Timeline of Acts regarding same-sex relationships

Gemma Hollman, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

Although same-sex relationships had long been unacceptable in England, during the medieval period it had been left as a moral issue for the Church and Church Courts to deal with. Formal legislation against homosexual acts was first passed under Henry VIII in 1533, and was known as ‘An Acte for the punishment of the vice of Buggerie’. Laws regarding same-sex relationships continued to be created in the subsequent centuries, always viewing it as a moral sin and a crime. It is only very recently that LGBTQ+ people in the UK have started to receive equal legal rights. Here we have created a timeline of some of the legal milestones regarding people having same-sex relationships.

 

1533 Buggery Act passed during Henry VIII’s reign.

1553 Buggery Act repealed by Mary I

1563 Buggery Act re-instated by Elizabeth I

1828 Buggery Act repealed, replaced by Offences Against the Person Act

1835 Last two men executed for sodomy in Britain

1861 Death sentence for Buggery repealed by Offences Against the Person Act

1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act made any male homosexual act illegal

1921 Parliament discussed making female homosexuality illegal, but it was rejected

1957 Wolfenden Report published recommending decriminalisation of gay sex

1967 Sexual Offences Act partially legalised same-sex acts in UK

1967 Age of consent set at 21

1988 Section 28 banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality

1994 Age of consent set at 18

2000 Age of consent set at 16

2003 Section 28 repealed

2004 Civil Partnership Act

2013 Same-sex marriage legalised in England and Wales

2014 Same-sex marriage legalised in Scotland

2019 Same-sex marriage legalised in Northern Ireland

 

 

The Buggery Act of 1553

The Buggery Act was the first law passed regarding sodomy and buggery, and it was not solely aimed at homosexual sex. The act also included sodomy with animals or between men and women. For the act, buggery was simply defined as an unnatural sexual act against the will of God. Like other serious crimes, anyone found guilty of these acts could be sentenced to death, and have all of their lands and goods confiscated by the Crown. Importantly, the clergy were not exempt from the death penalty for this law, even though they were exempt from execution if they committed murder.

The Buggery Act was repealed when Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary I, came to the throne. This was not due to any lenience in Mary’s views, but because as a devout Catholic Mary considered such matters to be under the jurisdiction of the Church. The act was reinstated in 1563 under her sister, Elizabeth I.

The Act was the main piece of legislation which covered homosexual acts across the next few centuries, although generally it seems that few people were prosecuted under the Act. The Buggery Act was repealed in 1828, but it was replaced with a new, more specific law.

The Offences against the Person Act 1828

This Act applied only to England and Wales and it consolodated previous acts relating to sexual crimes.  This law changed its focus to male same-sex activity in particular, keeping the death penalty for engaging in such behaviour.

Although the death penalty remained for engaging in homosexual sex, ideas were beginning to change in society. Whilst most people still thought homosexuality was unnatural and unacceptable, many no longer believed that death was a justifiable punishment. In 1835, the last two men to be executed for sodomy in England were hanged at Newgate Prison.

The Offences against the Person Act 1861

The death penalty was not formally abolished for homosexual acts until 1861. The Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 removed the death penalty for buggery, but it was still a crime with a prison sentence of 10 years to life.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885

In 1885, laws regarding male homosexuality were extended once more. Previously, the law had generally covered sexual acts which involved penetration, but this new Act introduced the term “gross indecency” in relation to same-sex sexual activity between men which did not involve penetration. The punishment for gross indecency was not as severe as that for buggery, but it still carried a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment with or without hard labour. It also specified that gross indecency covered acts in public and in private, meaning two consenting males performing any kind of same-sex activity in the privacy of their own homes were still committing a crime.

The 1921 Parliament

Although the first Buggery Act had included sexual activity between men and women, subsequent Victorian laws very much focused on homosexual activity between men being a crime. In 1921, Parliament proposed an amendment to make acts of gross indecency between women illegal, as it was for men. However, the clause was rejected partly due to concerns that raising the profile of female same-sex relationships as a concept would only encourage women to partake in the behaviour.

The Wolfenden Report of 1957

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, same-sex relationships continued to be seen as immoral. However, numerous high profile cases started to change this perception in society. A group called the Wolfenden Committee was set up by the government to look into homosexual crimes and prostitution. In 1957, the findings of the report were published, and the committee recommended that any same-sex behaviour between consenting adults which occurred in private should not be a criminal offence. They recommended setting an age of consent of 21 years old, and decriminalising homosexuality. This was a huge breakthrough, but the contrast with same-sex couples was still stark, as the age of consent for heterosexual relationships was 16.

The 1967 Sexual Offences Act

Despite the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee, it took ten years for these to become law. In 1967, the Sexual Offences Act legalised consensual, private, homosexual acts between two men who were aged 21 or above. The law only applied in England and Wales. It was only extended to Scotland in 1980, and Northern Ireland in 1982. For the first time in centuries, same-sex relationships between men was legal.

Section 28

Despite the victory of the 1967 Act, acceptance of same-sex relationship had a long way to go. In 1988, Section 28 of the Local Government Act was passed which was a huge roadblock for LGBTQ+ rights. It prohibited what the government called “promotion of homosexuality” by schools and local authorities. This meant any educational resources about LGBTQ+ people were blocked, and funding was withdrawn from various projects. Section 28 remained in force until 2003 when it was finally repealed.

Age of Consent – 1994 and 2000

When homosexual relationships between men was legalised in 1967, the age of consent was set at 21 even though the age of consent for heterosexual acts was only 16 years old and had been since 1885. In 1994, it was proposed to introduce an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act to lower the age of consent for homosexual acts to 16, but it was defeated. In compromise, it was decided to lower the age of consent for homosexual acts to 18, which was widely approved by MPs. In 1997, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that having a higher age of consent for homosexual acts was in breach of Human Rights, but despite several attempts to adjust the age of consent in Parliament it was rejected by the House of Lords each time. Finally, in 2000 the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill was passed lowering the age of consent to 16, although this was only done by passing it under the Parliament Act 1911 which allowed the House of Commons to overrule the House of Lords. It became law in January 2001, making the age of consent 16 years old for both heterosexual and homosexual acts, specifically including lesbian acts for the first time.

The 2004 Civil Partnership Act

The year after the repeal of Section 28 it became legal for same-sex couples to commit to a Civil Partnership, which gave them the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual married couples.

Same-sex Marriage

Although Civil Partnerships were created in 2004, many same-sex couples wanted the ability to get married like heterosexual couples. In 2013, a Marriage Act was passed which allowed same-sex couples to get married in England and Wales. The following year, same-sex marriage was also legalised in Scotland. In 2019, same-sex marriage was legalised in Northern Ireland, coming into force in January 2020, meaning it is now legal across the whole of the UK.

This page was added on 01/02/2021.

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