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Gay legal history & issues

Gay history and gay legal history are two intricately intertwined strands of gay culture. Gay legal history is a story of large-scale persecution and discrimination, and so it follows that gay legal history has had a profound effect on the broader development of gay culture.

Ancient Greece was permissive of gays. "Homosexuality," wrote Plato, "is regarded as shameful by barbarians and by those who live under despotic governments just as philosophy is regarded as shameful by them, because it is apparently not in the interest of such rulers to have great ideas engendered in their subjects, or powerful friendships or passionate love - all of which homosexuality is particularly apt to produce… wherever it has been established that it is shameful to be involved in homosexual relationships, this is due to evil on the part of the legislatures, to despotism on the part of the rulers and to cowardism on the part of the governed"

Various sources also imply that discrimination against gays did not begin in earnest with the advent of Christianity, as conventional wisdom dictates, but in the Middle Ages. The Romans are said to have been particularly ambivalent about what people did in their bedrooms besides sleeping and eating dormice; indeed, Julius Caesar is reputed to have carried on a sexual relationship with King Nicomedes IV of Bithynia while ambassador to his kingdom.

The large-scale persecution of gays seems to have begun in the mid-13th Century, with almost every European state passing laws punishing homosexuality with death. This appears to have been a response to a societal backlash against gays which the Church then responded to, not the other way round. Thomas Aquinas attempted to justify the view of gays as sinful on the basis that sex was for reproduction, and so gay sex was against nature; and that the people had a duty to reproduce to increase the population size. The second of these he dismissed as a duty incumbent upon humanity as a whole, and so not applicable to any one individual in isolation.

In dealing with the former he reasoned that gay sex cannot be unnatural simply because it is not what nature intended. Is walking on one's hands sinful? Clearly not. He therefore reasoned that something which is "unnatural" is something which is strongly disapproved of, since the term "natural" contains no inherent moral force. People at the time called homosexuality "the unnatural vice", and so Aquinas concluded that homosexuality was unnatural. The effect that this attitude had on the Church has never been reversed because society at large did not feel strongly enough in favour of gays for it to change its stance, and the mindset has subsequently been entrenched by hundreds of years of religious dogma.

Consensual gay sex was criminalised by the Buggery Act of 1533, and was punishable by death until the passing of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. It was legalised in situations where there was no-one else present in the various parts of the UK from 1967-1982. The age of consent was lowered to 18 in 1994, before being lowered to 16 in 2000 by the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 following the judgment of the European Commission on Human Rights in the case of Sutherland vs. United Kingdom 2001. Today, gay people can marry.

Gay legal history, after eight centuries of discrimination and persecution, appears to be on the up and up, although the battle now must move on from the law and onto combating anti-gay attitudes which are still so prevalent in society. So watch out, Jim Davidson.

Additional Reading

  • LGBT legal history

    Read about the legal history of persecution and discimination of the LGBT community with lgbt.co.uk website.
  • Discrimination Against Gays

    Read how discrimination against gays is reported and what it means for you if you're gay.
  • Lesbian History

    Read our potted history of lesbian same-sex relationships up to modern day.
  • Transgender Legal Rights

    Read more about Transgender Legal Rights and what this actually means for those in the community.
  • A Guide to Legal Advice

    Read our plain English guide for legal advice for a range of issues and the LGBT community.

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