Politics

Britain finally equalised the age of consent 20 years ago today amid a bitter, toxic debate. But is history repeating itself?

Patrick Kelleher November 30, 2020
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protesters holding placards with messages reading 'equalise gay age of consent' and scrap all anti-gay laws'

Outrage! protest over the age of gay consent outside House of Lords as debate goes on inside, London 22 July 1998. (Photofusion/Universal Images Group/Getty)

It’s bee 20 years since the age of consent was finally equalised for gay and bisexual men in the UK after a bruising, years-long campaign from queer activists.

On 30 November, 2000, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act was finally passed by the the UK government, lowering the age of consent for gay and bisexual men to 16 in England, Scotland and Wales, and 17 in Northern Ireland.

The debate surrounding the age of consent for gay and bisexual men in the UK began as early as 1957, when the Wolfenden Report first recommended that the ban on homosexuality be overturned. Crucially, that same report also recommended that the age of consent for gay and bisexual men be set at 21, a full five years later than for straight people.

A decade on, the recommendations made in that report finally made it into law in the form of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. As was recommended in the Wolfenden Report, gay and bisexual men would be allowed to have sex, but only in certain circumstances – and only when they were aged over 21.

According to historian Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, this “discriminatory provision” was added to the law to reflect “the longstanding association between homosexuality and corruption, particularly the corruption of the young by the older, supposedly ‘hardened’ homosexuals”.

The House of Lords repeatedly blocked any efforts to equalise the age of consent for gay and bisexual men.

In the years that followed, the debate around the age of consent continued – but it wasn’t until 1994 when the law finally started to change. Conservative MP Edwina Currie, joined by more than 40 Tory MPs, proposed an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill to equalise the age of consent in 1994. The amendment was voted down by parliament, but MPs did agree to lower the age of consent for gay and bisexual men to 18.

However, the fight was not yet won, with queer men still not granted the same rights as their straight counterparts.

In 1998, Labour MP Ann Keen introduced an amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill in an effort to equalise the age of consent, and it passed with a majority of 207 in the House of Commons. But when it went to the House of Lords, it was firmly rejected by a majority of 168.

The government dropped the bill temporarily, but it was revived later that year and once again sailed through the Commons only to be blocked by the Lords. This second rejection prompted the government to invoke the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, which limited the powers of the House of Lords to block acts. Finally, the age of consent was on track to be equalised.

On 30 November, 2000, speaker Michael Martin announced the passage of the Act and it received Royal Assent several hours later.

This is a piece of legislation driven by Metropolitan, London attitudes and is completely out of step with the rest of the country.

But the government’s decision to effectively bypass the House of Lords did not pass without controversy. Baroness Young, the former Tory minister who fought tirelessly against equalising the age of consent, said the government’s invoking of the Parliament Acts was a “constitutional outrage”.

“This is a piece of legislation driven by metropolitan, London attitudes and is completely out of step with the rest of the country,” Baroness Young said at the time.

Religious leaders, unsurprisingly, were horrified. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, the then-archbishop of Canterbury George Carey came together with Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Yousof Bhailok, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, to condemn the legal change.

The letter said: “There are strong moral and health objections to what is proposed, which also goes against the beliefs of many religious people – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. The bill has been subject to a free vote in both houses, and should be a matter of conscience.”

Responding to the backlash, Sebastian Sandys of Stonewall told BBC News: “The archbishop and his co-signatories cannot cherry-pick the law because they disagree with the House of Commons… Most other civilised countries in the world have an equal age of consent and we do not believe that the dire predictions of the archbishop and Baroness Young have any basis in reality.

Some arms of Britain’s media responded in a similar fashion to religious leaders. The Daily Mail published a comment article titled: “Big step in the wrong direction”, while The Sun branded it a “vote of shame”.

“MPs will take a giant stride along the road to moral degeneration today,” an editorial published in The Sun on the day of the vote said.

“They will vote for homosexual relations to be legal at 16. The move is part of political correctness, part deliberate blindness to the need for strong moral guidance. Making gay sex legal at 16 is nothing to do with equality of the sexes.”

Now, 20 years on, LGBT+ people and allies are reflecting on the viciousness of that debate – and many are drawing parallels with the ongoing “debate” around trans lives, which is playing out in the British press on an almost daily basis.

 

 

Related topics: age of consent, Edwina Currie

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