LGBTQ+ History Month - how lawyers helped secure equal rights

As we celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month this June, it’s a good time to reflect on the amazing progress made in securing equal rights over the last 60 years. From a legal perspective, which are the milestones that have paved the way for the inclusion of the gay community in society and what has been the role of solicitors in achieving them?

It seems difficult to imagine but as recently as the 1960s, the heyday of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the ‘permissive society’, being gay meant living in fear of being branded a criminal. Even a computer genius and war hero like Alan Turing, who helped save thousands of lives by leading the team that cracked the Enigma code, fell victim to repressive laws and was jailed for homosexual activities.

It may seem like the Dark Ages these days but the rights that LGBTQ+ people now enjoy did not come easily. They had to be fought for all the way by fearless campaigners. We’re happy to say that the legal profession played a key role every step of the way by challenging discriminatory laws and campaigning for landmark legislation.

There are so many landmarks but perhaps we should start in 1957 with the publication of the Wolfenden Report, a groundbreaking moment in the push for decriminalising homosexuality in the UK. Lawyers gave evidence during Lord Wolfenden’s inquiry and helped draft the main recommendations, which could be summarised with the principle that: a person should be free to do or see what he wishes in the sexual sphere; he should also be free not to have what he objects forced upon him.

Lawyers played pivotal roles in advocating for the report's recommendations. It took 10 years, but they were eventually successful when The Sexual Offences Act 1967, a Private Members’ Bill put forward by lawyer and MP Leo Abse decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults over the age of 21 in private.

In the years following and up to the present day, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) provided a valuable channel for promoting LGBTQ+ rights. Lawyers adeptly utilised the protections outlined in the ECHR, such as the right to respect for private and family life, to challenge discriminatory legislation and advocate for equality. The influence of the ECHR extended beyond national borders, inspiring other countries to enact similar protections and fostering a global movement for LGBTQ+ rights.

Lawyers played a crucial role in enacting and enforcing the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. This landmark legislation made it illegal to discriminate against individuals based on their sexual orientation in employment and vocational training. These protections provided greater opportunities and workplace equality for LGBTQ+ people, ensuring their rights were upheld in professional settings.

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 provided same-sex couples with legal rights and responsibilities similar to those of married couples, a significant step towards equality. Lawyers argued for the importance of recognising and respecting the committed relationships of same-sex couples, challenging societal norms and advocating for legal recognition.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004 was another landmark in what was a productive year for LGBTQ+ rights. This act recognised and protected transgender rights, emphasising the importance of self-identification and for transgender individuals to be recognised and respected in all aspects of life.

The journey towards marriage equality in the UK took a huge step forward with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. This historic legislation allowed same-sex couples to marry and enjoy the same legal rights and protections as opposite-sex couples.

There are many more legal landmarks but as 2023 marks the twentieth anniversary of the repeal of Section 28, perhaps we should conclude with that. Section 28 had been introduced by the Thatcher government to ban the “promotion of homosexuality”.  It forced many support groups to close or limit their activities. It was highly controversial from the outset and following lobbying by lawyers and campaign groups, was repealed in 2003.

It’s reassuring to look back at the huge steps forward in LGBTQ+ rights over the last 70 years but although much has been achieved, there is still further to go. Once again, lawyers will be at the forefront of advocating for change and helping to forge new, more inclusive legislation.

In our next two articles, we’ll look at some of these landmark pieces of legislation in more detail.

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