Advocates of equality - Role of lawyers in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights

The Wolfenden Report and The Sexual Offences Act 1967 were early breakthroughs in the path towards equality and inclusion for LGBTQ+ communities (starting from the very basic decriminalisation of homosexuality!), followed by the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and the European Convention on Human Rights. On this article, we explore these steps forward in the struggle of ordinary people who had been labelled as criminals in the UK right up until the 1960s.

In less than the space of one lifetime, the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the UK have been transformed in a way that would have seemed unimaginable just 60 years ago.

Now, throughout June, millions of people are rightfully celebrating LGBTQ+ History Month and reflecting on what has been achieved. Newfound rights were not won easily. They had to be fought for against fierce opposition fuelled by fear and prejudice.

Every barrier took years of campaigning by tireless and fearless pioneers. We are proud to say that lawyers played a huge part in those campaigns to bring about those much-needed changes. With their legal expertise, dedication, and advocacy, they have played a crucial role in challenging discriminatory laws and advancing equal rights.

Here are some crucial breakthroughs that transformed the lives of millions among the LGBTQ+ community.

The Wolfenden Report: Challenging Prejudice

Being gay was against the law in Britain right up to the 1960s. Anyone taking part in homosexual practices, even consensual adults, faced jail sentences. But the country was about to be transformed. 

The winds of change announced by Prime Minister Harold MacMillan didn’t just apply to technology; social attitudes were changing as well. People were no longer prepared to accept the status quo and the old authority figures. A new generation of young campaigners and lawyers were questioning why homosexuality was illegal and demanding that it should be decriminalised. The government bowed to the pressure and commissioned an inquiry. It was led by Sir John Wolfenden, who leaned heavily on the research and advice of lawyers specialising in equality and human rights. The justice of their cause could not be ignored.

The publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957 laid the foundation for future legal and social progress in the realm of LGBTQ+ rights. It recommended the decriminalisation of consensual homosexual acts between adults in private.

The Sexual Offences Act 1967: A Step Towards Equality

Despite its groundbreaking recommendations, the Wolfenden Report might have become just a footnote in history if it were not for a young firebrand lawyer from Wales called Leo Abse.

Abse was not a man to take no for an answer. He was relentless in challenging discriminatory laws and promoting equality. He was elected as an MP and introduced a Private Members Bill to decriminalise homosexuality. It failed at first, but Abse persuaded the Labour government of the day to back it and the result was the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

This was the first major, concrete breakthrough because it decriminalised homosexuality between consenting adults. While the act did not fully grant equal rights and protection to the LGBTQ+ community, it was a significant step towards greater recognition and acceptance.

Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE): Legal Advocacy 

Abse didn’t do all this on his own, of course, despite his pivotal role. The Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), founded in 1964, became a leading organisation in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the UK. Lawyers worked with the CHE to seek legal avenues to challenge discriminatory laws and promote social acceptance of homosexuality. By combining legal advocacy with grassroots activism, the CHE made significant strides in raising awareness and changing public perceptions to make the Sexual Offences Act possible.

European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR): A Legal Framework for Equality 

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) has been a critical legal framework for advancing LGBTQ+ rights in the UK. Lawyers such as Lord Anthony Lester and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC skilfully utilised the provisions outlined in the ECHR to challenge discriminatory legislation and advocate for equality. 

The right to respect for private and family life, as enshrined in the convention, became a powerful tool in fighting for LGBTQ+ rights. Through strategic litigation and legal arguments, lawyers successfully challenged discriminatory practices and contributed to the recognition of LGBTQ+ rights as fundamental human rights.

The story doesn’t end there. The last 20 years have seen even greater strides being made. We shall look at them in our next article.

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