1500s: Buggery Act
1800s: Last two men executed for homosexual acts
1920s: Attempt to make sexual acts between women illegal
1940s: Autobiography of the first transgender man
1950s: The Wolfenden Report
1960s: Sexual Offences Act
1970s: First gay newspaper | First UK Gay Pride march
1980s: First UK case of AIDS | Section 28 of the Local Government Act | Stonewall UK
1990s: The Bolton Seven
2000s: Equal rights for adoption to same-sex couples | Civil Partnership Act | Gender Recognition Act
2010 onwards: Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act | Equality Act
1533: Buggery Act
This Act of Parliament, passed during the reign of King Henry VIII, moved the issue of sodomy from the ecclesiastical courts to the state. The Act was renewed three times in 1536, 1539 and 1548. Over the next 20 years various monarchs would change the impact of the legislation, but all kept it in place.
The Act did not explicitly target homosexual acts between men as it also applied to sodomy between men and women and a person with an animal. However, it was male homosexual convictions that were by far the most common and publicised. Convictions under the Buggery Act were punishable by death.
1828: Buggery Act repealed
The Buggery Act was repealed and replaced by the Offences Against the Person Act 1828. The new language of the law focused on male same-sex activity explicitly, where the Buggery Act had applied to men and women collectively. Homosexual acts between men remained punishable by death. This Act would be replaced by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
1835: Last two men executed for homosexual acts in the UK
The last two men to be executed for homosexual acts were James Pratt and John Smith on 27 November 1835.
Offences Against the Person Act 1861
This legislation replaced the Offences Against the Person Act 1828, revoking the death penalty for homosexual acts between men and replacing it with a prison term of hard labour between 10 years and life.
1866: Hyde v Hyde and Woodmansee
Following the court case of Hyde v Hyde and Woodmansee about a polygamous marriage, the legal definition of marriage was set down as being between one man and one woman. The ruling would have lasting implications around arguments for marriage equality over 100 years later.
14 August 1885: The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885
As part of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 – commonly known as the Labouchere Amendment – Section 11 was used to prosecute those who committed ‘any acts of gross indecency with male persons’. The Act was also known as ‘The Blackmailer’s Charter’ as it commonly encouraged blackmail against men who engaged in homosexual acts.
In addition, the Act changed the terms of punishment for convictions of gross indecency; the minimum term of hard labour was reduced to two years.
The amendment was used to prosecute Oscar Wilde in 1895, who was sent to prison and given two years’ hard labour.
August 1921: Attempt to make sexual acts between women illegal
In 1921 three MPs attempted to add a clause to a new Criminal Law Amendment Bill (designed to protect children under the age of 16 from indecent assault): ‘Any act of gross indecency between female persons shall be a misdemeanour and punishable in the same manner as any such act committed by male persons under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885’.
In the debate that followed, despite agreement from speakers that lesbianism was distasteful and an attack on the ‘fundamental institutions of society’, both Houses rejected the clause, and ultimately the entire bill. There was concern that legislation would only draw attention to the offence and encourage women to explore their sexuality.
1946: Autobiography of the first transgender man
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.
15 May 1951: First known British transgender woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery
Roberta Cowell, a former Spitfire pilot, became the first transgender women to undergo vaginoplasty surgery in the UK. Cowell’s autobiography was published in 1954.
15 September 1954: The Wolfenden Committee
After World War II there had been a significant increase in arrests and prosecutions of men under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. The legitimacy of the law was called into question after well-known men such as Alan Turing, the cryptographer who helped to break the German Enigma code, and Lord Montagu were convicted of homosexual offences. The Wolfenden Committee was formed by the Government, named after its head, Sir John Wolfenden.
4 September 1957: The Wolfenden Report
The Wolfenden Committee released its report, recommending the decriminalisation of gay sex between consenting adults over 21, except in the armed forces. It stated: ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.’
Despite support from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Government rejected the report and it wasn’t until 10 years later that the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both over the age of 21.
12 May 1958: The Homosexual Law Reform Society and Albany Trust
The Homosexual Law Reform Society was founded to campaign for the legalisation of same-sex relationships in the UK. A letter written to The Times in 1958 by Tony Dyson, an academic, called for the Wolfenden Report’s recommendations to be reconsidered. It was signed by many important figures, including writer J B Priestly, and brought the Society members together.
Its first meeting, held in central London, was attended by over 1,000 people.
The Albany Trust, which was founded in conjunction with the Homosexual Law Reform Society, developed into a pioneering counselling organisation for gay men, lesbians and sexual minorities.
1963: Arena Three, the UK’s first lesbian and bisexual monthly journal, published
The Minorities Research Group was the UK’s first lesbian social and political organisation. Arena Three, a magazine for lesbians and bisexuals was the Minorities Research Group’s official publication. At its peak Arena Three had 500–600 subscribers. It provided information and addressed the needs of these women during its production until 1972.
7 October 1964: North Western Homosexual Law Reform Committee (NWHLRC) founded
The Committee was founded in Manchester in 1964. Its goal was to reform the law relating to male homosexual acts and promote legal and social equality for lesbians, gay men and bi people. In 1969, it was renamed the Committee for Homosexual Equality. It became the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in 1971.
1966: The Beaumont Society founded
Now the UK’s largest and longest running trans support group, The Beaumont Society was set up to provide information and education to the general public and medical and legal professions on ‘transvestism’ and encourage research aimed at a fuller understanding.
27 July 1967: Sexual Offences Act
The Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual acts between two men, both over the age of 21, in private. The age of consent was set at 21 (compared to 16 for heterosexuals). Homosexual acts taking place in the presence of more than two people however, were deemed not ‘in private’ to prevent premises being used for communal activities. The Act only applied to England and Wales.
1968: DSM-II (the American classification of mental disorders) lists homosexuality as a mental disorder
In the 1950s and 1960s many therapists employed aversion therapy to ‘cure’ male homosexuality. The DSM-II listings were adopted by the World Health Organisation and used as a standard worldwide. By including homosexuality in its list of mental disorders, many gay and bisexual men and women in the UK would suffer humiliating and painful treatments in order to be ‘cured’.
The World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in 1992.
1970: Gay Liberation Front founded
The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) first met at the London School of Economics on 13 October 1970. It was radical in its demands, marking a departure from the Homosexual Law Reform Society of the 1960s. In 1971 the GLF Manifesto was published, challenging gay people to understand how and why they were repressed. The GLF encouraged members to ‘come out’, be visible and fight for social change. The numerous factions within the group however, made consensus impossible, and the collective disbanded in late 1973. The GLF cast a long shadow and many gay rights organisations that emerged over the next 20 years would have their roots in the collective.
April 1972: First issue of Sappho magazine published
Set up by a group to ‘educate society about the true facts of lesbianism, support lesbians and women’s causes’, Sappho picked up debates about lesbianism, together with the emergence of feminist theory and the Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK.
June 1972: First gay newspaper
Gay News, Britain’s first gay newspaper was a fortnightly publication founded by four members of the Gay Liberation Front and members of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. It reported on discrimination and political and social advances but also campaigned for law reform. It ceased publication on 15 April 1983.
1 July 1972: First UK Gay Pride march
The London Gay Liberation Front organised the first UK Gay Pride march in London. The march ran from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park with around 1,000 people marching through the capital.
1976: Lemon v Whitehouse – Blasphemy Trial
Mary Whitehouse, founder of the Nationwide Festival of Light and the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association took Gay News to trial for blasphemy, the first such case for 40 years. Gay News published a homoerotic poem about Jesus by James Kirkup titled The Love That Dare not Speak Its Name. Keith Lemon, founder of Gay News, ultimately lost the case but the legal costs were covered by community donations, known as the Gay News Fighting Fund.
1977: The first gay and lesbian Trades Union Congress (TUC)
The conference took place to discuss workplace rights for gays and lesbians.
1979: A Change of Sex airs on BBC2
A British documentary entitled A Change of Sex aired on BBC2. It followed the story of Julia Grant as she underwent a medical transition. It is one of the first documentary films about transgender identities and experience.
1980: Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act
Sex between two men over the age of 21 ‘in private’ is decriminalised in Scotland. The age of consent for gay and bisexual men is set at 18.
22 October 1981: Dudgeon v the United Kingdom
Gay rights activist, Jeff Dudgeon from Belfast, filed a complaint with the European Commission of Human Rights after being interrogated by the Royal Ulster Constabulary about his sexual activity.
The court found that Northern Ireland’s criminalisation of same-sex acts violated the European Convention on Human Rights Article 8 which states that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life including his home and correspondence.
This was the first case that was decided in favour of LGBTQ rights and as a consequence, male homosexual sex was decriminalised in Northern Ireland the following year.
1981: First UK case of AIDS
The first UK case of AIDS was recorded when a 49-year-old man was admitted to Brompton Hospital, London suffering from Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia. He died 10 days later.
1982: Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order
Following the 1981 case of Jeff Dudgeon v the United Kingdom and the European Court of Human Rights decision, decriminalisation of homosexual acts was extended to Northern Ireland.
1982: Terrence Higgins Trust set up
Terry Higgins died of AIDS in St. Thomas’ Hospital. His partner Rupert Whittaker, Martyn Butler and friends set up the Terry Higgins Trust, which became the Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s first AIDS charity.
1982: Black Lesbian and Gay Centre
In 1982 the Gay Black Group approached the Greater London Council to request funding for a centre, which would provide advice and counselling, a helpline, a library and other resources.
The Black Lesbian and Gay Centre received funding in 1985 and was open to all lesbians and gay men. When the Greater London Council was abolished in 1986 funding for the Centre came by donations and membership. The Centre remained active into the 1990s.
March 1987: AZT made available in UK
Zidovudine or Azidothymidine, most commonly known as AZT, is a medication used to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS. It first became available on prescription in the UK in March 1987. It was the first drug to show any promise of suppressing the disease.
May 1988: Section 28 of the Local Government Act
When a copy of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bosche was found in a local authority library in 1983, it caused an outcry. The Daily Mail lambasted local councils for promoting homosexuality to children at the tax payer’s expense.
The argument escalated to the highest levels of government and resulted in the now-infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Expressly denying local authorities the ability to support its LGBT constituents, funding was withdrawn from arts projects, while educational and resource materials which ‘promoted an alternative gay family’ were censored.
Section 28 remained enforceable until 2003. In 2009 British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a public apology for it.
1989: Stonewall UK
In response to Section 28 legislation, actor Sir Ian McKellen came out on BBC Radio 3 during a debate on the issues raised by the Bill. In 1989 he co-founded Stonewall, a group renowned for its campaigning and lobbying for LGBTQ rights.
On 23 September 2003, Stonewall was granted charitable status.
1990: OutRage! founded
OutRage! was founded, following the murders of several gay men in London and an increase in targeted policing of gay people. OutRage! was the most prominent gay rights direct action group in the UK until disbanding in 2011.
1990: Lesbian and Gay Police Association
The Lesbian and Gay Police Association (GPA) was founded by Constable James Bradley. It represented the needs and interests of gay and bisexual police officers and police staff across the UK. Other founding officers were Iain Ferguson, Ashley Wilce and Tony Murphy.
After its funding was cut, the UK Association ceased to exist in 2014, but it remains active in Scotland, receiving funding from the Scottish Government.
1992: World Health Organisation removes homosexuality from its list of mental disorders
After 24 years, homosexuality was removed from the World Health Organisation’s classification of mental disorders. Many LGBTQ peoples in the UK were subjected to aversion treatments and detrimental counselling as a result of the listing by the DSM-II (the American classification of mental disorders) in 1968.
February 1994: Age of consent for gay men reduced to 18
The Conservative Member of Parliament Edwina Currie introduced an amendment to lower the age of consent for homosexual acts from 21 to 16, in line with the age for heterosexual acts. The vote was defeated and the gay male age of consent was lowered to 18 instead. The lesbian age of consent was not set.
June 1994: London Lesbian Avengers founded
The group’s first action was to invade the Queen Victoria Monument near Buckingham Palace to demonstrate against Queen Victoria’s alleged assertion that lesbians do not exist. The group also campaigned for comedian Sandi Toksvig when she ‘came out’ in 1994 after being dropped as the MC of a Save the Children charity event.
1998: The Bolton Seven
This was a group of seven gay and bisexual men who were convicted of gross indecency under the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and age of consent offences under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
Despite the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalising gay sex, they were convicted under section 13 of the 1956 Act because more than two men had sex together, which remained illegal.
None of the men received custodial sentences. A high-profile campaign led by gay human rights group OutRage! presented over 400 letters to the court in support of the men, including those from MPs, Bishops and human rights groups. They urged the judge not to impose a custodial sentence, with Amnesty International pledging to declare the men prisoners of conscience should they be imprisoned.
October 2000: Scottish Government abolishes Section 28 of the Local Government Act
Scottish parliament voted 99 to 17 with two abstentions to abolish Clause 28. Although legislation was introduced to do the same in England and Wales, the Bill was defeated.
2001: UK Government lifts ban on lesbians, gay and bisexual people serving in armed forces
Before this time, gay and lesbian people could not serve in the Armed Forces. They would have to keep their sexual orientation secret, or they could be fired.
2001: Age of consent for gay/bi men lowered to 16
After three defeats in the House of Lords, the Labour Government forced through legislation lowering the age of consent for gay men to 16. The Scottish parliament voted to adopt this legislation north of the border.
2002: Equal rights for adoption to same-sex couples
The Adoption and Children Act 2002 allowed gay and lesbian single people, as well as same-sex couples, to adopt a child in the UK. Before this, neither same-sex couples nor unmarried heterosexual couples could adopt or foster children.
2003: Repeal of Clause 28 in England and Wales
Section 28 is repealed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, lifting the ban on local authorities from ‘the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality’.
2003: Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations
Until 2003, employers could discriminate against LGBTQ people by not hiring them or promoting them, based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTQ people did not have protection from bullying and sometimes were not offered the same benefits as other colleagues, or were unfairly affected by rules at work. This legislation made it illegal to discriminate against lesbians, gay and bisexual people in the workplace.
18 November 2004: Civil Partnership Act
This Act was introduced by the Labour Government and gave same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as married heterosexual couples in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. It officially came into effect on 5 December 2005.
2004: Gender Recognition Act
This Act came into effect on 4 April 2005, giving trans people full legal recognition in their appropriate gender. It allowed trans people to acquire a new birth certificate, although gender options were still limited to ‘male’ or ‘female’.
2008: The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act
Same-sex couples were recognised as the legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated sperm, eggs or embryos.
2010: Equality Act
The Equality Act 2010 legislates for equal treatment in access to employment as well as private and public services, regardless of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
The Act also has several restrictions that cause concern, however. It allows religious and faith institutions in England, Scotland and Wales permission to refuse a same-sex marriage ceremony if it contravenes their beliefs.
With limited exceptions, the Equality Act 2010 does not apply in Northern Ireland.
17 July 2013: Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act
Although same-sex couples could enter into Civil Partnerships, they were not permitted to marry. This Act gave same-sex couples the opportunity to get married just like any other couple. Same-sex couples already in a Civil Partnership could also now convert this to a marriage.
It came into effect in 2014. The first same-sex marriages took place in England and Wales on 29 March 2014.
2013: Alan Turing receives posthumous royal pardon
Alan Turing, the cryptographer who helped to break the German Enigma code had previously been convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and was chemically castrated. Turing was now granted a posthumous royal pardon.
4 February 2014: Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill (Scotland)
The marriage equality legislation passed by a vote of 108 – 15 in Scotland and received royal assent on 12 March 2014. Civil partnership could be exchanged for marriage certificates from 16 December 2014 and the first weddings took place on 31 December 2014.
July 2016: Prince William on Attitude magazine cover
On 12 May 2016, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Cambridge invited Attitude magazine to bring members of the LGBTQ community to Kensington Palace in order to hear their experiences of homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic bullying, and to discuss the mental health implications brought about as a result.
Prince William then posed for the cover, photographed by Leigh Keily stating that no one should be bullied for their sexuality. This was the first time a member of the Royal Family had been photographed for the cover of a gay publication.
2017: ‘Alan Turing law’
The Policing and Crime Act 2017 pardoned all historic instances of criminal convictions of gross indecency against men. This has become known as the ‘Alan Turing law’. The Act only applies to convictions in England and Wales. A campaign for the pardon to be implemented in Scotland and Northern Ireland is ongoing.
Scotland passed a more comprehensive law in June 2018, with pardons being automatic for those still living. The Northern Ireland Assembly passed a similar law in 2016, with it taking effect on 28 June 2018. Applications for pardons must be made with the Northern Irish Department of Justice.
2017: Merchant Shipping Repeal
In April 2017, the Parliament of the United Kingdom unanimously passed the Merchant Shipping (Homosexual Conduct) Act 2017. This private member’s bill was drafted by Conservative MP John Glen. It repealed sections 146(4) and 147(3) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which was labelled as the UK’s “last anti-gay law”. It went into effect immediately after royal assent.
2018: Northern Ireland is the only country in the UK without marriage equality
Northern Ireland remains the only country in the UK without marriage equality. Civil partnerships have been available for same-sex couples since 2005. Same-sex marriage has been voted on five times by the Northern Ireland Assembly, and although it was passed by a slim majority on the fifth attempt, it has been consistently vetoed by the Democratic Unionist Party. Same-sex marriages performed outside Northern Ireland are recognised as civil partnerships within its borders.
2020: Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019
Following the inconclusive 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election and failure to form a Northern Ireland Executive by the deadline of 21 October 2019, provisions in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which was passed by the UK Parliament on 18 July 2019 and received royal assent on 24 July, mandated the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to pass regulations legalising same-sex marriage by 13 January 2020.
Same-sex marriage therefore became legal in Northern Ireland on 13 January 2020, with couples free to register their intent to marry and couples who had previously married elsewhere having their unions recognised from that date. The first same-sex marriage ceremony took place in Carrickfergus on 11 February 2020.