"Love is a human right" - DMU expert on the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act

At the height of the summer of love, a law was passed which marked a turning point in the history of British civil rights.

The Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which partially decriminalised being gay, came into effect half a century ago today. The number one song in the singles charts that week? All You Need Is Love. But with all the talk of love in the air, many were still excluded, even after the act became law.

Professor Julie Fish, director of the Centre for LGBTQ Research at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) chronicles the long march to equality – and stresses we can’t take hard-won rights for granted.

You may hear a lot today about the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. And while 1967 was a significant milestone in the journey to decriminalisation, it was by no means full equality.


Professor Julie Fish

The provisions of the 1967 Act decriminalised sex between men so long as any sexual activity was conducted in private. There were very tight restrictions surrounding what constituted privacy: for example a hotel bedroom was not private nor was a private house if a third party was present at the time. 

This specific Act was only one piece of the complex jigsaw of inequality; legislation from the late 60s onwards and also that introduced by the Thatcher government in the 1980s, extended these inequalities into every area of life: public displays of affection between same-sex couples were criminalised by the Public Order Act; the Local Government Act prevented teaching about LGBT relationships in schools and prohibited local authorities from supporting any voluntary sector LGBT work, the Human Fertilisation Act meant that assisted reproductive technology services were only offered to heterosexual couples and there was a differential age of consent (21 for GB men and 16 for heterosexual young people). The trio of crime, sin and abnormality were pervasively applied to LGBT people.

Until the early 1990s being LGB was in itself a mental disorder and it was not until 1992 that the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from ICD 10, the international classification of diseases.

There were no protections in employment: you could be (and many were) sacked for being LGBT. Lucy Meadows, a trans teacher in Accrington, took her own life in 2013 when the Daily Mail revealed her identity. Public attitudes poured scorn on LGBT people: physical assault and verbal attack were common. Housing, pensions, immigration, the Church, serving in the armed forces, criminal injuries, defence on the charge of murder and adoption were all scooped up into a web of inequality.

Although there was never specific legislation which made being lesbian or bisexual illegal, they have often been exposed to different forms of discrimination and differently positioned. Lesbians and bisexuals are often invisible people: their needs are poorly understood and they are less likely to be considered in public health strategies.

The early 21st century has witnessed a raft of changes culminating in the Equal Marriage Act 2013 which mean that LGB people have full legal equality with the rest of the population and most recently with the John Walker case which achieved same-sex pension rights on 17 July 2017.


But legal recognition does not equate to social equality: public services still have a way to go to address LGBT needs and concerns.

The spike in homophobic and transphobic hate crimes following the EU referendum and the dismantling of LGBT rights following the Trump election in the USA alongside humanitarian crises in Chechnya and the public flogging of two gay men in Indonesia are telling reminders that we cannot take our hard won rights for granted.

The struggle continues across the world where LGBT people are treated as less than human. Love is a human right.

Posted on Thursday 27th July 2017

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