Britain has made great strides towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) equality since the turn of the century. We have gone from being the country with the largest number of anti-gay laws to being one of the world’s most progressive nations in terms of the legal rights of LGBTI people.
It has been a long, hard struggle, with many setbacks and some disappointing half-baked reforms along the way.
Many people are under the false impression that the Sexual Offences Act 1967 fully decriminalised – or even legalised – male homosexuality. How wrong they are. The reform was a very partial, limited decriminalisation. It only applied to England and Wales; not being extended to Scotland until 1980 and to Northern Ireland until 1982.
The age of consent was set at 21 for sex between men, compared to 16 for sex between men and women. Aiding or facilitating a homosexual act remained unlawful, as did public displays of affection and chatting up men in a public place. Gay sex was only lawful if it took place in private, which meant in a person’s own home, behind locked doors and windows, with the curtains drawn and with no other person present in any part of the house. It continued to be a crime if more than two men had sex together or filmed or photographed themselves having sex. They could be jailed.
The 1967 Act did not repeal the centuries-old anti-gay laws. They remained on the statute books under the heading: ‘Unnatural Offences’. Post-reform, they were not enforced in certain narrow circumstances. But most aspects of gay male life remained criminal. In the four years after 1967, convictions for consensual gay offences rose by almost 400%. The authorities were more determined than ever to police LGBTI lives.
In addition, homophobic discrimination in housing, employment and the provision of goods and services remained lawful by default. There was no legal protection against it. Thousands were denied employment or sacked from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Many others were refused or evicted from rented accommodation.
In the 1980s, the Conservative government’s ‘family values’ and ‘Victorian values’ campaigns whipped up hysterical levels of homophobia; aided by the moral panic over AIDS – which was dubbed the ‘gay plague’. At the 1987 Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used her keynote speech to attack the notion that people had a ‘right’ to be gay.
The consequence was a massive spike in queer-bashing murders and convictions for victimless same-sex acts. From 1986-91, there were over 50 known murders of gay men in circumstances that pointed to a homophobic motive. Police investigations to catch the killers were often derisory. We were still mostly criminals and, according to many police officers, didn’t deserve the protection of the law. In 1989, over 2,000 men were convicted of consenting adult same-sex relations; which was almost as many as in 1950-55 when male homosexuality was totally illegal and when Britain was gripped by a McCarthyite-style anti-gay witch-hunt.
The ‘gross indecency’ law of 1885 – prohibiting any sexual contact between men, even mere kissing and holding hands – had been used to convict the mathematical and computer genius Alan Turing in 1952 and before him to jail the playwright Oscar Wilde in 1895. It was repealed only in 2003. Likewise, the criminalisation of ‘buggery’ (anal sex) – enacted in 1533 during the reign of King Henry VIII – was repealed only 11 years ago.
Since the Sexual Offences Act 2003, for the first time in over 500 years, we have a criminal code that does not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Progress at last! But homophobia isn’t over yet. Only last year, to create a data base of ‘serious sex offenders’, the police turned up unannounced on people’s doorsteps to demand DNA samples from men who has been convicted of consenting adult gay relationships decades ago. They were lumped together with rapists and paedophiles.
Although gay acceptance has improved significantly, according to the British Social Attitudes survey published in 2010, 36% of the public continue to believe that homosexuality is either “always” or “mostly” wrong. Some parents still kick their children out of home and onto the streets after discovering they are gay or lesbian. It is one of the biggest causes of youth homelessness.
All Britain’s equality laws have exemptions for religious organisations, which permits faith-run service providers, such schools and hospitals, to discriminate in certain circumstances on the grounds of sexual orientation.
One-third of British LGBTI people have been victims of homophobic hate crimes. The kicking to death of a 62 year-old gay man, Ian Baynham, in Trafalgar Square in 2009 is a reminder that even in liberal London LGBTI people are not always safe. Although homophobic murders are nowadays rare, vicious violent attacks still happen in London and other big cities on a regular basis.
Fifty-five percent of young LGBTI people say they were bullied at school – with some of them suffering savage assaults in the classroom or playground. Despite this, nearly half of all schools have no anti-bullying programme that explicitly tackles homophobia and transphobia.
It’s no surprise then that suicide, self-harm, mental ill-health, substance abuse and HIV infections are much higher among young LGBTIs than the national average.
So how do we turn things around to make life better for future LGBTI generations?
Schools have a key role to play in challenging attitudes that fuel hate and victimisation. After all, no child is born homophobic. Some become anti-gay as a result of exposure to the bad influences of bigoted adults and peers.
Education can help prevent that. I know this from my own successful talks in schools and from the effective work of education providers like Diversity Role Models and Educate and Celebrate. They provide structured lessons to pupils to counter prejudice and they get positive results: less homophobia and transphobia. But sadly, they are under-funded and their work only reaches a small proportion of schools.
To combat anti-gay bullying and hate crime, education against all prejudice – including racism and sexism, as well as homophobia and transphobia – should be a mandatory subject in every school. It ought to start from primary level onwards and continue throughout a pupil’s secondary years. The aim should be to encourage the understanding and acceptance of difference, which is vital for a happy, harmonious society. Is the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, listening?
- Peter Tatchell is Director of the human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation. For more information, to receive email bulletins or to make a donation: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org