back to top

14 Moments In British LGBT History Everyone Should Know But Doesn't

There's a whole lot of history out there.

Posted on

1. Under the reign of Henry VIII, England passes its first law against sodomy.

Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain) / Hans Holbein / Via commons.wikimedia.org

In 1533, Thomas Cromwell piloted an act through parliament that made sodomy punishable by hanging, which was called "The Buggery Act". It was one of the only crimes for which a priest or monk could be put to death, which could explain why Henry VIII, who was famously at war with the Catholic Church, introduced this law.

Walter Hungerford was the first man executed under this law, in July 1540. Sodomy remained punishable by death until 1861.

2. A crackdown on "molly houses" in the 1720s exposes London's underground gay culture to the wider public.

British Cartoon Prints Collection / Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress (Public Domain) / Via en.wikipedia.org

Margaret "Mother" Clap ran a popular "molly house" in Holborn, which was an underground coffee house where men could meet each other. It ran from 1724 until February 1726, when it was raided by police and over 40 people were arrested, including Clap. She was sentenced to two years in prison, and it's not known what happened to her after that.

This and various other trials around the same time led to public awareness of the city's molly subculture, creating mass outcry during a time when family units and gender roles were considered the key foundation to civil society. An exposé by The London Journal on cruising grounds in Covent Garden and St. James's Park, among other places, resulted in molly houses dying out by the mid-1730s, though they reappeared after the 1750s.

3. Havelock Ellis publishes the first English medical textbook on male homosexuality and argues that homosexuality is a "natural anomaly".

Wellcome Library (CC 4.0) / Via commons.wikimedia.org

British sexologist Havelock Ellis published Sexual Inversion in 1897, arguing that love and sex between men was a natural anomaly that's long been present throughout both human history and the animal kingdom. He wrote that it should be accepted rather than classified as a disease. The book was banned in England soon after its release, under obscenity laws.

4. An amendment to the Criminal Law Act makes it legal to prosecute gay men without "proof" they've had sex with other men.

Wikimedia Commons / Napoleon Sarony (Public Domain) / Via commons.wikimedia.org

During the late 1800s, members of society began to increasingly question gender roles, family structures, and champion civil rights for both white men and women. This, alongside the emergence of sexology as a field, led to a lot of hysteria over "sexual deviants", including gay men. However, the existing Criminal Law Act made it difficult to prosecute gay men, as its penalty of life imprisonment for sodomy was incredibly harsh.

Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, usually referred to as the Labouchere Amendment, made "gross indecency" between men a crime. This act made it much easier to prosecute gay men, rather than trying to prove someone had engaged in sodomy. Both Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were among the men prosecuted under this law.

5. In August 1921, the House of Lords rejects a proposal to criminalise sex between women...because they are worried more women would start doing it.

Getty Images / Topical Press Agency

The pre-existing Criminal Law Act was amended and passed in the House of Commons to make "acts of gross indecency" between women illegal in 1921. However, the House of Lords were worried the amendment would draw attention to and promote lesbianism – especially in the midst of increased political mobilisation of women, like the Suffragette movement – and didn't pass it. During the debate in the House of Lords, the Earl of Malmesbury stated, "The more you advertise vice by prohibiting it the more you will increase it."

6. Radclyffe Hall's novel, The Well of Loneliness, is banned in the UK following a highly publicised obscenity trial.

Getty Images / Fox Photos

The Well of Loneliness is a novel about a woman who discovers she's a "sexual invert" (a term then used to refer to gay people) that was published in July 1928. The Sunday Express newspaper launched a campaign against the novel in August, arguing that it was harmful to children and society: "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel”.

An obscenity trial took place in November 1928, where the court ruled that all copies of the book should be destroyed. They believed the novel defended "unnatural practices between women" and would "deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences".

7. Roberta Cowell becomes the first known British trans woman to undergo sex re-assignment surgery.

Getty Images / Michael Stroud

Roberta Cowell was a racing driver and fighter pilot during World War II. She experienced gender dysphoria for much of her life, and after meeting with a sexologist, realised her "unconscious mind was predominantly female." Cowell started to take oestrogen and secretly underwent a surgical procedure so she could be declared intersex. This allowed her to update her birth certificate to the correct gender, and undergo sex re-assignment surgery in 1948, making her the first British woman to do so.

8. The 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalises male homosexuality in England and Wales.

Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Ten years after the groundbreaking Wolfenden Report, which concluded, "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence", parliament passed The Sexual Offences Act. The Act decriminalised sex between two men, in private, over the age of 21, in both England and Wales. The Act did not apply to Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, or the Isle of Man, and the privacy restriction meant two men could not have sex in a hotel.

9. London's first Gay Pride march is held on 1 July, 1972.

Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain) / LSE Library / Via commons.wikimedia.org

The Gay Liberation Front organised London's first Gay Pride in 1972. Attendees marched from Oxford Street to Hyde Park in a carnival-style parade, and there was a heavy police presence across the entire route.

10. The first UK organisation for black LGBT people launches.

Getty Images / Mike Moore

During the early '80s, a variety of black and Asian LGBT groups emerged in Britain. One of these was the Lesbian and Gay Black Group, which regularly met at Gay's The Word bookshop, which was a cornerstone of the London LGBT community. These groups played an important role in challenging racist and sexist attitudes towards LGBT people of colour and offering a system of support that more mainstream groups could not.

11. Anne Lister's 4-million-word diary is decoded and reveals intimate details about her various relationships with women.

Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain) / Joshua Horner / Via commons.wikimedia.org

Anne Lister, a landowner from Yorkshire, kept a really detailed diary from 1806 until her death in 1840, and around one-sixth was written in code. In the late 1980s, historian Helena Whitbread decoded the diaries to reveal graphic accounts of Lister's relationships and affairs with various women over the course of her life.

12. The first UK lobbying group to protect interests of the LGBT community is founded.

Fæ / CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1989, Stonewall was founded by a group who opposed an offensive piece of legislation called Section 28 that stigmatized lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in schools. Since then, they've lobbied to promote LGB interests and since 2015 have also been working towards trans equality. The group has achieved numerous victories including the legalisation of openly gay servicemen and women in the military, equalising the age of consent, and legalising marriage between gay, lesbian, and bi people.

13. Justin Fashanu becomes the first openly gay professional footballer in English football.

Getty Images / Allsport UK

In October 1990, Justin Fashanu came out as gay in an interview with The Sun, becoming the first openly gay professional footballer. Throughout the rest of his tragically short life, Justin faced racism and homophobia both on and off the field, and after he came out, no club offered him a full-time contract.

14. The first piece of trans discrimination case law to find an employer guilty of discrimination is argued here in the UK.

Chris Mansfield / Getty Images / Via gettyimages.co.uk

In 1996, the court found an employer guilty of sexual discrimination for dismissing a trans woman from her position after she wrote to notify her employer that she would be undergoing sex reassignment from male to female and would like to return to work as a woman. This landmark decision was the first case law anywhere in the world to prevent discrimination because a person is transsexual.

Did you know same-sex relationships are still illegal in 72 countries?

Absolut has partnered with Stonewall, Britain’s largest LGBTQ charity, to raise awareness and funds for them to advance LGBTQ equality internationally. Text STONEWALL to 70300 to donate £5*.

To shine a light on the 72 countries, Absolut has created a poster series, shot by photographer Sam Bradley, featuring many of the individuals from these 72 countries sharing a same-sex kiss to celebrate their own freedom of expression. From the 3rd until 6th August the images will also be displayed to the public as one collection at East London’s Protein Gallery (31 New Inn Yard, Shoreditch, London EC2A 3EY). Follow @AbsolutUK and visit www.KissWithPride.com for more info.

*You will be charged £5 plus one message at your standard network rate. Stonewall will receive 100%. You must obtain permission from the bill payer before sending a text message. You must be 16 years old or over to send a text donation.
Your data will be held in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998 and we will never share your data with third parties except where such transfer is a necessary part of our activities, or we are required to do so by operation of law.
Please view our full Privacy Policy at www.stonewall.org.uk/about-us/privacy-policy