Gay, proud - and silent?

From criminal offence to human rights convention

In 1885 gay sex became a criminal offence. Buggery had been a crime since 1533, but a new law made it illegal for any man to commit an act of "gross indecency" with another man. In 1921 the House of Lords rejected attempts to criminalise lesbian sex for fear that to do so "might bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it".

The Sexual Offences Act 1967 brought in limited reform in England and Wales (Scotland didn't follow suit until 1981, and Northern Ireland until 1982). Gay sex became legal between two consenting adults aged at least 21 if conducted in private.

Section 28 of the Local Government Act, passed in 1988, forbade local authorities from "intentionally promoting homosexuality". In theory this meant libraries could be forced to stop stocking books by gay authors.

In February 1994, in a free vote, the House of Commons dropped the gay age of consent from 21 to 18, but rejected campaigners' demands for the same age of consent as heterosexuals, which is 16.

Euan Sutherland took his case - started when he was 17 - to the European Commission for Human Rights in May 1996. He argued that an unequal age of consent was in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. The commission decided there had been a prima facie breach. The Government will have to defend the law at the European Court of Human Rights.

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