A short history of LGBT rights in the UK

A short history of LGBT rights in the UK

This article traces the journey of the LGBT community from 1533 to today, looking at the battles for equality that were fought and legislative changes made.

The Buggery Act of 1533, passed by Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII, is the first time in law that male homosexuality was targeted for persecution in the UK. Completely outlawing sodomy in Britain – and by extension what would become the entire British Empire – convictions were punishable by death. 

It was not until 1861 with the passing of the Offences Against the Person Act, that the death penalty was abolished for acts of sodomy – instead being made punishable by a minimum of 10 years imprisonment.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 however, went a step further once again, making any male homosexual act illegal – whether or not a witness was present – meaning that even acts committed in private could be prosecuted. Often a letter expressing terms of affection between two men was all that was required to bring a prosecution. The legislation was so ambiguously worded that it became known as the ‘Blackmailer’s Charter’, and in 1895,  Oscar Wilde fell victim.

Female homosexuality was never explicitly targeted by any legislation. Although discussed for the first time in Parliament in 1921 with a view to introducing discriminatory legislation (to become the Criminal Law Amendment Bill 1921), this ultimately failed when both the House of Commons and House of Lords rejected it due to the fear a law would draw attention and encourage women to explore homosexuality. It was also assumed that lesbianism occurred in an extremely small pocket of the female population.

In the post-war period, transgender identities started to become visible. In 1946 Michael Dillon published Self: A Study in Endocrinology. The book, which in contemporary terms could be described as an autobiography of the first transgender man to undergo phalloplasty surgery, recounted Dillon’s journey from Laura to Michael, and the surgeries undertaken by pioneering surgeon Sir Harold Gillies. Dillon wrote: ‘Where the mind cannot be made to fit the body, the body should be made to fit, approximately at any rate, to the mind.’

In May 1951 Roberta Cowell, a former World War II Spitfire pilot, became the first transgender women to undergo vaginoplasty surgery in the UK. Cowell continued her career as a racing driver and published her autobiography in 1954. 

Meanwhile, a significant rise in arrests and prosecutions of homosexual men were made after World War II. Many were from high rank and held positions within government and national institutions, such as Alan Turing, the cryptographer whose work played a decisive role in the breaking of the Enigma code. This increase in prosecutions called into question the legal system in place for dealing with homosexual acts.

The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, better known as the Wolfenden Report, was published in 1957, three years after the committee first met in September 1954. It was commissioned in response to evidence that homosexuality could not legitimately be regarded as a disease and aimed to bring about change in the current law by making recommendations to the Government. Central to the report findings was that the state should focus on protecting the public, rather than scrutinizing people’s private lives.

The LGBT community continues to fight for equality and social acceptance.