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Since sexual activity between males was first decriminalised in 1967, British law has moved toward greater support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, with the change accelerating in the early years of the twenty-first century.

Discrimination on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal in housing, employment and the provision of goods and services, and Her Majesty's Armed Forces allows LGBT individuals to serve openly. Same-sex couples have had the right to adopt since 2002 and to enter into civil partnerships since 2005. The Gender Recognition Act also gave transsexuals the right to change their legal gender. However, same-sex marriage is not legal or recognised in the United Kingdom.

Social attitudes towards homosexuality and LGBT rights are generally accepting. A 2007 survey conducted by YouGov indicated that 90% of the British public supported outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and a 2009 poll by Populus reported that 61% supports allowing same-sex couples to marry.


In 1533 Henry VIII passed the Buggery Act 1533, a sodomy law which made anal intercourse (as well as bestiality) an offence punishable by hanging, regardless of gender. Even prior to this homosexuals were tortured and killed for religious reasons. In 1861 section 61 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 removed the death penalty for homosexuality. However, male homosexual acts still remained illegal and were punishable by imprisonment and in 1885 section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 extended the laws regarding homosexuality to include any kind of sexual activity between males. Lesbians were never acknowledged or targeted by legislation.

In the early 1950s the police actively enforced laws prohibiting sexual behaviour between men. This policy led to a number of high-profile arrests and trials.

In particular, in 1953, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood were arrested and charged with having committed specific acts of indecency with Edward McNally and John Reynolds; they were also accused of conspiring with Edward Montagu (the 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu) to commit these offences. The Director of Public Prosecutions gave his assurance that Reynolds and McNally would not be prosecuted in any circumstances. The trial of Edward Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood began on 15 March 1954 in the hall of Winchester Castlemarker. All three defendants were convicted.

The Sunday Times published an article entitled "Law and Hypocrisy" on 28 March 1954 that dealt with this trial and its outcome. Soon after, on 10 April 1954, the New Statesman printed an article called "The Police and the Montagu Case". A month after the Montagu trial the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe agreed to appoint a committee to examine and report on the law covering homosexual offences. The official announcement in the House of Commonsmarker was made on 18 April 1954 by Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth. In August 1954, the Home Office appointed a departmental committee of fifteen men and women "to consider… the law and practice relating to homosexual offences and the treatment of persons convicted of such offences by the courts."

The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (better known as the Wolfenden Report) was published on 3 September 1957 and recommended that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence", finding that "homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects."

In October 1957, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, spoke in support of the Wolfenden Report, saying that "There is a sacred realm of privacy… into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude. This is a principle of the utmost importance for the preservation of human freedom, self-respect, and responsibility."

The first parliamentary debate on the Wolfenden Report was initiated on 4 December 1957 by Lord Pakenham. Of the seventeen peers who spoke in the debate, eight broadly supported the recommendations in the Wolfenden Report. Maxwell Fyfe, now ennobled as Lord Kilmuir and serving as Lord Chancellor, speaking for the government, doubted that there would be much public support for implementing the recommendations and stated that further research was required.

The 1958 General Assembly of the Church of Scotlandmarker voted to reject the proposals of the Wolfenden Committee.

In 1958 the Home Office asked sociologist Richard Hauser to survey homosexuality in Great Britain. One suggestion that arose from Hauser's work was that "the poor quality of the normal relationships between men and women in… society is responsible for much avoidable homosexuality". The Homosexual Law Reform Society was founded on 12 May 1958, mainly to campaign for the implementation of the Wolfenden Committee's recommendations.

Decriminalisation of homosexual acts – the 1967 Act

In 1965, in the House of Lordsmarker, Lord Arran proposed the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts (lesbian acts had never been illegal). In 1966 Humphry Berkeley made a similar proposal in the House of Commons; he ascribed his defeat in the 1966 general election to the unpopularity of this action. However, in the new Parliament, Labour MP Leo Abse took up the issue and used his mastery of Parliamentary tactics to ensure that the Bill progressed.

After almost ten years of campaigning, the Sexual Offences Bill was put before parliament in 1967 in order to implement some of the Wolfenden Committee's recommendations. Lord Arran, a sponsor of the Bill, made the following remarks at the third reading in the Lords:

The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was accordingly passed. It maintained the general prohibitions on buggery and indecency between men, but provided for a limited decriminalisation of homosexual acts where three conditions were fulfilled. Those conditions were that the act had to be consensual, take place in private and involve only people that had attained the age of 21. This was a higher age of consent than that for heterosexual acts, which was set at 16. Further, "in private" limited participation in an act to two people. This condition was interpreted strictly by the courts, which took it to exclude acts taking place in a room in a hotel, for example, and in private homes where a third person was present (even if that person was in a different room).

The 1967 Act extended only to England and Wales, and not to Scotlandmarker, Northern Irelandmarker, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Manmarker, where all homosexual behaviour remained illegal. Organisations such as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and the Gay Liberation Front therefore continued to campaign for the goal of full equality.

1967–1994 – further reform and section 28

In 1979, the Home Office Policy Advisory Committee's Working Party report, Age of Consent in Relation to Sexual Offences, recommended that the age of consent for homosexual activities should be reduced to 18. No such legislation was enacted as a result. However, homosexual activities were legalised in Scotland on the same basis as in the 1967 Act, by section 80 of the Criminal Justice Act 1980, which came into force on 1 February 1981. An analogous amendment was also made to the law of Northern Ireland, following the determination of a case by the European Court of Human Rightsmarker (see Dudgeon v. United Kingdom); the relevant legislation was an Order in Council, the Homosexual Offences Order 1982, which came into force on 8 December 1982.

Section 28

The 1980s also saw a setback for LGBT rights. The availability in the libraries of schools run by the Inner London Education Authority of a book considered by some to 'promote' homosexuality led to protests and a campaign for new legislation. Consequently, in 1988 Parliamentmarker included in the Local Government Act a provision prohibiting "the intentional promotion of homosexuality" [sic] by any local authority and "the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". The provision was known as section 28, and amended section 2A of the earlier Local Government Act of 1986. Changes in the structure of local government since that date led to some confusion over the precise circumstances in which the new law applied, including the question of whether or not it applied at all in state schools. Section 28 was finally repealed in November 2003.

An equal age of consent

In February 1994 Parliament considered reform of the law on rape and other sexual offences during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. Conservative MP Edwina Currie tabled an amendment to equalise the age of consent at 16. Many Labour MPs supported the amendment, including Tony Blair, who said:

Edwina Currie's amendment was defeated by 307 votes to 280. Those who voted for it included John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Paddy Ashdown and William Hague. Those voting against included David Blunkett and Ann Taylor. There were angry scenes outside the Palace of Westminstermarker at the defeat of the amendment, when those involved in a demonstration organised by the group OutRage! clashed with police.

This vote was followed immediately by one on Sir Anthony Durant's amendment to lower the age of consent to 18. This amendment was passed by 427 votes to 162, and supporters included Michael Howard and John Major. It was opposed by such MPs as John Redwood, Michael Heseltine and John Gummer. An amendment tabled by Simon Hughes which was intended to equalise the age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals at 17 was not voted upon. The Bill as a whole was given a second reading in the Lords by 290 votes to 247. Lord Longford then sought to reintroduce 21 as the minimum age in the Lords, but this was defeated by 176 votes to 113. An amendment by the deputy Labour leader in the House of Lords, Lord MacIntosh of Haringey, that would have equalised the age of consent at 16, was rejected by 245 votes to 71.

In its decision of 1 July 1997 in the case of Sutherland v. United Kingdom, the European Commission of Human Rights found that Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights were violated by a discriminatory age of consent, on the ground that there was no objective and reasonable justification for maintaining a higher minimum age for male homosexual acts. On 13 October 1997 the Government submitted to the European Court of Human Rights that it would in the summer of 1998 propose a Bill to Parliament for a reduction of the age of consent for homosexual acts from 18 to 16.

On 22 June 1998, the Crime and Disorder Bill was put before Parliament. Ann Keen proposed amendments to lower the age of consent to 16. The House of Commons accepted these provisions with a majority of 207, but they were rejected by the House of Lords with a majority of 168. Subsequently, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill was introduced on 16 December 1998 and, again, the equalisation of the age of consent was endorsed on 25 January 1999 by the House of Commons, but was rejected on 14 April 1999 by the House of Lords.

Those campaigning against the amendment said they were simply acting to protect children. Baroness Young, the leader of the campaign against the amendment, said, "Homosexual practices carry great health risks to young people".

The Government reintroduced the Bill in 1999. With the prospect of its being passed by the Commons in two successive sessions of Parliament, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 were available to enact the Bill should the Lords have rejected it a third time. The Lords passed the Bill at Second Reading, but made an amendment during committee stage to maintain the age of consent for buggery at 18 for both sexes. As the Bill had not completed its passage through the Lords at the end of the Parliamentary session on 30 November 2000, the Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin certified that the procedure specified by the Parliament Acts had been complied with. The Bill received Royal Assent a few hours later, and was enacted as the Sexual Offences Act 2000.

2000–present day

In the Adoption and Children Act 2002 Parliament provided that an application to adopt a child in England and Wales could be made by either a single person or a couple. The previous condition that the couple be married was dropped, thus allowing a same-sex couple to apply. The Lords rejected the proposal on one occasion before it was passed. Supporters of the move in Parliament stressed that adoption was not a "gay rights" issue but one of providing as many children as possible with a stable family environment rather than seeing them kept in care. Opponents raised doubts over the stability of relationships outside marriage, and how instability would impact on the welfare of adopted children. Similar legislation was adopted in Scotland which came into effect on 28 September 2009.

Section 28 (called Section 2A in Scotland) was repealed in Scotland within the first two years of the existence of the Scottish Parliamentmarker, by the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc. (Scotland) Act 2000. A move to remove the provision in England and Wales was prevented following opposition in the House of Lords, again led by the Baroness Young. Following her death in 2002 it was finally repealed in a new Local Government Act, which took effect on 18 November 2003. During the passage of the Bill no attempt was made to retain the section, and an amendment seeking to preserve it using ballots was defeated in the House of Lords. This showed that a significant shift had taken place in the consideration of LGBT issues.

Following the adoption of an EC Directive in 2000, Regulations were introduced on 1 December 2003 providing for the prohibition of discrimination in employment on the grounds of sexual orientation.

On 1 May 2004 the Sexual Offences Act 2003 entered into force. It swept away all of the previous sex-specific legislation, including the 1967 Act, and introduced instead neutral offences. Thus the previous conditions relating to privacy were removed, and sexual acts were viewed by the law without regard to the sex of the participants.

Parliament then went on to legislate for civil partnerships for same-sex couples on 18 November 2004 with the passage of the Civil Partnership Act. Such partnerships were civil unions, granting to the parties the same rights as a marriage. The first civil partnership ceremony took place at 11:00 (GMT) on 5 December 2005 between Matthew Roche and Christopher Cramp at St Barnabas Hospice, Worthingmarker, West Sussexmarker. The usual 14 day waiting period was waived as Roche was suffering from a terminal illness. He died the next day. The first civil partnership ceremonies after the statutory waiting period then took place in Northern Ireland on 19 December, with ceremonies following the next day in Scotland and the day after that in England and Wales.

On 30 April 2007 the Sexual Orientation Regulations came into force, following the introduction of similar provisions in Northern Ireland in 2006. They provided a general prohibition of discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexual orientation. Similar legislation had long previously been in force in respect of discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, disability and marital status. The introduction of the Regulations was controversial. A dispute arose between the Government and the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales over exemptions for Catholic adoption agencies. There were also arguments about the amount of Parliamentary scrutiny the draft Regulations received, their being considered for only 90 minutes in a Delegated Legislation Committee.

In October 2007 the Government announced that it would seek to introduce an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to create a new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. This followed the creation of an offence on religious hatred that had proved controversial in 2006 (see Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006). Incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation is already illegal in Northern Ireland.

Other initiatives have included:

  • The establishment of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights on 1 October 2007; the Commission is tasked with working for equality in all areas and replaced the previous commissions dedicated to sex, race and disability alone.
  • The setting up of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Advisory Group within the Department of Health.
  • A provision of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 that a court must treat hostility based on sexual orientation as an aggravating feature for sentence.
  • Guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service on dealing with homophobic crime.
  • A commitment from the Government to work for LGBT rights at an international level.

An illustration of social attitudes towards homosexuality in the United Kingdom was provided in May 2007 in a survey by YouGov. The poll indicated that legislation outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was supported by 90% of UK citizens. It also showed positive public perceptions of gay people in particular, but recognised the extent to which prejudice still exists. A poll in June 2009 conducted by Populus for The Times reported that the majority of the public supports same-sex marriage; 61% of respondents agreed that "Gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships".

On 30 July 2009 the Religious Society of Friends in the UK stated its intent to ask the government to allow it to perform same sex marriages.

Parentage and parental orders

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 c.22 was given Royal Assent on 13 November 2008, The legislation allows for lesbians and their partners (both civil and de facto) equal access to legal presumptions of parentage in cases of in vitro fertilisation ("IVF") or assisted/self insemination (other than at home) from the moment the child is born. The law also allows both partners to be identified on the child's birth certificate by the words "parent". The law came into force from 6 April 2009 and is not retroactive (it does not apply before that date). Parental orders for gay men and their partners will apply from 6 April 2010 for surrogacy arrangements. Three schedules will commence as follows:
  • Schedule 1 commences from 6 April 2009.
  • Schedule 2 commences from 26 October 2009.
  • Schedule 3 commences from 6 April 2010.

On 31 August 2009, legislation granting lesbians equal birth rights in England and Wales came into effect, meaning both can now be named on a child's birth certificate. The legislation was criticised by those who believe it was "damaging the traditional notion of a family". Stonewall Head of Policy and Research Ruth Hunt said the new law makes life easier for lesbian families and stated "Now lesbian couples in the UK who make a considered decision to start a loving family will finally be afforded equal access to services they help fund as taxpayers". The UK's Home Office minister, Lord Brett was full of praise in his comments:
This positive change means that, for the first time, female couples who have a child using fertility treatment have the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts to be shown as parents in the birth registration.
It is vital that we afford equality wherever we can in society, especially as family circumstances continue to change.
This is an important step forward in that process.
Iain Duncan Smith, who led efforts to oppose the change, said that "The absence of fathers generally has a detrimental effect on the child."

Controversy over conversion therapy

Peel, Clarke and Drescher wrote in 2007 that only one organisation in the UK could be identified with conversion therapy, a religious organisation called The Freedom Trust (part of the US-based Exodus International): "whereas a number of organisations in the US (both religious and scientific/psychological) promote conversion therapy, there is only one in the UK of which we are aware". The paper reported that practitioners who did provide these sorts of treatments between the 1950s and 1970's now view homosexuality as healthy, and the evidence suggests that 'conversion therapy' is a historical rather than a contemporary phenomenon in the UK, where treatment for homosexuality has always been less common than in the USA.

In 2007, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the main professional organization of psychiatrists in the United Kingdom, issued a report stating that: "Evidence shows that LGB people are open to seeking help for mental health problems. However, they may be misunderstood by therapists who regard their homosexuality as the root cause of any presenting problem such as depression or anxiety. Unfortunately, therapists who behave in this way are likely to cause considerable distress. A small minority of therapists will even go so far as to attempt to change their client's sexual orientation. This can be deeply damaging. Although there is now a number of therapists and organisation in the USA and in the UK that claim that therapy can help homosexuals to become heterosexual, there is no evidence that such change is possible."

In 2008, the Royal College of Psychiatrists stated: "The Royal College shares the concern of both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association that positions espoused by bodies like the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) in the United States are not supported by science. There is no sound scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed. Furthermore so-called treatments of homosexuality as recommended by NARTH create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish."

In 2009, a research survey into mental health practitioners in the UK concluded "A significant minority of mental health professionals are attempting to help lesbian, gay and bisexual clients to become heterosexual. Given lack of evidence for the efficacy of such treatments, this is likely to be unwise or even harmful." Scientific American reported on this: "One in 25 British psychiatrists and psychologists say they would be willing to help homosexual and bisexual patients try to convert to heterosexuality, even though there is no compelling scientific evidence a person can willfully become straight", and explained that 17% of those surveyed said they had tried to help reduce or suppress homosexual feelings, and 4% said they would try to help homosexual people convert to heterosexuality in the future.

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