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UK marks 50 years of decriminalization of homosexuality

by Heather Cassell

Members of the British Parliament hold the rainbow flag<br>in front of Westminster Palace in support of LGBT rights. Photo: BBC
Members of the British Parliament hold the rainbow flag
in front of Westminster Palace in support of LGBT rights. Photo: BBC  

LGBT Britons noted a momentous moment in English history last week with the 50th anniversary of decriminalization of homosexuality.

In 1967, the British Parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalized private sexual activity between men over the age of 21 in England and Wales.

The law was later expanded to Scotland in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982.

However, the law only partially decriminalized homosexuality, limiting consensual same-sex acts between men in a variety of ways, including only "in private," which didn't extend to hotels and other semi-private places.

The law also did the opposite of what it was intended to do, which was to reduce policing of LGBT people. Instead, policing of gay sex increased and became more aggressive, especially during the 1980s and 1990s with the AIDS crisis, according to gay English men who recounted their experiences in the years following decriminalization of homosexuality in the U.K., reported the Guardian.

Laws banning so-called gross indecency and buggery, which were utilized to prosecute gay men, remained on the books up to 2004, reported USA Today.

The law didn't apply to women.



In January, the British government pardoned thousands of gay and bisexual men who were convicted under the law decades ago. Perhaps one of the most famous was Irish writer and playwright Oscar Wilde.

Wilde died in a hotel room in 1900 after serving two years in prison following his conviction of homosexual activity.

World War II code-breaker Alan Turing, whose story was the subject of the 2014 biopic "The Imitation Game," was pardoned in 2013.

Some gay rights leaders don't believe the pardons are enough.

Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell wants Prime Minister Theresa May to apologize and compensate men who were convicted under the anti-gay laws.

He estimates that around 100,000 men were convicted of consensual sexual relationships between 1885, when the British Parliament enacted the Labouchere Amendment, and 1967.

An additional 15,000 men were still convicted after the anti-gay law was lifted, he said in a statement.

Britain has a long anti-gay history, starting with the Roman imperial decree of 390 A.D., which declared the death by burning for anyone who had the "shameful custom of condemning a man's body." The law evolved into the Buggery Act of 1533 that included the death penalty for all gay male sex, anal sex, or bestiality. That law was enacted by King Henry VIII, and was extended to Wales, Pink News reported.

The Buggery Act was later replaced by the Offences Against the Person Act 1828, but the death penalty section from the Buggery Act remained in place until 1861.

Gay rights activists noted that many of the countries once under British rule have since gained independence. Many, whether they remain part of the Commonwealth or not, still have the colonial-era anti-gay laws on the books.

"These men deserve an apology and compensation for the terrible persecution they suffered," Tatchell said.


Making amends

Leading up to the July 27 anniversary, May reiterated her support of LGBT rights and expanding rights where possible – even into Northern Ireland – and self-determination for transgender individuals.

Throughout her political career, May, a daughter of a vicar and a member of the Conservative Party, has evolved on LGBT issues, a subject she wrote about in an opinion piece in Pink News leading up to the anniversary.

During an earlier period of her career she voted against proposed pro-LGBT legislation, but as home secretary and minister for women and equalities she played a key role in steering the same-sex marriage legislation through parliament, according to media reports.

"I'll be honest, my attitude on a number of issues has changed over the years as well," said May, who attempted to quell critics' skepticism due to the Conservative Party making a deal with the Democratic Unionists, which opposed marriage equality and same-sex couples' adoption rights, reported the BBC.

She credited personal experiences observing how LGBT people's lives changed due to legislation benefiting them for her evolving position on LGBT rights, she told the newspaper.

Britain has much to celebrate regarding progress made during the half-century since the United Kingdom decriminalized homosexuality.

However, much work remains to be done in the U.K.

Last year, hate crimes against LGBT people were the second highest type of crime on record in England and Wales, according to Amnesty International. U.K. police data reports that hate crimes based on the victim's sexuality have increased 29 percent in England and Wales since 2011.

Around the world, more than 70 countries still criminalize homosexuality, noted human rights experts.

In these countries LGBT people face discrimination, violence, imprisonment, and even the death penalty.

Many of the crimes against LGBT people go "uninvestigated and unpunished," said Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International U.K., in a July 26 news release from the global human rights organization.

"Absurd policies and attitudes are continuing to target people simply because of the gender of the person they love. There is no room for complacency here – we must not let progressive legislation in some places blind us to the suffering that still exists for many LGBTI people in the U.K. and around the world, and we must keep up the fight," said Allen in the release.


U.S. LGBT Jews criticize Israel's discriminatory adoption policy

The Israeli government is experiencing a backlash following its notification last month to the High Court of Justice that it won't lift its discriminatory adoption practices against same-sex couples.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked ruled against lifting the policy July 25, stating that it would go against human morality and the values of Judaism.

Shaked is a member of the Jewish Home party, an Orthodox Jewish and religious Zionist political party in Israel, and was supported by religious-Zionist rabbis who urged her not to give into pressure by the opposition, reported the Times of Israel.

Officials stated in the notification that LGBT parents saddle their children with "additional baggage."

The government was responding to a petition submitted by the Association of Israeli Gay Fathers that called for equal treatment in adoption.

Same-sex couples are legally allowed to adopt in Israel, but they are often waitlisted for approval until there aren't any heterosexual couples available to adopt. Oftentimes, this leaves couples with children who have special needs, those who are at-risk, older children who cannot be placed, or the alternative of adopting from abroad, according to media reports.

The Times of Israel reported that 550 single-sex couples and couples who have common law marriages have submitted petitions to adopt since it became legal in 2008. During that time, only three same-sex couples successfully adopted a child, while more than 1,000 straight couples have adopted.



The government's decision was met with outrage within Israel and abroad by American LGBT Jews and their supporters.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tel Aviv July 20 in support of same-sex couples' adoption rights.

Some clashed with police, and five demonstrators were arrested, reported Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The protest was followed by a letter condemning the Israeli government's discriminatory acts against same-sex couples' rights to adopt children that was signed by 200 Jewish community leaders representing major Jewish organizations throughout North America.

The letter was spearheaded by A Wider Bridge, a San Francisco-based LGBT Jewish organization that fosters relationships between LGBT Jews in the United States and Israel.

Signatories included Hillel International, leaders of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union of Reform Judaism, prominent Jewish LGBT leaders and over 60 U.S. rabbis, including 54 San Francisco Bay Area LGBT Jewish community leaders.

"At a time when the Orthodox and Haredi leaders of Israel are talking about the priority of Jewish continuity, here is an example of part of the Israeli community that is saying, 'We want to be part of that project. We want to raise children and have families and contribute to the strength of Israeli society. Don't shut us out of that process by treating us as second-class citizens,'" Arthur Slepian, founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge, told J. Weekly.

In response to the protesters, Haim Katz, the welfare and social affairs minister, stated that the government's response to the petition was "unfortunately worded," reported the Times of Israel. Katz requested an extension to reexamine the issue with more professional experts' opinions on the matter.

The court granted Katz two more months.


Got international LGBT news tips? Contact Heather Cassell at



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