LGBTQ+ History Month

LGBTQ+ British Milestones: A Timeline

Remembering the challenges and celebrating the achievements of changemakers through the ages in the UK's LGBTQ+ communities.

by Bustle UK
Originally Published: 
Many well known personalities that are a part of UK's LGBTQ+ history
Central Press, Mark Leech/Offside, Gordon Anthony, Maurice Ambler, Steve Eason, David M. Benett, Bettmann, Chris Jackson, Christopher Furlong, Hulton Deutsch, David Parker, Keystone, Evening Standard/Getty Images

Since 2005, February marks a special month in the UK: LGBT History Month. Part of the Schools Out UK project — itself created as a response to the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality and the publishing of any material that “promoted” homosexuality — it aimed to educate and inspire. More than 15 years later, thousands take part in LGBT History Month in the United Kingdom each year.

Stonewall notes that LGBT History Month 2022 coincides with the 50th anniversary of the UK’s first ever Pride event, making this year the perfect time to celebrate the “many momentous achievements” made within the community over the past five decades.

With that in mind, and in honour of LGBT History Month, we have compiled a timeline of important people and moments in the LGBTQ+ community, from 1533 to the present day. Though by no means an exhaustive list, or a substitute for more inclusive education in the UK, it is a chance to highlight events and individuals many of us were not taught about in school.

There are a number of great resources, charities, activists, and causes worth supporting also, but let this be a starting point.

1533 — The Buggery Act is passed by Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII

The 1533 Buggery Act is the first time in law that male homosexuality was targeted for persecution. Convictions were punishable by death.

1730s — Princess Seraphina becomes the United Kingdom’s first drag queen

Princess Seraphina, aka John Cooper, is described as the country’s first drag queen. A regular at molly houses (the equivalent of a gay bar) across London, there are no reports of Seraphina ever being arrested.

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1770s — Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, becomes the first known lesbian

Female homosexuality was not considered a criminal offence, and as such, "evidence" is often difficult to find. However, we know that in the 18th century there was an acceptance of same-sex "romantic friendship," according to English Heritage. One of the more famous cases of such friendship was linked with Chiswick House and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Letters between her and Mary Graham, and later Lady Elizabeth Foster, lead us to believe that they were lovers.

1828 — The Buggery Act is replaced

The Offences Against the Person Act 1828 replaced the Buggery Act, with language focused on male same-sex activity, which remained punishable by death.

1885 — The Criminal Law Amendment Act is passed

Commonly known as the Labouchere Amendment, Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 was used to prosecute those who committed “acts of gross indecency with male persons.” The act was worded in such an ambiguous way that it became known as “The Blackmailer's Charter,” as it encouraged blackmail against men who engaged in homosexual acts.

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1861 — The Offences Against the Person Act is passed

In 1861, new legislation replaced the Offences Against the Person Act of 1828, revoking the death penalty for homosexual acts between men but replacing it with a prison term of hard labour. Oscar Wilde was sent to prison under this act. Per the British Library, “often a letter expressing terms of affection between two men was all that was required to bring a prosecution.”

1866 — Hyde v. Hyde and Woodmansee establishes the common law definition of marriage

The ruling at the court case of Hyde v. Hyde and Woodmansee about a polygamous marriage defines marriage as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others,” with major implications for years to come.

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1938 — Douglas Byng becomes the first female impersonator on television

Byng later went on to have his own shows, including Byng Ho! and Queue for a Song. Per the BBC, Byng was openly gay within his own theatrical world but very discreet outside it.

1946 — Michael Dillon is the first trans man in the United Kingdom to undergo phalloplasty

Michael Dillon was the first person in the United Kingdom to undergo hormone treatment and gender confirming surgery. The British physician published an autobiography in 1946 titled Self: A Study in Endocrinology, recounting his “journey from Laura to Michael, and the surgeries undertaken by pioneering surgeon Sir Harold Gillies.”

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1951 — Roberta Cowell becomes the first trans woman in the United Kingdom to undergo vaginoplasty

The former racing and World War II pilot, "Betty" Cowell was the first known person in Britain — and among the first in the world — to undergo pioneering gender confirmation surgery, per the Independent. She also published an autobiography in 1954.

1957 — The Wolfenden Report calls for the decriminalisation of gay sex

The Wolfenden Committee was formed in response to the arrests of British cryptographer Alan Turing (in 1952) and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (in 1954) under the Criminal Law Amendment Act (which came into force in 1885, see above). Interrogating the legitimacy of this law, the Wolfenden Report recommended the “decriminalisation of gay sex between consenting adults over 21, except in the armed forces.” Led by Sir John Wolfenden, it was supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, but was refused by the government.

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1961 — April Ashley becomes the first trans person in the United Kingdom to be outed by the press

“‘Her’ Secret is Out,” the Sunday People headline read, outing Vogue model April Ashley as transgender. Her modeling career came to an end, but she was made an MBE in 2012 for her campaign work for the transgender community.

1967 — The Sexual Offences Act is passed

Picking up where the Wolfenden Report left off, the Sexual Offences Act was passed in England and Wales in 1967, “decriminalising acts between two men, both over the age of 21, in private.” If more than two people were present, this was still deemed illegal. Meanwhile, the age of consent for heterosexuals (and lesbians, who were largely ignored by the law) was 16.

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1970 — The first same-sex kiss is broadcast on British television

The BBC’s broadcast of Edward II in 1970 saw the first on-screen same-sex kiss, between actors Ian McKellen and James Laurenson. “It was still considered an outrageous play, after all, perhaps, the first drama ever written with a homosexual hero,” McKellen recalls.

1970 — The Gay Liberation Front met for the first time in the United Kingdom

The first U.K. meeting of the Gay Liberation Front was on Oct. 13, 1970, at the London School of Economics, where founding member Bob Mellors was a student.

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1972 — The United Kingdom’s first Gay Pride march takes place

The United Kingdom’s Gay Liberation Front held the first Gay Pride march in London in 1972. The event was launched in response to the 1969 Stonewall Riots and ran from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park, with around 2,000 people participating.

1974 — The first lesbian kiss is broadcast on British television

The BBC’s 35-minute drama Girls saw the first broadcast lesbian kiss, between actors Alison Steadman and Myra Frances, who played army corporals and ex-lovers. The first pre-watershed lesbian kiss didn’t come until 1994, however, between Beth Jordache (played by Anna Friel) and Margaret Clemence (played by Nicola Stephenson) in Channel 4’s Brookside.

1979 — The first documentary about the transgender experience airs on British TV

A Change of Sex aired on BBC2 in 1979, and followed the story of Julia Grant and her transitioning.

1980 — The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act is passed

The Scottish equivalent of the Sexual Offences Act was put into law in 1980, 13 years after England and Wales, decriminalising sex between two men “in private.” The age of consent for gay and bisexual men was given as 18.

1982 — Lesbian group opens community centre in Camden

Founded by the Camden Women's Committee, the first lesbian group opened a community centre on London's Phoenix Road. The Camden Lesbian Centre operated for many years and housed groups including the lesbian disability group GEMMA and Zamimass, a significant Black lesbian organisation that promoted a Black lesbian and gay section on the Pride march. Funding troubles led to its closure in the 1990s.

1982 — The Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order is passed

The decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in Northern Ireland was largely thanks to the case of Jeff Dudgeon, a gay rights activist from Belfast, who filed a complaint with the European Commission of Human Rights after being interrogated by the Royal Ulster Constabulary about his sexual activity. The ECHR found that Northern Ireland’s criminalisation of same-sex acts violated Article 8, “which states that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life including his home and correspondence.”

1984 — Black Lesbian group established

Two years after the establishment of Camden’s Lesbian group, see above, a separate Black Lesbian group was established "specifically for diverse women who in addition to facing sexual discrimination also had to overcome the difficulties brought on by racial and ethnic difference," per Glasgow Women's Library.

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1984 — The United Kingdom’s first openly gay MP is in Parliament

Chris Smith has been instrumental in changing gay lives, becoming the first openly gay MP in 1984; he went on to become the first gay cabinet minister and the first political figure to admit to being HIV-positive.

1985 — The Black Lesbian and Gay Centre is established

The Black Lesbian and Gay Centre, created to provide advice, counseling, a library, and other resources for the Black queer community, received government funding and was established. Funding was pulled in 1986, forcing the centre to rely on donations and membership, which it did until the 1990s.

1986 — The first issue of Black/Out magazine is published

Edited by Joseph Beam and published by the nonprofit organisation National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, Black/Out was a quarterly magazine and the voice of the new movement of Black Lesbians and Gays. "Our name, Black/Out is intentionally a pun," explains Beam in the first issue. "Although birthed by Latino and Black drag queens at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, the Gay rights movement, an essentially white movement, has failed to embrace us... In short, there has been a 'blackout' surrounding our lives, our visions, our contributions, which Black/Out seeks to end."

1988 — Section 28 legislation is passed

The now-infamous Local Government Act's Section 28 legislation was in effect from May 1988 to 2003, denying local authorities the ability to support LGBTQ+ constituents, as funding was withdrawn from arts projects and educational resources that promoted “an alternative gay family” were censored. In 2009, then Prime Minister David Cameron issued a public apology for this legislation.

1989 — Sir Ian McKellen helps to establish Stonewall in response to Section 28

In response to the Section 28 legislation, Sir Ian McKellen came out publicly during a debate on BBC Radio 3 in 1988, co-founding Stonewall with 13 others a year later. As the Stonewall website states: “The aim from the outset was to create a professional lobbying group that would prevent such attacks on lesbians, gay, and bi people from ever occurring again. Stonewall has subsequently put the case for equality on the mainstream political agenda by winning support within all the main political parties and now has offices in England, Scotland, and Wales.”

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1990 — Justin Fashanu becomes the first professional footballer to come out

Justin Fashanu broke new ground when he told newspapers he was gay in 1990. He remains the only male footballer to come out while playing professionally in the top tiers.

1994 — The age of consent for homosexual acts is lowered to 18

The Conservative MP Edwina Currie introduced an amendment to the age of consent for homosexual acts in 1991. MPs voted on bringing the age down from 21 to 16 in line with the heterosexual acts, but the vote was defeated. Instead, the age of consent was lowered to 18 in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. A lesbian age of consent was still left out of the conversation.

2000 — The age of consent for homosexual acts is lowered to 16 in England, Wales and Scotland

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 changed the legal age of consent for homosexual people to 16 in England, Wales, and Scotland and to 17 in Northern Ireland. In 2008, Northern Ireland passed the Sexual Offences Order, which lowered it to 16.

2000 — Gay, lesbian and bisexual people can now serve in the British Armed Forces

Until 2000, gay, lesbian and bisexual people were not permitted to serve in the armed forces. This ban was lifted in 2000, the same year the age of consent for gay men was lowered to 16.

2002 — Same-sex couples are given equal rights to adopt in England and Wales

In 2002, the Adoption and Children Act made is possible for gay and lesbian people, whether single or in a couple, to adopt and foster children in England and Wales. Similar legislation was adopted in Scotland in 2009 and in Northern Ireland in 2013.

2003 — Employment Equality Regulations are passed

These regulations made it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. The Equality Act would later be introduced in 2010, which “legislates for equal treatment in access to employment regardless of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.”

2004 — The Gender Recognition Act is passed

Defined in 2004, and going into effect in 2005, this act gave trans people full legal recognition in their appropriate gender, allowing them to also acquire a new birth certificate. At the time, gender options were limited to "male" and "female."

2005 — UK Black Pride established

The brainchild of Phyll Opoku Gyimah (aka Lady Phyl), Black Pride began as a trip to Southend-on-Sea with members of the online social network Black Lesbians in the UK. It has since grown to become Europe's largest celebration for LGBTQ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Latin American, and Middle Eastern descent.

2007 — John Amaechi becomes to first NBA to come out

The English-Nigerian psychologist, New York Times best-selling author, and former professional basketball player Amaechi became the first NBA player to speak publicly about being gay when he came out in February 2007. He often speaks out on what keeps athletes from coming out.

2010 — The Equality Act becomes law

In 2010, The Equality Act became law. Introduced under the former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the act protects people from discrimination in the work place, and private and public services, regardless of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

The Equality Act does not apply in Northern Ireland, and some raised concerns over the legilisation as it permitted religious institutions to refuse same-sex marriages based on their beliefs.

2013 — Alan Turing receives posthumous royal pardon

The pioneeringc ryptographer Alan Turing helped break the German Enigma code during the Second World War. Despite his honourable services to the United Kingdom, Turing was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 and subsequently chemically castrated. Per BBC, Turing was posthumously pardoned in 2013 under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy following a request by the former Justice Minister, Chris Grayling.

2014 Same-sex marriage is legalised in England, Wales, and Scotland

While civil partnerships for same-sex couples were made legal in 2004, it wasn’t until 2014 that same-sex marriage became legal, allowing the same opportunities as heterosexual couples. The Marriage & Civil Partnership Act was passed in 2013 came into effect in 2014, with the first same-sex marriages taking place in England and Wales on March 29 and in Scotland on Dec. 31.

2014 — Proud Asian LGBTQ & Allies march at Pride

Pre-empting the launch of Gaysians, a support network for the South Asian LGBTQIA+ community, the Proud Asian LGBTQ & Allies marched in London Pride for the first time.

2014 — Asifa Lahore became Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen

In 2014, Lahore entered the national spotlight when the Birmingham Central Mosque censored her from discussing Islam and homosexuality on the BBC's Free Speech. She went on to feature in Channel 4’s Muslim Drag Queens in 2015, which was watched by 1.1 million viewers.

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2015 — A trans man plays a trans character on British TV soap for the first time

Riley Carter Millington joined the cast of Eastenders in 2015, becoming the first trans man to play a trans character in a U.K. soap.

2017 — The Met Police appoints the first openly LGBTQ+ commissioner

Cressida Dick became the first woman and the first from the LGBTQ+ community to hold the rank of commissioner in the Metropolitan Police Force.

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2017 — The Alan Turing Law receives royal assent

An amendment to a clause in The Policing and Crime Act 2017, more commonly known as the Alan Turing Law as it was modeled after the codebreaker’s royal pardon years earlier, “pardoned all historic instances of criminal convictions of gross indecency against men.” It only applies to convictions in England and Wales.

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2018 — Lord Ivar Mountbatten becomes the first member of the extended British royal family to come out publicly

Son of the third marquess of Milford Haven and cousin to the queen, Mountbatten came out as gay in 2016 and married James Coyle in 2018 at his country estate in Devon. Mountbatten’s best man was his ex-wife, Penny Thompson, whom he married in 1994 and divorced in 2011.

2019 — The Traveller community join Pride for the first time

July 6, 2019, marked the first time that Travellers had official representation at a Pride march in the United Kingdom. 20+ LGBT+ Travellers, including Romany Gypsies, Irish Travellers, Roma, Boaters/Bargees, Showmen, and New Travellers, marched in London.

2020 — Same Sex Marriage is legalised in Northern Ireland

Following the enactment of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act in 2019, same-sex marriage became legally recognised in Northern Ireland in January 2020. Couples who are already in a civil partnership are still not be able to covert it to a marriage, though.

2021 — Alan Turing becomes the face of the £50 note

In March 2021, the Bank of England unveiled the new £50 note featuring scientist Alan Turing, who is well known for his codebreaking work that helped end the Second World War. Shortly after its public unveiling, the £50 note was issued for the first time on June 23, 2021, coinciding with what would have been Turing’s birthday.

2021 — The UK’s first LGBTQ+ retirement community opens

The UK’s first LGBTQ+ affirmative retirement facility opened in London in September 2021. Overlooking the River Thames, the facility was officially launched by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and aims to “support people in later life, ensuring they don’t feel the need to go back in the closet, which is a typical story for many older LGBT+ people accessing care or housing.”

Contributions by Sam Ramsden, Aimée Grant-Cumberbatch, Rowena Henley, Charlie Mock, and Sam Rogers.

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