Fifty years ago, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men in England and Wales. As the 50th anniversary of the act approaches,'s Alex Hopkins reflects on the battles won by LGBT warriors around the world – and the battles which still need fighting.


The UK: No longer diseased  

In 2017, with so many LGBT rights now won in the United Kingdom, it’s perhaps difficult for us to fully comprehend the hostility that surrounded homosexuality before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. Gay men were not only incarcerated for acting out their desires but – as highlighted in the blistering 1961 Dirk Bogarde film Victim – were ripe for blackmail. Many, rather than undergo the degradation of a court case and imprisonment, took their lives. 

The ground-breaking Wolfenden report, which preceded the act, not only recommended that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence, but crucially found that “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease.” The power of such a statement to scores of men who had been told that they were irrevocably damaged cannot be understated. 

Glad to be gay!

Just three years later, in 1970, the London Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded, following in the steps of the burgeoning parallel movement in the United States. Gay men and women were finally moving boldly out of the shadows as they took control of their lives and refused to be cast as pariahs. But the road to the more sweeping reforms and acceptance which we recognise now has been long and tortuous. Incredibly, it would not be until 1992 that the World Health Organisation finally declassified same-sex attraction as a mental illness. 

Gay Liberation Front Demo, 1971.  UK.
Image: Gay Liberation Front demo - August 1971 - First major gay demo in UK.  Peter Tatchell Foundation.


Happy little house wives?

The biggest LGBT wins in the UK have come in recent years. The Adoption and Children Act 2002, The Civil Partnership Act 2004 and, in the same year, the Gender Recognition Act. Without the fearless struggles of pioneering gay rights groups such as the GLF and Outrage!, none of the laws which we have now would ever have been possible.

With the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, some argue that there are no further battles to be won for LGBT Britons. The alarming rise of the far right around Brexit, however, reminds us – as veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell says – that “the price of queer freedom is eternal vigilance.” All of us, every age and background, have a duty to understand where we, as a community, come from – and the sacrifices which outstanding individuals made to get us there. 

The US: raging drag queens

On June 28th, 1969, those in attendance at Christopher Street’s Stonewall Inn had finally reached their limit. After yet another brutal police raid, they rebelled and, led largely by the fiercest of drag queens, broke into the spontaneous, frequently violent demonstrations which gave birth to the US’s gay rights movement. The Gay Liberation Front in New York became a force to be reckoned with as did other groups such as Gay Activists’ Alliance. Gay liberation soon began to spread to the UK and elsewhere. But LGBT rights in the United States itself remains a complex patchwork with different rules applying to different states. 

Stonewall riots 1969. Young people fighting with Police.
Front page image of The New York Daily News on Sunday, June 29, 1969, showing the "street kids" who were the first to fight with the police.  Wikipedia.

Going beyond gender

Same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States. Yet there are significant battles still to be won, particularly in Trans rights, which vary across the country. Even the legislation that has been passed has sadly not done enough to stem the appalling increase in trans murders in the USA. 

Trump troubles

The erratic President Donald Trump’s messages on LGBT rights have seemed mixed at best. Chief among people’s fears, however, is the possibility that the ‘Religious Liberty’ order which he signed this month will make discrimination of LGBT people legal in the grounds of religious freedoms. We have every reason to be anxious:  in the US, the UK – and particularly elsewhere in the world – the dogma associated with religion remains the greatest obstacle for LGBT warriors in the ongoing war. 

Let’s look at the lethal power of religion in action in some of the most dangerous places to be gay on the globe…

Challenging Chechnya

Chechnya has a long and deeply unpleasant relationship with homosexuality. The largely Muslim, highly conservative society first made homosexuality illegal in the late 1880s. The onslaught of extreme anti-gay persecution in 2017 has been shocking to behold – yet given the area’s history, and the fact that it is a part of the virulently homophobic Russia - perhaps inevitable. 

Africa: deadly to be gay

Africa remains the deadliest continent in the world in which to be gay – and while rights for LGBT people in the West continue to grow, in Africa they are declining. In Uganda, you can be imprisoned for seven years for homosexuality, while the situation is little better in Nigeria. But worse still, Northern Nigeria has the dubious distinction of joining a handful of states – Mauritania, Sudan and Southern Somalia – where homosexuality is still punishable by death – and yes, you guessed it, this is all justified on religious grounds – and ironically, often the religious doctrines imported from the west. 

In the Middle East and Asia: “homosexuality is a Western construct.”  

Israel remains the most enlightened country in the Middle East when it comes to LGBT rights. While gay marriages are not performed in the country, it does at least recognise marriages which have been carried out abroad. Sharia law means that in Saudi Arabia, and even that most popular destination for money-hungry expats the United Arab Emirates, homosexuality can – in theory - be punishable by death.

Things are only marginally better in Asia, though there has been a softening of attitudes in recent years – particularly with Taiwan, the first country in Asia to recognise gay marriage. Progress indeed!  

India: so close, yet so far

How keenly we felt the pain of LGBT Indians in December 2013 when the Supreme Court dismissed the 2009 Delhi High Court order decriminalising consensual homosexual activity. How close India’s brave activists had come to overturning over 150 years of violence against the LGBT community which stemmed from Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The fight, however, goes on – and you can join it by supporting groups such as LGBT choir The Pink Singers, who are using the healing power of music to build equality. 

Europe: don’t rest on your laurels…

Europe still leads the way regarding LGBT rights, with 13 European nations legally recognising gay marriage as of March 2017. But we take hard-won rights for granted at our peril. In France, a spike in anti-LGBT acts was recorded in 2016, while in Spain same-sex marriage may have been legalised in 2005, but as recently as last month there were disturbing reports of abuse of LGBT asylum seekers in the country’s north African enclave of Ceuta.

The story is all too familiar: the most vulnerable members of society will always be the first to be singled out for persecution. Our strength as a global community lies in our solidarity and unwavering commitment to challenge the unacceptable – no matter where that may be.

Cover image: Gay Liberation Front on Times Square, 1969. Diana Davies, NYPL




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