On January 31st, 2017, the government enacted Turing’s Law, pardoning the past convictions of over 49,000 homosexual and bisexual men. The law, named after famous WW2 codebreaker Alan Turing, has cleared the convictions of anyone charged by historical ‘indecency’ laws, following Turing’s own posthumous pardoning in 2013. Historically, British law treated LGBT individuals in a fashion unacceptable to many modern observers.
In 1967, the Sexual Offences Act was passed. The Act legalised consensual homosexual acts (over the age of 21) in England and Wales, previously an offence punishable by imprisonment or, in Turing’s case, chemical castration. It was not until 1980 that Scotland decriminalised homosexual acts under the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act. Northern Ireland followed suit in 1982 with the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order. After prolonged campaigning, the age of consent for homosexual intercourse was lowered to 18, after MP Edwina Currie’s amendment to lower the age of consent to 16 was defeated. It was not until 2013 that the government passed legislation allowing homosexual marriage; the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was passed by parliament in July 2013 and the first homosexual couples were wed on 29th March 2014.
For centuries, homosexual acts have been illegal in Britain. In fact, the earliest known law criminalising homosexuality was introduced in 43 AD during the Roman conquest of Britain. In 1533, Henry VIII passed the Buggery Act, which made all male-male sexual activity punishable by death and the lesser offence of “attempted buggery” punishable by 2 years in jail and several hours in the stocks. In 1541 this colourful act was enacted to continue in force “forever”. Several monarchs after Henry introduced further laws, although others defied them; King James I England was famously in affairs with the Duke of Lennox, a married father of 5; the Earl of Somerset; and the Duke of Buckingham.
In 1828, the Buggery Act was repealed by the Offences Against the Person Act, but ‘buggery’ remained punishable by death. The punishment was not to be lightened until 1861, by which point 8921 men had been prosecuted for sodomy, of whom 404 were sentenced to death and 56 executed (since 1806). The Criminal Law amendment act of 1885 prohibited gross indecency, making it possible to prosecute homosexuals without evidence of them committing sexual acts; Oscar Wilde was charged with this very offence in 1895 and was punished with 2 years imprisonment.