From Torment to Tolerance and Acceptance to the Everyday: The Course of LGBT Equality in the UK

Jonathan Cooper - 3rd March 2014

Colonisation is a dodgy business. Laws are mainstreamed across the Empire. So what did the Romans, keen to distance themselves from their pre-Christian roots, ever do for gay men? They criminalised homosexuality: from 4th century the law was used to target same-sex sexual activity between consenting males on pain of death. And so it remained in various guises until the Enlightenment’s rejection of medieval barbarism.

The enlightened Continentals saw the light, but not so the British. Not content with pre-existing laws criminalising homosexuality, the offence of gross indecency was created in 1885. This turned intimacy and affection between two men, whether in public or private into a crime. Writing in 1898, Oscar Wilde presciently asserted, “I have no doubt that we shall win, but the road is long, and red with monstrous martyrdoms.”

In post-war Britain life was impossibly bad for gay men. In the 1950s, there were 1,069 gay men in prison in England and Wales, with an average age of 37 years. Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe promised to “rid England of this plague”. Speaking in the House of Commons in 1953, Maxwell Fyfe enthused, “Homosexuals in general are exhibitionists and proselytisers and are a danger to others, especially the young. So long as I hold the office of Home Secretary, I shall give no countenance to the view that they should not be prevented from being such a danger.”

Yet barely a life time later, the UK today is the best place to be gay in the world; although with deep and profound remorse and regret this liberation has not been extended to our Commonwealth cousins. How in less than a lifetime did the UK go from the worst to the best?

LGBT equality emerged from three sources: legislation, litigation and cultural expression, including popular culture and films and TV. This short note will only focus on the role played by legislation.

A catalyst for the changes in law was the Church of England. In 1954 The Problem of Homosexuality, was published by the Church of England Moral Welfare Committee. It concluded:

“It is the responsibility of society at large to see that those of its members who are handicapped by inversion are assisted to a constructive acceptance of their condition and are helped to lead useful and creative lives.”

This in turn led to the publication of the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which transformed the debate by, for the first time, permitting an evidence-based and objective debate on homosexuality, morality and the role of the state.

The crucial step towards actual equality began with Labour’s Roy Jenkins, who as Home Secretary permitted the Private Members Bill, sponsored by Lord Arran in the House of Lords and Leo Abse in the Commons, providing for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, to pass through both Houses of Parliament in 1967. Through the Sexual Offences Act 1967 Parliament granted partial decriminalisation: consenting men over the age of 21 who engaged in intimate sexual relations in private no longer committed an offence.

The 1967 legislation was consciously not promoting a gay identity. It was merely offering a refuge from the worst excesses of the criminal law. 1967 ushered in a new dawn, but it was one of toleration, not acceptance.

For the following quarter of a century the law remained silent. Prosecutions continued to blight the lives of gay men caught outside the scope of the ’67 Act. In 1994 the age of consent for gay men was lowered to 18; but other than this, the lifting of the ban on gay men and lesbians working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and a decision of the European Court of Human Rights, permitting gay men and lesbians to serve in the armed forces, nothing much happened for LGBT equality. In 1988 section 28 of the Local Government Act was introduced, banning promotion of homosexuality as a ‘pretend family relationship’. A community that had been subject to discrimination now found itself persecuted once more.

By 1988 the AIDS crisis, which was decimating lives and spreading fear and hostility was at its height. There was little or no prospect of escape from the ravages of AIDS and yet the community that was most affected by it became the target of opprobrium justified by state sanctions.

This post-1967 settlement was maintained until the status quo was unbalanced by the election of New Labour. Between 1997 and 2010 New Labour kept to its word to get rid of unjustified discrimination. Backed by EU regulations, the Equality Act 2010 sealed LGBT equality. Prior to this there had been cross-party support for civil partnerships and the odious crime of gross indecency has been banished from the statute book in 2003. Section 28 of the Local Government Act was also eventually repealed.

David Cameron’s coalition government completed the picture in 2013. By providing for equal marriage, life for the lesbian and gay community became everyday. People in the UK are now no longer treated differently simply because their sexual orientation differs from that of the majority. But as Wilde had pointed out, the path to liberation was littered with martyrs.

Author profile

Jonathan Cooper OBE is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers.


Jonathan Cooper OBE, ‘From Torment to Tolerance and Acceptance to the Everyday: The Course of LGBT Equality in the UK’ (OxHRH Blog, 3 March 2014) <> [date of access].


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