LGBT rights in the United Kingdom

LGBT rights in the United Kingdom

Location of the United Kingdom
Same-sex sexual activity legal?

1967 (England and Wales)
1980 (Scotland)
1982 (Northern Ireland)

Age of consent equalised:

2001 (England and Wales, Scotland)
2009 (Northern Ireland)
Gender identity/expression Right to change legal gender since 2005
Military service Allowed to serve openly since 2000
Discrimination protections All protections since 2010; some existed since 2003 for sexual orientation and 1999 for gender identity
Family rights
Recognition of
Same-sex marriage since 2014 (England and Wales; Scotland)
Civil partnerships since 2005 (nationwide)
Same-sex marriages are not recognised or performed in Northern Ireland
Non-consummation is not grounds for dissolution
Adoption Joint and stepchild adoption since
2005 (England and Wales)
2009 (Scotland)
2013 (Northern Ireland)

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in the United Kingdom have evolved dramatically over time though still vary slightly by jurisdiction in the four nations of the United Kingdom.

Before and during the formation of the UK, Christianity and homosexuality clashed. Same-sex sexual activity was characterised as sinful and, under the Buggery Act 1533, was outlawed and punishable by death. LGBT rights first came to prominence following the decriminalisation of same-sex sexual activity across the UK between 1967 and 1982.

Since the turn of the 21st century, LGBT rights have increasingly strengthened in support. Some discrimination protections had existed for LGBT people since 1999, but were extended to all areas under the Equality Act 2010. In 2000, Her Majesty's Armed Forces removed its ban on LGBT individuals serving openly. The age of consent was equalised, regardless of sexual orientation, in 2001 at 16 in England, Scotland, and Wales. The age of consent was lowered to 16 in Northern Ireland in 2009, previously it was 17 regardless of sexual orientation. Transgender people have had the right to change their legal gender since 2005. The same year, same-sex couples were granted the right to enter into a civil partnership, a similar legal structure to marriage, and also to adopt in England and Wales. Scotland later followed on adoption rights for same-sex couples in 2009, and Northern Ireland in 2013. Same-sex marriage was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland in 2014,[1] but remains banned in Northern Ireland where it is recognised solely as a civil partnership.

Today, LGBT citizens have most of the same legal rights as non-LGBT citizens and the UK provides one of the highest degrees of liberty in the world for its LGBT communities. In ILGA-Europe's 2015 review of LGBTI rights, the UK received the highest score in Europe, with 86% progress toward "respect of human rights and full equality" for LGBT people and 92% in Scotland alone.[2] Recent polls have indicated that a majority of British people support same-sex marriage[3] and 76% of the UK viewed that homosexuality should be accepted by society, one of the highest in the world.[4] Additionally, the UK currently holds the world record for having the most LGBTI people in parliament with 27 LGBTI MPs elected at the 2015 election.[5]

An Integrated Household Survey estimated 1.5% people in the UK identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual – far lower than previous estimates of 5–7%.[6] Interpreting the statistics, an Office for National Statistics (ONS) spokesperson said, "Someone may engage in sexual behaviour with someone of the same sex but still not perceive themselves as gay."[7] According to YouGov, however, studies such as that of the Integrated Household Survey underestimate the true proportion of the population that is LGBT as they utilise a face-to-face methodology, and non-heterosexual people are less willing to disclose their sexual orientation to an interviewer.[8] Yougov itself estimates, based on its panel, which was inquired via an online questionnaire, that the proportion of LGBT people in the UK is 7%.[9] It is also estimated that the trans population of the UK is between 300,000 and 500,000 people,[10] but Stonewall concludes that it is hard to define the LGBT population of the UK because some LGBT people are not out.[11] LGBT rights organisations and very large LGBT communities have been built across the UK, most notably in Brighton, which is widely regarded as the UK's unofficial "gay capital," with other large communities in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle upon Tyne, which all have gay villages and host annual pride festivals.

Same-sex sexual activity

Homosexuality as an offence

Years before the formation of the modern United Kingdom in 1707, English law identified anal sex and zoophilia as offences punishable by hanging as a result of the Buggery Act 1533, which was pioneered by Henry VIII. The Act was the country's first civil sodomy law; such offences having previously been dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts. Whilst it was repealed in 1553 on the accession of Mary I, Elizabeth I re-enacted it in 1563. James Pratt and John Smith were the last two to be executed for sodomy in 1835.[12]

Although section 61 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 removed the death penalty for homosexuality, male homosexual acts remained illegal and were punishable by imprisonment. The Labouchere Amendment, section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, extended the laws regarding homosexuality to include any kind of sexual activity between males. Oscar Wilde was convicted under this law and sentenced to 2 years of penal labour. Conversely, lesbians were never acknowledged or targeted by legislation.

In Scotland, there were no statutes making sex between men unlawful between 1424 and 1707,[13] but homosexual acts were punishable. One example is the commission for trial of Gavin Bell.[14]

In the early 1950s, the police actively enforced laws prohibiting sexual behaviour between men. By the end of 1954, there were 1,069 gay men in prison in England and Wales, with an average age of 37.[15] There were a number of high-profile arrests and trials, including that of scientist, mathematician, and war-time code-breaker Alan Turing, convicted in 1952 of "gross indecency." He accepted treatment with female hormones (chemical castration) as an alternative to prison. Turing committed suicide in 1954. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in response to a petition, issued an apology on behalf of the British government in 2009 for "the appalling way he was treated".[16][17] In 1953, 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" caused uproar and led to the establishment of a committee to examine and report on the law covering "homosexual offences" appointed by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe and Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth.


The Wolfenden Committee was set up on 24 August 1954 to consider UK law relating to "homosexual offences"; the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (better known as the Wolfenden report) was published on 3 September 1957. It recommended that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence," finding 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."

In October 1957, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, spoke in support of the Wolfenden Report, saying that "There is a sacred realm of privacy... into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude. This is a principle of the utmost importance for the preservation of human freedom, self-respect, and responsibility." The first parliamentary debate on the Wolfenden Report was initiated on 4 December 1957 by Lord Pakenham. Of the seventeen peers who spoke in the debate, eight broadly supported the recommendations in the Wolfenden Report. Maxwell Fyfe, by then ennobled as Lord Kilmuir and serving as Lord Chancellor, speaking for the government, doubted that there would be much public support for implementing the recommendations and stated that further research was required. The Homosexual Law Reform Society was founded on 12 May 1958, mainly to campaign for the implementation of the Wolfenden Committee's recommendations.[18]

Decriminalisation of homosexual acts

In 1965, Conservative peer Lord Arran proposed the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts (lesbian acts had never been illegal) in the House of Lords. This was followed by Humphry Berkeley in the House of Commons a year later, though Berkely ascribed his defeat in the 1966 general election to the unpopularity of this action. However, during in the newly elected Parliament, Labour MP Leo Abse took up the issue and the Sexual Offences Bill was put before Parliament in order to implement some of the Wolfenden Committee's recommendations after almost ten years of campaigning.

The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was accordingly passed and received Royal Assent on 27 July 1967 after an intense late night debate in the House of Commons. It maintained general prohibitions on buggery and indecency between men, but provided for a limited decriminalisation of homosexual acts where three conditions were fulfilled: 1) the act had to be consensual, 2) the act had to take place in private and 3) the act could involve only people that had attained the age of 21. This was a higher age of consent than that for heterosexual acts, which was set at 16. Further, "in private" limited participation in an act to two people. This condition was interpreted strictly by the courts, which took it to exclude acts taking place in a room in a hotel, for example, and in private homes where a third person was present (even if that person was in a different room). These restrictions were overturned in the European Court of Human Rights in 2000.[15]

The 1967 Act extended only to England and Wales. Organisations such as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and the Gay Liberation Front therefore continued to campaign for the goal of full equality in Scotland and Northern Ireland where all homosexual behaviour remained illegal. Same-sex sexual activities were legalised in Scotland on the same basis as in the 1967 Act, by section 80 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, which came into force on 1 February 1981. An analogous amendment was also made to the law of Northern Ireland, following the determination of a case by the European Court of Human Rights (see Dudgeon v. United Kingdom); the relevant legislation was an Order in Council, the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982,[19] which came into force on 8 December 1982.

In 1979, the Home Office Policy Advisory Committee's Working Party report, Age of Consent in Relation to Sexual Offences, recommended that the age of consent for same-sex sexual activities should be reduced from 21 to 18, but no such legislation was enacted as a result.

In February 1994, Parliament considered reform of the law on rape and other sexual offences during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. Conservative MP Edwina Currie proposed an amendment to equalise the age of consent of same-sex sexual activities to 16. Currie's amendment was defeated by 307 votes to 280. Those who supported it included Tony Blair,[20] John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Paddy Ashdown and William Hague. Those against included David Blunkett and Ann Taylor. There were angry scenes outside the Palace of Westminster at the defeat of the amendment, when those involved in a demonstration organised by the group OutRage! clashed with police. Another amendment proposed by Sir Anthony Durant suggested lowering the age of consent to 18, which passed by 427 votes to 162, and supporters included Michael Howard and John Major. It was opposed by such MPs as John Redwood, Michael Heseltine and John Gummer. An amendment proposed by Simon Hughes which was intended to equalise the age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals to 17 was not voted upon. The Bill as a whole was given a second reading in the Lords by 290 votes to 247. Lord Longford then sought to reintroduce 21 as the minimum age in the Lords, but this was defeated by 176 votes to 113. An amendment by the deputy Labour leader in the House of Lords, Lord MacIntosh of Haringey, that would have equalised the age of consent to 16, was rejected by 245 votes to 71.

In its decision of 1 July 1997 in the case of Sutherland v. United Kingdom, the European Commission of Human Rights found that Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights were violated by a discriminatory age of consent, on the ground that there was no objective and reasonable justification for maintaining a higher minimum age for male homosexual acts. On 13 October 1997, the Government submitted to the European Court of Human Rights that it would propose a Bill to Parliament for a reduction of the age of consent for homosexual acts from 18 to 16. On 22 June 1998, the Crime and Disorder Bill was put before Parliament. Ann Keen proposed amendments to lower the age of consent to 16. The House of Commons accepted these provisions with a majority of 207, but they were rejected by the House of Lords with a majority of 168. Subsequently, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill was introduced on 16 December 1998 and, again, the equalisation of the age of consent was endorsed on 25 January 1999 by the House of Commons, but was rejected on 14 April 1999 by the House of Lords. Those campaigning against the amendment claimed they were simply acting to protect children. Baroness Young, the leader of the campaign against the amendment, said, "Homosexual practices carry great health risks to young people."

The Government reintroduced the Bill in 1999. With the prospect of it being passed by the Commons in two successive sessions of Parliament, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 were available to enact the Bill should the Lords have rejected it a third time. The Lords passed the Bill at second reading, but made an amendment during committee stage to maintain the age of consent for buggery at 18 for both sexes. However, as the Bill had not completed its passage through the Lords at the end of the Parliamentary session on 30 November 2000, the then Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin certified that the procedure specified by the Parliament Acts had been complied with. The Bill received Royal Assent a few hours later, and was enacted as the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000. The provisions of the Act came into force throughout the UK on 8 January 2001, lowering the age of consent to 16.[21] This Act also introduced, for the first time, an age of consent for lesbian sexual acts, as previously there had been no legislation concerning this.[22]

On 1 May 2004, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 entered into force, which swept away all of the previous sex-specific legislation, including the 1967 Act, and introduced instead neutral offences. Thus, the previous conditions relating to privacy were removed, and sexual acts were viewed by the law without regard to the sex of the participants.

Same-sex relationships

Civil partnership

There was no legal recognition of same-sex relationships in Britain until 2005, following the legalisation of civil partnerships under the passage of the Civil Partnership Act on 18 November 2004. Civil partnerships are a separate union which give most (but not all) the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage, but there are recognition issues in other countries and with the use of courtesy titles. Civil partnerships can take place on any approved premise in the UK and in approved religious venues in England and Wales since 2011 (though religious venues are not compelled), but cannot include religious readings, music or symbols. Adultery and non-consummation are also not grounds for the dissolution of a civil partnership.

The first civil partnership ceremony took place at 11:00 (GMT) on 5 December 2005 between Matthew Roche and Christopher Cramp at St Barnabas Hospice, Worthing, West Sussex.[23] The usual 14-day waiting period was waived as Roche was suffering from a terminal illness. He died the next day.[24] The first civil partnership ceremonies after the statutory waiting period then took place in Northern Ireland on 19 December, with ceremonies following the next day in Scotland and the day after that in England and Wales.

Same-sex marriage

Same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom has been the subject of wide debate since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. Previous legislation in England and Wales had prevented same-sex marriage, including the Marriage Act 1949 which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, the Nullity of Marriage Act 1971 which explicitly banned same-sex marriages, and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 which reiterated the provisions of the Nullity of Marriage Act.

While civil partnerships were established nationwide, marriage law is a devolved matter in the United Kingdom and therefore the legislative procedure of same-sex marriage differs by jurisdiction. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which allows same-sex marriage in England and Wales, was passed by UK Parliament in July 2013 and came into force on 13 March 2014, with the first same-sex marriages taking place on 29 March 2014.[25][26][27] The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014, allowing same-sex marriage in Scotland, was passed by the Scottish Parliament in February 2014 and came into effect on 16 December 2014.[28][29]

Same-sex marriages in the UK give all the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage and can be performed on approved premises. This also includes religious venues, providing the religious or belief body has opted in. However, no religious or belief body is compelled to perform same-sex marriages; the Church of England and the Church in Wales are explicitly banned from doing so. For the purposes of the divorce of a same-sex marriage, the common law definition of adultery remains as sexual intercourse between a man and a woman only, although infidelity with a person of the same sex can be grounds for a divorce as "unreasonable behaviour."[30] Non-consummation is also excluded as a ground for the annulment of a same-sex marriage.[30]

In Northern Ireland, same-sex marriage is not recognised or performed, following several votes against it by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Same-sex marriages performed in Great Britain and across the world are recognised as civil partnerships in Northern Ireland.[31][32] Citing the Legislature's constant refusal to approve a marriage bill and the law that recognises marriages from other parts of the United Kingdom as civil partnerships, local LGBT rights groups announced that they will turn to the courts for the right to wed.[33] In January 2015, a couple who married in England and reside in Northern Ireland, filed a lawsuit to have their marriage recognised in the region.[34] On 2 November 2015, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted for a fifth time on the question of legalising same-sex marriage. Of the 105 MLA's who voted on a motion to recognise same-sex marriage, 53 MLA's votes in favour and 51 voted against, the first time a majority of the assembly had ever voted in favour of same-sex marriage. However the DUP again tabled a motion of concern, preventing the motion from having any legal effect.[35]

Adoption and family planning

In the Adoption and Children Act 2002 Parliament provided that an application to adopt a child in England and Wales could be made by either a single person or a couple. The previous condition that the couple be married was dropped, thus allowing a same-sex couple to apply. The Lords rejected the proposal on one occasion before it was passed. Supporters of the move in Parliament stressed that adoption was not a "gay rights" issue but one of providing as many children as possible with a stable family environment rather than seeing them kept in care. Opponents raised doubts over the stability of relationships outside marriage, and how instability would impact on the welfare of adopted children. However, the law was successfully passed and went into effect on December 30, 2005 [36][37] Similar legislation was adopted in Scotland which came into effect on 28 September 2009.[38][39]

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008[40] was given Royal Assent on 13 November 2008.[41] The legislation allows for lesbians and their partners (both civil and de facto) equal access to legal presumptions of parentage in cases of in vitro fertilisation ("IVF") or assisted/self insemination (other than at home) from the moment the child is born. Since the law also allows both partners to be identified on the child's birth certificate by the words "parent". [42] The law came into force from 6 April 2009 and is not retroactive (it does not apply before that date).[43] Parental orders for gay men and their partners since 6 April 2010 have been available for surrogacy arrangements.[44]

Since 31 August 2009, legislation granting lesbians equal birth rights in England and Wales came into effect, meaning both can now be named on a child's birth certificate, amending the Registration of Births and Deaths Regulations 1987.[45][46][47] The legislation was criticised by those who believe it was "damaging the traditional notion of a family".[48] Stonewall Head of Policy and Research Ruth Hunt said the new law makes life easier for lesbian families and stated "Now lesbian couples in the UK who make a considered decision to start a loving family will finally be afforded equal access to services they help fund as taxpayers".[49] Home Office minister, Lord Brett was full of praise in his comments:

This positive change means that, for the first time, female couples who have a child using fertility treatment have the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts to be shown as parents in the birth registration. It is vital that we afford equality wherever we can in society, especially as family circumstances continue to change. This is an important step forward in that process.[47][48]

Iain Duncan Smith, who led efforts to oppose the change, said that "The absence of fathers generally has a detrimental effect on the child."[50]

Military service

LGB people have been allowed to serve openly in the Her Majesty's Armed Forces since 2000, and discrimination on a sexual orientation basis has been forbidden since 2010.[51] It is also forbidden for someone to pressure LGBT people to come out. All personnel are subject to the same rules against intolerance, bullying and sexual harassment, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. The British military also recognise civil partnerships and grants same-sex couples the same rights to allowances and housing as opposite-sex couples.

The British military actively recruits LGBT people and have deployed recruiting teams to many Pride events: the Royal Navy advertises for recruits in gay magazines and has allowed gay sailors to hold civil partnership ceremonies on board ships and, since 2006, to march in full naval uniform at gay pride marches; British Army and Royal Air Force personnel could march but had to wear civilian clothes until 2008, now all military personnel are permitted to attend such marches in uniform.[52]

The current policy was accepted at the lower ranks first, with many senior officers worrying for their troops without a modern acceptance of homosexuality that their personnel had grown up with. One Brigadier resigned but with little impact. Since the change support at the senior level has grown. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff (head of the Army), told members of the Army-sponsored Fourth Joint Conference on LGBT Matters that homosexuals were welcome to serve in the Army. In a speech to the conference in 2008, the first of its kind by any Army chief, General Sir Richard said that respect for LGBT officers and soldiers was now "a command responsibility" and was vital for "operational effectiveness."[53]

The British Army requires all soldiers to undergo Equality and Diversity[54] training as part of their Military Annual Training Tests and stress tolerance, specifically citing homosexual examples in training videos, in line with the British Army Core Values[55] and Standards,[56] including "Respect for Others" and "Appropriate Behaviour." It considers its Core Values and standards as central to being a professional soldier.

In 2009, on the tenth anniversary of the change of law that permitted homosexuality in the Armed Forces, newspapers reported that the lifting of the ban had no perceivable impact on the operational effectiveness on the military. The anniversary was widely celebrated, including in the Army's in house publication Soldier Magazine, with a series of articles including the July 2009 cover story and newspapers articles.[57][58]

Transgender rights

In December 2002, the Lord Chancellor's office published a Government Policy Concerning Transsexual People document that categorically states that transsexualism "is not a mental illness."[59]

Since 4 April 2005, as per the Gender Recognition Act 2004, it is possible for transgender people to change their legal gender in the UK, allowing them to acquire a new birth certificate, affording them full recognition of their acquired sex in law for all purposes. Transgender people must present evidence to a Gender Recognition Panel, which considers their case and issues a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC); they must have transitioned two years before a GRC is issued. It is not a requirement for sex reassignment surgery to have taken place, although such surgery will be accepted as part of the supporting evidence for a case where it has taken place. There is formal approval of medical gender reassignment available either on the National Health Service (NHS) or privately.

However, there have been concerns regarding marriages and civil partnerships. Under the Gender Recognition Act 2004, transgender people who are married have been required to divorce or annul their marriage in order for them to be issued with a GRC. The government chose to retain this requirement in the Act as effectively it would have legalised a small category of same-sex marriages.The Civil Partnership Act 2004 allowed the creation of civil partnerships between same-sex couples, but a married couple that includes a transgender partner cannot simply re-register their new status. They must first have their marriage dissolved, gain legal recognition of the new gender and then register for a civil partnership. This is like any divorce with the associated paperwork and costs.

With the legalisation of same-sex marriage in England and Wales, existing marriages will continue where one or both parties change their legal gender and both parties wish to remain married. However, civil partnerships continue where only both parties change their gender simultaneously and wish to remain in their civil partnership. This restriction remains as effectively it would legalise a small category of opposite-sex civil partnerships. The legislation also does not restore any of the marriages of transgender people that were forcibly annulled as a precondition for them securing a GRC and states that a GRC will not be issued unless the spouse of the transgender person has consented. If the spouse does not consent, the marriage must be terminated before a GRC may be issued.[60]

Discrimination protections

Some discrimination protections on gender identity had existed since 1999. Regulations were introduced for discrimination protections on sexual orientation in employment on 1 December 2003, following the adoption of an EC Directive in 2000, providing for the prohibition of discrimination in employment on the grounds of sexual orientation.[61]

On 30 April 2007, the Sexual Orientation Regulations came into force, following the introduction of similar provisions in Northern Ireland in 2006. They provided a general prohibition of discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexual orientation. Similar legislation had long previously been in force in respect of discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, disability and marital status. The introduction of the Regulations was controversial and a dispute arose between the Government and the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales over exemptions for Catholic adoption agencies.[62]

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham declared his opposition to the Act, saying that the legislation contradicted the Catholic Church's moral values. Several Catholic adoption agencies requested exemption from sexual orientation regulations, and the adoption charity Catholic Care obtained a judgement on 17 March 2010 instructing the Charity Commission to reconsider its case.[63] The Charity Commission again found no grounds to make an exception for Catholic Care, a decision upheld on appeal.[64] In August 2011 the Upper Tribunal agreed to hear the charity's fourth appeal in the case.[65] In November 2012, the appeal was dismissed by the Upper Tribunal, with the Tribunal ruling in favour of the Charity Commission. Catholic Care stated its intention to appeal the judgement.[66]

In October 2007, the Government announced that it would seek to introduce an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to create a new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.[67] This followed the creation of an offence on religious hatred that had proved controversial in 2006 (see Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006). Incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation was already illegal in Northern Ireland.

The Equality Act 2010 received Royal Assent on 8 April 2010.[68] The primary purpose of the Act was to codify the complicated and numerous array of Acts and Regulations, which formed the basis of anti-discrimination law in the UK including the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and three major statutory instruments protecting discrimination in employment on grounds of religion or belief, sexual orientation and age. This legislation has the same goals as the US Civil Rights Act 1964 and four major EU Equal Treatment Directives, whose provisions it mirrors and implements.[69] It requires equal treatment in access to employment as well as private and public services, regardless of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, transgender status, belief and age.[70] The Act amended the Approved Premises (Marriage and Civil Partnership) Regulations 2005 to allow civil partnership ceremonies on religious premises in England and Wales.[71] It also extended trans rights, banning discrimination by schools on the grounds of gender reassignment[72][73]

Other initiatives have included the establishment of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights on 1 October 2007 which is tasked with working for equality in all areas and replaced the previous commissions dedicated to sex, race and disability alone; the setting up of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Advisory Group within the Department of Health;[74] a provision of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 that a court must treat hostility based on sexual orientation as an aggravating factor for sentencing a person;[75] guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service on dealing with homophobic crime;[76] and a commitment from the Government to work for LGBT rights at an international level.[77]

Section 28

Main article: Section 28

The 1980s saw a setback for LGBT rights. The availability in the libraries of schools run by the Inner London Education Authority of a book considered by some to "promote" homosexuality led to protests and a campaign for new legislation.[78] Consequently, in 1988, the Local Government Act included a provision prohibiting "the intentional promotion of homosexuality" by any local authority and "the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." The provision was known as Section 28, and amended section 2A of the earlier Local Government Act of 1986. Changes in the structure of local government since that date led to some confusion over the precise circumstances in which the new law applied, including the question of whether or not it applied at all in state schools.

Section 28 (called Section 2A in Scotland) was repealed in Scotland within the first two years of the existence of the Scottish Parliament, by the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc. (Scotland) Act 2000.[79] A move to remove the provision in England and Wales was prevented following opposition in the House of Lords, again led by the Baroness Young. Following her death in 2002, it was repealed by the Labour government in a new Local Government Act, which took effect on 18 November 2003. During the passage of the Bill, no attempt was made to retain the section and an amendment seeking to preserve it using ballots was defeated in the House of Lords. In June 2009, David Cameron, Conservative Party leader, formally apologised for his party introducing the law, stating that it was a mistake and offensive to gay people.[80]

LGBT rights movement

A group of men and women, dressed in purple, pink and blue, marching down a street with a banner which reads "Out and proud - Bisexuals! - Fighting for equality"
Bisexual people in the parade at Pride in London 2016.

The Homosexual Law Reform Society, founded on 12 May 1958, in response to the findings of the Wolfenden Report was one of the first LGBT groups in the UK. Now Stonewall exists as the largest LGBT equality organisation in the UK and Europe.

LGBT people have been serving openly in politics since the 1970s. The first openly lesbian MP was Maureen Colquhoun (Labour Party, MP 1974–79), who was outed in 1976. LGBT people are also allowed to serve openly in police and, in 1990, the Lesbian and Gay Police Association (LAGPA), now the Gay Police Association (GPA), was founded.

There are also large LGBT communities most noted in Birmingham (Birmingham Gay Village), Blackpool, Brighton (LGBT community of Brighton and Hove), Liverpool (LGBT culture in Liverpool), London (Old Compton Street) and Manchester (Canal Street), who all host annual pride festivals.

Many pride festivals are hosted in the UK every year. The first gay marches were in London in 1970, followed by the debut of the UK Gay Pride Rally there in 1972. Pride London is the biggest and oldest festival, and has been organised annually since. Pride festivals are very popular summer events in major cities, and have expanded to smaller communities in recent years.

Role of the European Union

According to Juris Lavrikovs from ILGA-Europe, the European Union has been a positive force for LGBT rights, especially with regards to decriminalising same-sex consensual activity, barring discrimination against transgender individuals in employment, equalising the age of consent, enabling LGB people to serve openly in the military, allowing transgender people the right to marry, employment equality and the including pension right for transgender individuals.[81]

Public opinion

An illustration of social attitudes towards homosexuality in the UK was provided in May 2007 in a survey by YouGov. The poll indicated that legislation outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was supported by 90% of British citizens. It also showed positive public perceptions of gay people in particular, but recognised the extent to which prejudice still exists.[82] A poll in June 2009 conducted by Populus for The Times reported that the majority of the public supports same-sex marriage; 61% of respondents agreed that "Gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships".[83][84] There were few differentials by partisanship.[85]

Controversy over conversion therapy

Peel, Clarke and Drescher wrote in 2007 that only one organisation in Britain could be identified with conversion therapy, a religious organisation called The Freedom Trust[86] (part of Exodus International): "whereas a number of organisations in the US (both religious and scientific/psychological) promote conversion therapy, there is only one in the UK of which we are aware". The paper reported that practitioners who did provide these sorts of treatments between the 1950s and 1970s now view homosexuality as healthy, and the evidence suggests that 'conversion therapy' is a historical rather than a contemporary phenomenon in Britain, where treatment for homosexuality has always been less common than in the USA.[87]

In 2007, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the main professional organisation of psychiatrists in Britain, issued a report stating that: "Evidence shows that LGB people are open to seeking help for mental health problems. However, they may be misunderstood by therapists who regard their homosexuality as the root cause of any presenting problem such as depression or anxiety. Unfortunately, therapists who behave in this way are likely to cause considerable distress. A small minority of therapists will even go so far as to attempt to change their client's sexual orientation. This can be deeply damaging. Although there are now a number of therapists and organisations in the USA and in the UK that claim that therapy can help homosexuals to become heterosexual, there is no evidence that such change is possible."[88]

In 2008, the Royal College of Psychiatrists stated: "The Royal College shares the concern of both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association that positions espoused by bodies like the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) in the United States are not supported by science. There is no sound scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed. Furthermore so-called treatments of homosexuality as recommended by NARTH create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish."[89]

In 2009, a research survey into mental health practitioners in the United Kingdom concluded "A significant minority of mental health professionals are attempting to help lesbian, gay and bisexual clients to become heterosexual. Given lack of evidence for the efficacy of such treatments, this is likely to be unwise or even harmful."[90] Scientific American reported on this: "One in 25 British psychiatrists and psychologists say they would be willing to help homosexual and bisexual patients try to convert to heterosexuality, even though there is no compelling scientific evidence a person can willfully become straight", and explained that 17% of those surveyed said they had tried to help reduce or suppress homosexual feelings, and 4% said they would try to help homosexual people convert to heterosexuality in the future.[91]

Today, conversion therapy remains legal in the UK, and has been described by the BBC as "a fiercely contested topic" and part of a larger "culture war" within the UK.[92]

LGBT rights in: Same-sex sexual activity Gender Recognition Recognition of same-sex unions Same-sex marriage Same-sex adoption Military service Anti-discrimination (sexual orientation) Anti-discrimination (gender identity) Other
EnglandWales England and Wales Legal since 1967 age of consent equalised 2001 Gender Recognition Act 2004 Civil partnership since 2005 Legal since 2014 Legal since 2005 Since 2000 Bans all discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation[93] Section 28 banning "promotion of same-sex relationships as a pretend family relationship" repealed 2003
Scotland Scotland Legal since 1980 age of consent equalised 2001 Gender Recognition Act 2004 Civil partnership since 2005 Legal since 2014 Legal since 2009 Since 2000 / Bans some discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, but allows freedom of expression for religious groups[93] Section 2A banning "promotion of same-sex relationships as a pretend family relationship" repealed 2000
Northern Ireland Northern Ireland Legal since 1982 age of consent equalised 2009 Gender Recognition Act 2004 Civil partnership since 2005 Illegal Legal since 2013 Since 2000 Bans all discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation[93] N/A

Crown Dependencies

LGBT rights in: Same-sex sexual activity Recognition of same-sex unions Same-sex marriage Same-sex adoption Allows gay people to serve openly in military? Anti-discrimination (sexual orientation) Laws concerning gender identity/expression
Guernsey Guernsey Legal since 1983, age of consent equalised in 2012[94][95] From 2017 From 2017 Legal since 2016[96] UK responsible for defence / Bans some anti-gay discrimination[97] 2004 anti-discrimination law. Legal gender change since 2007: Case law only. Only allows a new birth certificate to be issued. Does not amend or remove records of existing birth certificates, extension to Alderney and Sark unclear, does extend to Herm.[97][98]
Isle of Man Isle of Man Legal since 1992 Civil partnership since 2011 Legal since 2016 Legal since 2011 UK responsible for defence / Bans some anti-gay discrimination
Jersey Jersey Legal since 1990 Civil partnership since 2012 (Proposed) Legal since 2012 UK responsible for defence Bans all anti-gay discrimination Gender Recognition (Jersey) Law 2010[99]

Overseas Territories

LGBT rights in: Same-sex sexual activity Recognition of same-sex unions Same-sex marriage Same-sex adoption Allows gay people to serve openly in military? Anti-discrimination (sexual orientation) Laws concerning gender identity/expression
Anguilla Anguilla Legal since 2000 UK responsible for defence
Akrotiri and Dhekelia Akrotiri and Dhekelia Legal since 2000[100][101] Since 2014[102] UK responsible for defence Bans all anti-gay discrimination,[103][104]
Bermuda Bermuda
Legal since 1994
(Age of consent discrepancy)
(Proposed) Since 2015 UK responsible for defence Bans all anti-gay discrimination[105]
British Antarctic Territory British Antarctic Territory Legal Since 2016[106][107] UK responsible for defence
British Virgin Islands British Virgin Islands Legal since 2000 UK responsible for defence Constitution bans all anti-gay discrimination
Cayman Islands Cayman Islands Legal since 2000
(Age of consent discrepancy) [108]
(Constitutional ban since 2009) UK responsible for defence
Falkland Islands Falkland Islands Legal since 1989 (Proposed) (Proposed) (Proposed) UK responsible for defence Constitution bans all anti-gay discrimination[109]
Gibraltar Gibraltar Legal since 1993 Civil partnership since 2014 Since 2016 (awaiting Royal Assent) Legal since 2014 UK responsible for defence / Bans some anti-gay discrimination (Banning all anti-gay discrimination pending) (Pending)
Montserrat Montserrat Legal since 2000 (Constitutional ban since 2010) UK responsible for defence Constitution bans all anti-gay discrimination[110]
Pitcairn Islands Pitcairn Islands Legal since 2001 Since 2015[111] Since 2015[112] UK responsible for defence Constitution bans all anti-gay discrimination[113]
Saint HelenaAscension IslandTristan da Cunha Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Legal since 2001 / Ascension Island only, since 2016 (not yet in effect) (Proposed in Saint Helena) / Ascension Island only, since 2016 (not yet in effect) (Proposed in Saint Helena[114][115][116]) UK responsible for defense Constitution bans all anti-gay discrimination[117] Since 2013
Turks and Caicos Islands Turks and Caicos Islands Legal since 2000 (Constitutional ban since 2011) UK responsible for defence Constitution bans all anti-gay discrimination

Summary table

Please note: when a jurisdiction is not specified, the right applies to the whole of the United Kingdom. Does not include Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies

Right Yes/No Notes
Same-sex sexual activity
Same-sex sexual acts legal Since 1967 (England and Wales)
Since 1980 (Scotland)
Since 1982 (Northern Ireland)
Homosexuality declassified as an illness Since 1968
Equal age of consent for same-sex and opposite-sex sexual acts Since 2001 (England and Wales, Scotland)
Since 2009 (Northern Ireland)
Same-sex relationships
Civil partnerships for same-sex couples[note 1] Since 2005
Civil partnerships in religious venues / Since 2011 (England and Wales)
Since 2014 (Scotland)
Illegal (Northern Ireland)
Civil and religious same-sex marriage[note 2] / Since 2014 (England and Wales)
Since 2014 (Scotland)
Illegal (Northern Ireland)
Adoption and family planning
Joint- and step-adoption for LGBT persons and same-sex couples Since 2005 (England and Wales)
Since 2009 (Scotland)
Since 2013 (Northern Ireland)
Equal access to IVF for all couples and individuals Since 2009
Same-sex couples as both parents on a birth certificate Since 2009
Equal access to surrogacy for all couples and individuals Since 2010
Military service
LGBT people allowed to serve openly in military Since 2000
Transgender rights
Transsexualism declassified as an illness Since 2002
Right to change legal gender Since 2005
Right to change legal gender without having to end marriage[note 3] / Since 2014 (England and Wales)
Since 2014 (Scotland)
Illegal (Northern Ireland)
Discrimination protections
Laws against hate speech based on sexual orientation / Since 2008 (England and Wales)
No laws exist (Scotland and Northern Ireland)
Laws against hate speech based on gender identity / Since 2009 (Scotland)
No laws exist (England and Wales and Northern Ireland)
Laws against inciting hatred on sexual orientation through an aggravating circumstance Since 2004 (Northern Ireland)
Since 2008 (England and Wales)
Since 2010 (Scotland)
Laws against inciting hatred on gender identity through an aggravating circumstance / Since 2010 (England and Wales, Scotland (which also covers intersex status))
No laws exist (Northern Ireland)
Anti-discrimination laws in all areas on sexual orientation and gender identity (including harassment, victimisation, direct and indirect discrimination) Since 2010, though some protection has existed since 2003 for sexual orientation and 1999 for gender identity
LGBT sex education and relationships taught in schools / Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), which includes sex and relationships, is not compulsory[118]
Schools in England must comply with the Equality Act's Public Sector Equality Duty (2012) which includes LGBT equality
Ofsted assesses the inclusion of LGBT people in policies and the curriculum
MSMs allowed to donate blood / Since 2011 in GB and 2016 NI, subject to 1 year deferral from sexual activities [119][120][121]
Conversion therapy banned Proposed[122]
Migration rights
Immigration equality and rights for LGBT individuals and same-sex couples Since 2006
Recognition of sexual orientation and gender identity for asylum requests / Guidelines not applied consistently
Some cases recognised since 1999 including that of HJ and HT v Home Secretary
Plans for guidance on asylum claims brought on by sexual orientation but not gender identity


  1. Civil partnerships give most (but not all) of the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage, but there are recognition issues in other countries and with the use of courtesy titles. Civil partnerships can take place on any approved premise in the UK and in approved religious venues in Great Britain (though religious venues are not compelled), but cannot include religious readings, music or symbols. Adultery and non-consummation are also not grounds for the dissolution of a civil partnership.
    See Civil Partnership Act 2004 and Civil partnership in the United Kingdom
  2. Same-sex marriages give all the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage and can be performed on approved premises and religious venues in Great Britain (though no religious or belief body is compelled). Adultery and non-consummation are not grounds for divorce.
    See Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 and Same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom
  3. Existing marriages continue where one or both parties change their legal gender and both parties wish to remain married. Civil partnerships continue where only both parties change their gender simultaneously and wish to remain in their civil partnership.
    See Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 and Same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom

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Further reading

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