 2016 demonstrates how far we still have to go. Each year, more transgender people are murdered, with 28 trans-identified people killed throughout 2017 in the US. Though these violent acts seem less prominent in the UK, there remains widespread fear and ignorance of transgender people, from both outside and within the LGBT+ community.
Though the basic rights of LGBT+ people are still frequently contested and debated, the UK has come a long way from the days in which homosexual sex was considered a criminal offence. This is not to say, of course, that the fight is over. Though the law may have changed in many ways, societal beliefs have proved harder to change. We still have a long way to go before LGBT+ people can truly stand on equal footing with straight, cisgendered people. But we have a firm basis on which to continue our fight, and over fifty years of changes to the law at our backs.