80 years of the Queen

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

PinkNews.co.uk Exclusive

To celebrate the 80th birthday of Her Majesty the Queen, PinkNews.co.uk looks back at the tremendous changes to the rights of gay people during her lifetime and in particular her illustrious 54 year reign.

At her birth on the 21st April 1926 , the then Princess Elizabeth of York would have found a country with a completely different view of homosexuality than we see today, homosexual activities between consenting males was still a serious criminal offence punishable by a spell in prison.

The changes in the plight of gay men within Britain can be traced back to the second year of the Queen’s reign in 1953 which saw the trial and eventual imprisonment of Edward Montagu (the 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu), Michael Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood for committing acts of homosexual indecency.

The uproar that followed, in particular the Sunday Times article “Law and Hypocrisy” led to the establishment by the Home Office minister, Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth of a departmental committee to examine “the law and practice relating to homosexual offences and the treatment of persons convicted of such offences by the courts.”

The resulting Wolfenden report (named after Lord Wolfenden, the chairman of the committee) , published in 1957, recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”.

It found that “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects”. Adding: “The law’s function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others. 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.”

However, it took until 1965 for a bill to be first proposed in Parliament to formally decriminalise homosexual sex. It was not until 1967 that the Sexual Offences Bill was laid before Parliament resulting in a decriminalisation of homosexuality for consenting adults (over the age of 21) in private homes, but only where the two adults were the only people present on the premises.

The law in common with all acts passed by Parliament received royal assent from the Queen only decriminalised homosexuality within England and Wales. It was not until 1980 that homosexuality was decriminalised in Scotland (thanks in part to the campaigning of the late Labour MP Robin Cook) and 1982 until a similar act was passed for Northern Ireland.

In 1979, the Home Office Policy Advisory Committee’s Working Party first recommended that the age of consent for gay sex should be reduced to 18. However, it was not until 1994 that moves towards this end were made.

In 1994, the former Health minister, Edwina Currie tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill to equalise the heterosexual and homosexual age of consent to 16. This was defeated by 307 votes to 280.

The Conservative backbench MP, Sir Robert Anthony Bevis Durant, tabled an amendment to lower the age of consent for gay sex to 18, which passed through parliament with 427 votes to 162 and received the support of the Prime Minister, John Major in addition to the Labour leader, John Smith and the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown.

Following the general election of 1997 and the incoming Labour government’s intention to sign Britain up to the European Convention of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed that the unequal age of consent in Britain was discriminatory.

The 1998 Crime and Disorder Bill which aimed to equalise the age of consent was passed by the House of Commons with a majority of 207, it was however defeated in the House of Lords. The subsequent Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill introduced later in the same year, similarly passed in the Commons but was rejected by the Lords.

The bill was passed again by the Commons in 1999 and once again rejected by the Lords in 2000. The government utilised the Parliament Act (which asserts the supremacy of the House of Commons) to pass the bill into law on the 30th November 2000.

The move towards civil partnerships or so called “gay marriages” begun in 2001 with the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone’s introduction of a register of gay couples. The register did not confer legal rights on the gay couples but it was the first recognition of gay relationships by a public body.

In January 2002, the Lord Lester introduced a private members bill, the Civil Partnerships Bill which passed onto a second reading in the House of Lords. This was followed by an announcement in June 2003 that the Department of Trade and Industry (who has responsibility for equality) would begin a period of consultation of the practicalities of introducing civil partnerships. This was followed by the introduction of the Civil Partnerships Act in 2004 which received royal assent from the Queen on the 18 November 2004. The first ceremonies took place during December of 2005.

The Queen has announced she will never abdicate, so over the next few years she can expect to give her approval to more positive policies such as the 2006 Equality Act, banning discrimination based on sexuality in the supply of goods, facilities and services.