Two decades after age of consent was equalised for gay men, LGBTQI rights have stalled

Partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1967 seemed to herald a new age of toleration. Yet prosecutions for consensual sex between gay men increased throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. No measures were adopted to protect the LGBTQI community from discrimination. 

And then, in 1988, a new strategy was pursued – public authorities were banned from promoting homosexuality. Why hadn’t they thought of this before? If talking about LGBTQI people was off limits too, then so too was supporting them. Providing funds was out of the question. Schools considered themselves actively barred from mentioning sexual orientation and gender identity to their students.  

This persecutory environment could be justified because all gay men were crypto-criminals, requiring a criminal law regime all of their own. While that framework was in place, equality was a dream. 

Parliamentary battle

Democracy works in strange ways. Despite there still being a preponderance of distaste for homosexuals, Britain wanted change. They elected New Labour in 1997 and the party was committed to ending unjustified discrimination of LGBTQI people. The justification for discriminating against gay men and lesbians was the Sexual Offences Act. Make gay men equal in the eyes of the law and the excuse for discrimination falls away. Tony Blair, then prime minister, and his government committed to an equal age of consent.

Easier said than done. Reactionaries refused to give up on their hostility towards LGBTQI people. Those who opposed New Labour’s equality agenda knew that to concede parity between gay and straight teenagers would mean that their edifice of gay enmity would crumble. In the House of Lords, they dug in. They consistently voted against an equal age of consent.

Blair went for the jugular. He circumvented the House of Lords using the Parliament Acts, a rarely used parliamentary procedure that allows MPs to force through bills without the approval of the Lords. The bill establishing an equal age of consent for both heterosexual and homosexual sexuality activity was passed on 30 November 2000. 

The significance of using the Parliament Acts to introduce an equal age of consent cannot be overstated. It was only the sixth time a bill was passed using this piece of legislation, and it has been used just once since. 

House of cards

Once the age of consent had been equalised, anti-LGBTQI laws fell one-by-one. Following Scotland’s example, the law banning the promotion of homosexuality was repealed in 2003. In that same year, England and Wales finally got a victim-centred sexual offences regime. Gay-only offences were wiped from the statute book. The offence of gross indecency, which had tormented gay men for nearly 120 years was gone. The crime of buggery was consigned to the dustbin of history. 

In a few short years, a raft of legislation securing additional LGBTQI rights was passed including civil partnerships, discrimination protections on sexual orientation in employment and adoption rights for same-sex couples. Attempts at contrition for past harms done to gay men were hatched. Some men convicted for historic gay sex offences were offered pardons.

The future looked rosy, until, once again, LGBTQI issues started to be demoted in Parliament. Apparently, there is no longer a need to fund anti-LGBT bullying projects for schools. There are faith-based forces lining up to oppose LGBQTI inclusive relationship and sex education. Those that can’t comply with traditional constructs of sex, gender and sexual orientation identities are told to kow-tow and fit in. This dilution of support for LGBQTI rights makes it clear that the dignity of all LGBTQI people is not yet unassailable.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.