Gay in the UK

I have been delighted to write this blog for SEEN, for LGB(T) History Month.. This blog particularly focuses on a potted history of gay rights in the UK as they relate to gay men, but later in the month a ‘sister’ piece will be released focusing on lesbian history. The blog covers 500 years worth of history, and shows how the rights for gay men to live and love freely are an incredibly recent occurrence within the history of the UK, still very much in living memory.

From Tudor Times to the Victorian Era

Male homosexuality was explicitly outlawed in Britain (well, actually the Kingdom of England at the time) in 1533 by King Henry VIII, in the charmingly titled Buggery Act.1 Under the Buggery Act, men having sexual relationships with other men faced the possibility of being sentenced to death, and prosecutions were often brought in circumstances where men showed any affection to each other - even if there was no evidence of sexual relations between them. The law was extended to Wales in 1543, and Ireland in 1634.

Records of Scotland’s legal history prior to the union with England are more hazy, but we do know in Scotland the first prosecution for ‘sodomy’ that led to the execution of two men was in 1570, when John Litster and John Swann were strangled and then burnt at the stake.2

In England, in the first 100 years of the Buggery Act’s enforcement, only one man was executed, Walter Hungerford, and as he was already on trial for treason and heresy the charge of buggery was added to ‘humiliate’ him more prior to his execution. Prosecutions for buggery where the death penalty was handed down remained rare until 1700, and only became more common after the year 1800. In the period between 1806 and 1861, there were 8921 prosecutions for buggery in England and Wales and 404 death sentences were issued, though only 56 men were executed. The last two men executed for homosexual acts in England and Wales were John Smith and James Pratt, in 1835.

The ramping up of prosecutions for ‘buggery’ coincided with a growing subculture of homosexual men, particularly in larger cities and specifically in London. ‘Molly Houses’ were both secret bars and taverns for homosexual men to meet, and frequently were also brothels where men could buy sex from other men. Contemporary accounts of Molly Houses and their goings on often relied on the oft-quoted cliché that homosexual men are not real men, and the language used would today be seen as both homophobic and misogynistic. The 18th century journalist Ned Ward stated,

“the men rather fancy themselves as women, imitated all the little vanities that custom has reconciled to the female sex, affecting to speak, walk, tattle, curtsy, cry, scold, and mimic all manner of effeminacy.”3

Despite this, men of all types were known to frequent the establishments - traditionally masculine men as well as effeminate men - and men from all walks of life and social standing. While usually a safe haven, many of the prosecutions of men during the 18th century for buggery were the result of raids on Molly Houses.

In 1861, the Offences Against the Person Act4 combined a number of existing laws for England, Wales and Ireland, including the Buggery Act, and the death penalty was removed as a possible punishment5, ‘reduced’ to a maximum punishment of between ten years and life imprisonment. The 1885 Labouchere Amendment6 explicitly made all homosexual acts between men illegal, not just ‘buggery’, and introduced the concept of ‘gross indecency’. In 1895 it was ‘gross indecency’ rather than ‘buggery’ for which Oscar Wilde was convicted, following his sexual relationships with other men (primarily Lord Alfred Douglas) and Wilde served two years hard labour.

The early 20th century

In the early 20th century, male homosexuality seemed to become more ‘tolerated’ but only in certain parts of society. Homosexual men of the upper classes that were able to live a life of relative luxury were often left to their own devices if they kept their proclivities behind closed doors. The first ‘gay bar’ as we would consider it today opened in 1912 - ‘The Cave of the Golden Calf’ - but it was open only to the wealthy and the aristocratic. The bar only lasted two years but gained a notorious reputation in that short time.

Following the First World War, other gay bars started slowly opening up.. This coincided with the growing metropolitan elite in the media arena. Radio remained a hugely popular form of entertainment, and BBC Television launched in earnest in 1936. Playwrights, actors and musicians effectively became the new aristocracy, and it was an open secret amongst the upper echelons of society that men like Noel Coward ‘preferred the company of other men’, even if the general public remained blissfully unaware.

Of course, for every step forward, there were two steps back. Following the Second World War, arrests and prosecutions for homosexual acts between men started to increase significantly.

Alan Turing is now well known. He built the first model of a computer, and was hugely influential in the history of computer science. He should always have been a national hero for his work on the Enigma code, and how that helped shape the fortunes of the allied forces in WW2, but for a long time his involvement was a highly classified state secret. This was because, in 1952, Turing was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ for having a sexual relationship with another man. Given the option of imprisonment or chemical castration, he chose the latter. The chemical castration was done via the use of a synthetic oestrogen analogue, which left Turing impotent and caused him to grow breast tissue. Turing had his security clearance revoked and was barred from continuing to work with GCHQ. Following this horrific treatment, in 1954, aged just 41, Turing killed himself with a fatal dose of cyanide.7

Decriminalisation and immediate aftermath

Following the increase of prosecutions for male homosexuality post-WW2, and the high profile cases of Alan Turing and other prominent figures in the early 1950s, many senior politicians became concerned. In 1954, Winston Churchill’s Conservative government set up a committee headed by Sir John Wolfenden to look into homosexuality and other sexual offences. In 1957 the committee published a report - The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution - often referred to simply as ‘The Wolfenden Report’.8

The Wolfenden Report recommended that homosexual acts between men should be decriminalised, and saw this as a civil liberties issue. The report stated: “It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.” It also refused to classify homosexuality as a mental illness, which is notable as it was not until 1974 that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (an American publication but with broad international recognition) removed homosexuality as a mental illness, the World Health Organisation (WHO) did not do so until 1992!

It took a long time for the report’s recommendations on decriminalising homosexuality to be implemented. There was furious opposition to the report’s recommendations, especially from religious leaders and certain sections of the press. It was 1967 when the ‘Sexual Offences Act’ passed9, a whole decade after the report was published. This Act (applicable only to England and Wales) decriminalised sex between two men, aged 21 or over, in private, and was a true watershed moment in the history of gay rights in the UK - even if there was still a long way to go.

Due to our saturation in American culture and media, the 1969 ‘Stonewall Riots’ in New York are often overstated in their relevance to gay rights in the UK. The riots were two years after the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales, and at best are a footnote to gay rights in the UK. But the influence of the USA’s Gay Liberation Movement (GLF) inspired a similar group in the UK (and much later the UK organisation ‘Stonewall’ took its name from the bar where the New York riots occurred).

The UK GLF launched in 1970, and while it officially shut down in 1973, other organisations sprung up in its wake. The 1970s remained a hostile time for most gay men, and gay men in the media, even the most flamboyant, remained ‘in the closet’ to the general public, just as in the 1930s. Activist groups also sprang up to oppose not just gay rights groups but what they saw as society becoming corrupted by post-1960s sexual liberties. Mary Whitehouse was famously opposed to gay men having any rights or visibility in society, and the GLF disrupted her ‘Festival of Light’ in 1971. Whitehouse remained a formidable figure for the rest of her life, and in 1976 she brought a private blasphemy case against the publication ‘Gay News’10 (the first notable gay periodical in the UK, launched in 1972) for printing a poem that depicted a Roman Centurion having a sexual relationship with Jesus Christ.

Throughout the 1970s, male homosexual acts remained a criminal activity in Scotland, and were only decriminalised in 1980, following the passing of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 (Section 80).11

AIDS and Thatcher’s Britain

The culture in the 1980s saw a seismic shift in the visibility of gay men, and some men challenged traditional sexist norms of how they should act, dress and behave. While many high profile media figures who would come out later in life remained ‘in the closet’, men like Jimmy Sommerville and Pete Burns were flamboyantly and openly gay and bisexual at a time when it was still very dangerous for them to do so. But the early 1980s saw the emergence of a catastrophe.

AIDS was first noted in 1981 as a mysterious disease in the USA, primarily affecting gay men. By 1983, there had been 14 known cases of AIDS in the UK - mainly men - and thereafter, diagnoses skyrocketed. An AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence. Many men died very soon after diagnosis. It was in 1984 when the virus that caused AIDS - HIV - was identified. As the 1980s grew on, more and more people were diagnosed as HIV+ or with AIDS, the overwhelming majority being gay and bisexual men. AIDS completely decimated gay communities throughout the country, and the media became overtaken with a frenzied, homophobic hysteria that targeted gay men and what was often called ‘the gay plague’. Tabloid headlines became increasingly more overtly hostile, The Sun famously running a headline stating ‘If my son gets AIDS I’ll shoot him’.12 In 1986 a huge AIDS awareness campaign was launched in the UK, with actor John Hurt as the public face of it. The simple and chilling message was ‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance’.13

The AIDS epidemic was one of the many factors that led to Mrs Thatcher’s growing concerns about homosexuality and the influence it could have on children. In 1988, her government passed Section 28 of the Local Government Act.14 Section 28 stated that local authorities “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. The law effectively gagged school teachers from talking about homosexuality or gay relationships at all, even to older teenagers. This also effectively acted as a neat way from stopping teachers addressing often horrific homophobic bullying that was being carried out in secondary schools across the country. In 1989, gay and lesbian activists formed Stonewall UK, at the time an organisation looking to progress gay and lesbian rights in the country.

John Major to New Labour

Throughout the 1990s, AIDS was still a massive concern, especially for gay men, even if there was less public hysteria over the illness - though the tabloid press and much of the mainstream media still remained openly hostile and homophobic for much of the decade. In 1991 one of the most high profile deaths from AIDS happened when Freddie Mercury passed away.

Gay men’s lifestyle magazines such as ‘Gay Times’ and ‘Attitude’ had their heyday. While the former focused on more serious news items than the latter, both were heavily filled with fashion, scene issues, and a large amount of advocacy for safe sex. Condoms and safe sex pretty much defined gay male culture in the 1990s.Although advances in medicine were starting to make the HIV virus more manageable, in many cases it was still a death sentence. Most life insurance companies refused to cover any men who were or had been in a sexual relationship with another man.

In 1994, Conservative MP Edwina Currie tabled an amendment to the Sexual Offences Act to equalise the age of consent to 16 for male homosexual sex, as it was for opposite-sex partners.15 She was unsuccessful in this venture, but instead the age of consent was lowered to 18 from 21. More on this later.

1997 saw radical change in the UK when Tony Blair’s New Labour took power to the sound of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. More advances in gay rights came at the turn of the new millennium. While Edwina Curry had been unsuccessful in her efforts at equalising age of consent laws, Blair’s Labour government did so with the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000, with Jack Straw playing a very key part in this move.

‘Section 28’ was repealed in the year 2000 in Scotland and in 2003 in England and Wales, while the ban on gay men, lesbians and bisexual people serving in the military was lifted in 2000. While in recent years, the organisation ‘Stonewall’ has become hugely controversial as its core mission has significantly changed, it is undeniable that at the time they were hugely instrumental in the military ban being overturned.

In 2002, Blair’s government passed the Adoption and Children Act which made it legal for same-sex couples to adopt children, and in 2004 Civil Partnerships were introduced, allowing same-sex couples to have their relationship legally recognised and provide almost all the benefits of marriage. Blair was cautious about introducing full blown ‘gay marriage’ and at the time Civil Partnerships were seen by many as an acceptable compromise. Stonewall UK famously felt Civil Partnerships were adequate and for many years following refused to support calls for same-sex marriage. Of course, gay and lesbian people are not a monolith, and some supported gay marriage while others were opposed.. From conservatives at one end who felt, despite the fact they were gay, marriage should only be for a man and woman - to radicals at the other end who felt LGB people (gay men in particular) should not ‘ape’ heteronormativity at all or even have monogamous relationships.

Also from the late ’90s, more and more gay representation started being seen on our TV screens, and gay characters became less ‘sexless’ and more sexually active. The hugely controversial ‘Queer as Folk’ hit Channel 4 in 1999, depicting graphic scenes of sex between men, and the cult BBC Sitcom ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ gave comedy fans a bitchy, narcissistic and promiscuous gay man as one of the two central characters. In 2001, Big Brother winner Brian Dowling became the first openly gay man to host a children’s television show, when he landed a job on SMTV Live.

2010 - Present

Many could have been forgiven for believing homophobia was a thing of the past and gay rights were now a sorted issue, especially following the legalisation of same-sex marriage in early 2014, by David Cameron’s coalition government. HIV treatment is more effective than ever, and many people on effective retro-virals are able to live long, happy lives. HIV is no longer a death sentence, but the importance of regular testing cannot be overstated. The slogan is now ‘undetectable is untransmissible’, as effective retro-virals that leave the virus undetectable means there is almost zero chance of transmitting the virus, and now there are many HIV+ men in long term relationships with partners who are HIV-. The development of PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) also means men with a particularly high risk sex life are able to further protect themselves from becoming HIV+, as if the medicine is used correctly then there is again almost no chance of being infected with the virus even if exposed to it.

But for those of us outside of metropolitan bubbles, it is far from the case that homophobia is now ‘sorted’. In many parts of the country, casual homophobia is still a huge problem, and many same-sex couples are still too fearful to hold hands with their partner in public.

For those that attended my speech at the SEEN launch event, or who have read the transcript16, you will know my personal experience. In addition to the traditional homophobia we have always faced, we now see a new rise of homophobia from ‘within our own communities’ with many organisations and groups which are ostensibly for gay rights now fundamentally ideologically opposed to the very nature of homosexuality and exclusive same sex attraction. We have come a long way from the Molly Houses of the 18th and 19th centuries, but places for gay men are once again moving underground and becoming more secretive. What will the future hold? Only time will tell…

Further Reading

15 Feb 2023: corrected Section 28 Sentence repeal year for England and Wales, and added Scotland repeal year.

Cover inage: “Gay History Timeline” by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse.