Pride Month: A history of gay rights

June is national Pride Month, a month dedicated to celebrating LGBTQIA+ communities around the world. Gay rights haven’t always been as accepted and open as they are today, however there’s still work to do even now.

As part of our focus on Pride this month, we begin with a history of gay rights and pride in the UK. The restrictions on homosexual relationships used to be very harsh. In 1533, King Henry VIII’s parliament passed an act that targeted male homosexuality for persecution in the UK, punishable by death.

The death penalty wasn’t abolished until 1861 with the Offences Against the Person Act, that changed the punishment for homosexual acts to a minimum of 10 years imprisonment. These restrictions were further increased by an amendment to The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. The Act made ANY male homosexual act illegal, even if the act happened in private (which could include a letter between two males expressing terms of affection) and famous poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was punished under these laws. 

Female homosexuality wasn’t targeted by the above or any other legislation, as it was widely assumed that rates of lesbianism were extremely low and the government of the time feared that legislating would lead to experimentation between women and increase the rates.

Jump forward to 1946 and transgender identities were starting to become visible. Michael Dillon, in his book Self: A Study in Endocrinology, detailed the transition of (arguably) the first transgender man from Laura to Michael. In 1951, Roberta Cowell was the first transgender women to undergo surgery to transition from male to female.

The Wolfenden Report in 1957 began a turn to a more positive view on homosexuality by recommending that homosexual behavious between consenting adults should no longer be considered a criminal offence, which 10 years later was written into the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Coinciding with this came the launch of The Beaumont Society, the longest running support group for transgender people. 

Despite the slow pivot towards an attitude change to the LGBTQIA+ community, there was still a lot of work to do and years of resentment and anger boiled over, leading to the Stonewall Riots (named after a prominent LGBTQIA+ bar in Greenwich Village) in New York in 1969. The riots came from a long period of police harassment of homosexual people and resulted in the formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) amongst others, two radical groups that actively fought for improved rights. 

Three years later in 1970, the first Gay Pride Week happened in New York and thousands of people attended. Celebrations then spread across America to LA, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago and eventually to Canada, Britain, Australasia and Europe. Gay Pride has exapnded ever since and is now an important month in the yearly calendar, symbolised by not just the rainbow flag, but also by thousands upon thousands of people celebrating being themselves. 

Now you may be asking, where does the rainbow flag come into it?

The rainbow flag was first used in 1978 at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade, but was truly established as the symbol for LGBTQIA+ pride in 1994 with a mile-long version being used for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The colours of the flag were initially chosen to represent eight areas of life – hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit, but this was eventually altered to allow for mass-production of the flag which was difficult at the time because of issues with the turquoise, indigo and pink.

Back in the UK, in 1988 under Margaret Thatcher, the government introduced legislation that banned local councils and schools from promoting homosexuality, and banned pupils from getting much-needed support. This legislation stood until 2003 under David Cameron, who also later apologised for the laws in 2009. 

In 2004, the UK took an historic step further by legalising same-sex couples to enter civil partnerships which was then increased in 2013 to allow same-sex marriages in England and Wales (followed by Scotland in 2014).  And more recently in 2010, the Equality Act gave LGBTQIA+ employees protection from discrimination and harassment at work. 

Also in 2004, the UK government brought in laws that gave full recognition to transgender people and allowed them to receive a new birth certificate (options are currently limited to ‘male’ or ‘female’). 

So why is all this legislature change important? Because each legislation change is the result of decades of campaigning, activism and lobbying. History is filled with names and events that all contributed in some way to great equality in our society and are absolutely worth reading about. If you want to know more, start by researching:

  • Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (arguably the first person to publicly “come out”)
  • Michael Dillon (the first transgender man to undergo female to male surgery)
  • Virginia Woolf (a famous, iconic feminist writer who was openly bisexual)
  • Frida Kahlo (an openly bisexual painter and author who depicted taboo topics such as female sexuality and beauty standards)
  • Alan Turing (a mathematician and code breaker in World War 2, who’s pardon for a conviction of homosexual relationships led to other posthumous pardons in 2013)

As mentioned above, this list is just a small segment of the many names throughout history that have made a massive impact on gay rights. Stay tuned to our blog, as over the next few weeks we will be taking a deep dive into the support out there for LGBTQIA+ people, celebrating pride events across the country and examining LGBTQIA+, the creative industries and what the future may hold.