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LGBT+ and the Law

It’s well known (particularly to those of us who study it!) the law controls almost every aspect of our lives, even our relationships. Who we can love and what we do with that loved one is a legal question, not just dictated by our own free will and emotions. The law (of England and Wales) tells us we can only legally marry one person, we can’t marry a close relative, we can’t offend public decency by expressing our, ahem, ‘passion’ in a public place, how old we must be to legally consent, what we can legally consent to, even in private (I’m looking at you, R v Brown [1993] UKHL 19). The law interferes in our private business at every turn. This has been even more true if whom you happen to love happens to be of the same gender.

In honour of Pride 2020, this article will examine the legislation that has governed, restricted and given rights to the LGBT+ community, and also thrown in some fabulous organisations dedicated to making sure the legal profession is accessible, supportive and welcoming to the LGBT+ community.

  • The Buggery Act of 1533; Passed by Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII, is the first time in law that male homosexuality was targeted for persecution in the UK. Outlawing sodomy in Britain – and by extension what would become the entire British Empire – convictions were punishable by death.

  • The Offences Against the Person Act 1861; The death penalty for acts of sodomy is finally abolished, punishable instead by 10 years imprisonment.

  • The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885; Made any homosexual act illegal, even those conducted in private. Even a letter expressing affection between two men was sufficient to bring about prosecution.

  • The Criminal Law Amendment Bill 1921; Whilst lesbians were never explicitly targeted by legislation, this was discussed by Parliament in 1921 for the first time to introduce discriminatory legislation. However, this failed when both the House of Commons and the House of Lords rejected it, fearing it would encourage women to explore their sexuality.

  • The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution; (better known as the Wolfenden Report 1957); Commissioned in response to evidence that homosexuality could not legitimately be regarded as a disease and aimed to bring about change in the current law by making recommendations to the Government. Central to the report was that the state should focus on protecting the public, rather than scrutinising people’s private lives.

  • The Sexual Offences Act 1967; It took 10 years for the Wolfenden Report’s recommendations to be implemented. The Sexual Offences Act partially legalised same-sex acts in the UK between men over the age of 21 conducted in private. Scotland and Northern Ireland followed suit over a decade later, in 1980 and 1981 respectively.

  • Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988; Introduced by the Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher, banned local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’ or ‘pretended family relationships’, and prohibited councils from funding educational materials and projects perceived to 'promote homosexuality'. The legislation prevented the discussion of LGBT issues and stopped pupils getting the support they needed. David Cameron issued an apology for the previous legislation later in 2009.

  • The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000; Equalised the age of consent. Also in 2000, The European Court of Human Rights overturned the UK's ban on gay men and women serving in the armed forces.

  • The Adoption and Children Act 2002; Allows same-sex couples to adopt.

  • The Local Government Act 2003; Repealed the notorious Section 28, prohibiting the 'intentional promotion of homosexuality' by local authorities,

  • Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003; Made it illegal for employers to discriminate against gays, lesbians or bisexuals in the workplace.

  • The Gender Recognition Act 2004; Allows people to legally change gender.

  • The Civil Partnership Act 2004; Same-sex relationships gained legal recognition.

  • The Equality Act 2006; Made discrimination against lesbians and gay men in the provision of goods and services illegal.

  • The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008; Same-sex couples are now recognised as legal parents in cases where a child is conceived via donated sperm, eggs or embryos.

  • The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013; The first same-sex marriages take place in March 2014.

When looking at that list of legislation, almost all granting additional rights and being positive steps towards acceptance, it is easy to feel pride at how far the law has come. Whilst changing the law cannot change people’s prejudices and perceptions, it can often act as a reflection of the welcome change of attitude in society and growing tolerance.

However, we should remember that the fight for equality is ongoing. There are 73 jurisdictions around the world that still criminalise private, consensual sexual activity between adults of the same sex. Almost half of these are Commonwealth countries. There are 12 jurisdictions in which the death penalty is imposed (Iran, Northern Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen) or at least a legal possibility (Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar, UAE). We also cannot dismiss the ongoing homophobic hate crimes (2016 figures show that more than 9,100+ hate crimes (11% of the total) were reported against gay men and women in the UK.), work-place discrimination and anti-trans legislation which is still sadly rife in all parts of the world.

Where the legal profession is concerned, there are several wonderful organisations doing amazing work with lawyers and students to help promote inclusion and stamp out discrimination. Some of these are as follows;

BLP and Herbert Smith Freehills set up DiversCity in 2011. It now has the support of ten other London firms. Each year, DiversCity holds a day-long event with representatives from participating firms aiming to attract LGBT undergraduates to work as City solicitors. Those who attend can subsequently apply for DiversCity's mentoring scheme, pairing students up with LGBT partners and associates at participating firms, who help them to form action plans to progress in the profession.

Founded by CMS partner Daniel Winterfeldt in 2008, Interlaw is a forum for LGBT networks in law firms and anyone in the LGBT legal community. It has over 1,000 members and supporters from more than 70 law firms and 40 corporates and financial institutions aiming to encourage LGBT diversity and inclusion in the legal sector. Membership is free and available to anyone within the LGBT legal community.

LAGLA organises social events in and around Soho, with regular attendees including law students, trainees, solicitors, barristers and even the occasional judge. Alongside these more informal get-togethers, LAGLA also hosts lectures, seminars and conferences and membership is free.

Spurred on by the success of law firm-sponsored initiatives like those above, the Bar launched this forum in 2016. A group of sets including Matrix, No5 Chambers and Hardwicke have got together with Stonewall to support LGBT barristers through their careers. It's the Bar's first LGBT forum, and the first law LGBT group to explicitly to include straight allies.

BLAGG was founded in 1994 by students at the Inns of Court School of Law (now City Law School). The group hosts a variety of events as well as a free legal service to assist lesbians and gay men. If you've been called to the Bar you can become a member for free, but donations are appreciated. Students take note: BLAGG members regularly present at BPTC providers and attend the National Pupillage Fair too. There's also a sponsorship scheme, which links students up with barristers who can offer guidance and support.

Whilst nobody can attend a parade this year (yet!), it is my hope we can all take this time to educate ourselves, and by doing so we can take positive steps towards ending discrimination in the future. However you choose to celebrate or commemorate the occasion, Happy Pride 2020 to all.

Written by Chloe Lydell.

News Reporter

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