British LGBTQ+ history has an involved and often traumatic relationship to the Law. At the Bodleian Law Library (BLL), we’ve taken the opportunity to highlight some of those relationships through a display of our primary and secondary collections. In this post, we want to briefly touch on just a few pieces of legislation, currently on display or accessible on open shelf in the BLL, that were vital to the progression of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK, showing how the Law Library can be a key resource for studying its history.
In 1954, Peter Wildeblood, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Michael Pitt-Rivers were convicted for “consensual homosexual offences” and sentenced to 12 to 18 months in prison. The trial invigorated a reform movement that triggered a Commons “committee on homosexual offences” that, in 1957, would publish the seminal Wolfenden Report, which advised that “‘Homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offence”. The report was debated in parliament, but the government did not act on its recommendations, galvanising new organisations agitating for gay rights, such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society (a 1960s report of the Society is on display in the Law Library). Also in the Law Library, you can read the Wolfenden Report itself, as well as Wildeblood’s brave memoir Against the Law, which appeared in the same year.
The library-held collections of historical and in-force statutes (such as Halsbury’s or online legal databases like Westlaw or Lexis+ subscribed to by the Bodleian – see the list of legal databases at Legal databases | Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk); not quite as up to date but freely accessible to everyone is the government’s own Legislation.gov.uk) are a key source of LGBTQ+ history. In 1967, ten year after the recommendations in the Wolfenden report, the Sexual Offences Act finally decriminalised in-private sex between men over 21 (i.e. only a partial decriminalisation: the age of consent, moreover, was not equalised until 2000). Another key statute is the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which finally gave Trans people the legal right to full recognition of their gender (we also hold the 2018 parliamentary consultation material regarding its reform). And there is the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act of 2013, which legalised gay marriage, or the 2010 Equality Act, Britain’s key anti-discrimination legislation. All these laws have a direct impact on people’s daily lives and experiences, as well as our sense of what kind of society we are and/or want to be.
The BLL does not only hold the final product when it comes to legislation. In the Official Papers collection, the often fascinating (and not rarely disturbing) parliamentary history of LGBTQ+ – related legislation can be followed, for instance through the debate reports printed in Hansard (also online at https://hansard.parliament.uk/). From the first discussion of Lesbianism in parliament in 1921 (a Criminal Law Amendment bill, which would have criminalised all sex between women, was defeated in the House of Lords that year) to the long history of the repeal of the repressive section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 (which prohibited the so-called “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities, inspiring the activism of Stonewall and OutRage!), readers can discover how House discussions and committee reports reflected (or not) debates, prejudices, advocacy and reform in wider society. Behind the glass of the main reading room, for instance, three volumes on display chart the repeal of section 28: from the 1988 introduction of the paragraph which offensively termed gay partnerships “pretended family relationships” into the 1986 Local Government Act, over the introduction of repeal in the Standing Committee stage of the 2003 Local Government Bill, to the eventual enactment of repeal in the Local Government Act 2003 (a government apology, however, did not follow until 2009).
If you want to know more, a good first place to start is the Oxford LibGuide prepared by the Law Library: Home – LGBTI law – Oxford LibGuides at Oxford University. The secondary literature on display until the end of this month in the main reading room, moreover, highlights not only titles about the UK, but also the US, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. On the first floor of the library, in addition, there are extensive collections of statutes from Australia, Canada, India, and many other jurisdictions: on the first of February, for instance, we displayed the Canadian Civil Marriage Act, which legalised same-sex marriage in the country on that day in 2005 (on the same day in 2009, incidentally, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became the prime minister of Iceland, and with it the world’s first openly gay head of government).
There are many more legal resources accessible through the library, either in physical form (such as reports on the trial of Oscar Wilde, notoriously convicted under the infamous Labouchère Amendment of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, at KB65.ENG.WIL on the second floor), or in electronic form. As such, the library constitutes an excellent resource in remembering and making visible LGBTQ+ history, the constraints and repressions that the Law has inflicted, and the trajectory of its reform and the construction of anti-discrimination legislation.