Celebrating 50 Years of UK Pride: Milestones in LGBT History

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Recalling the early years of UK Pride, Gay Liberation Front‘s Peter Tatchell said of 1972:

‘Back then, Pride was very political… We got mixed reactions from the public. Some were hostile. Many were curious or bewildered. Most had never knowingly seen a gay person, let alone hundreds of queers marching to demand freedom. They just gawped.’

Now a widespread celebration, with June igniting the cannons of LGBT Pride month around the world, it’s fair to say that Pride has come a long way since its initial tepid reception.

With this year marking the 50th anniversary of the first-ever UK Pride parade, we’ve taken a look back at how the LGBTQ+ movement has overcome setbacks, pushed for equality, and ultimately made history over the past 50 years.

The ‘70s

1970: First same-sex kiss is broadcast on British television

BBC’s broadcast of Edward II saw the first on-screen kiss between two men, Edward (Ian McKellen) and Gaveston (James Laurenson), on British TV. Notably, homosexuality was only made legal in England three years prior.

‘And of course, since, I’ve heard from people I shall never meet saying I’m so grateful to you for that kiss, which I was watching in Indiana with my parents, and we had a good conversation about it afterwards and I’m now a happily married gay man… So it was wonderful.’ McKellen told BBC’s media editor years later

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1970: Gay Liberation Front is founded

Lauded as Britain’s first LGBT movement, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) had its first meeting on 13 October 1970. Inspired by the Stonewall Riots, which took place in New York a year before, British activists Bob Mellors and Aubrey Walter set up the group to advocate rights for the LGBTQ+ community. Two years later, the group would go on to organise the first-ever UK Pride march.

April 1972: First issue of Sappho magazine is published

Set up by a group to ‘educate society about the true facts of lesbianism, support lesbians and women’s causes’, Sappho invited contributions on lesbianism, feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK.

June 1972: First gay newspaper gets distribution

Gay News, Britain’s first independent gay newspaper, was founded by members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The newspaper put out a call for media related to both political and social prejudices and advances in the movement for LGBT rights. It also campaigned for law reform.

During its run, Gay News and its editors were often in the courts, being charged with obstruction (1972), obscenity (1974) and blasphemy (1976). Despite this, a successful campaign was launched to push WH Smith, who, at the time, largely controlled newspaper distribution in the UK, to distribute and sell the paper. 

At the newspaper’s height, circulation was around 18,000 copies per issue. It ceased publication on 15 April 1983. 

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1 July 1972: First UK Pride march

The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) organised the UK’s first Gay Pride march in London. The march ran from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park, with around 1,000 people taking part.

Peter Tatchell, an early GLF member, remembers:

Back then, Pride was very political… We got mixed reactions from the public. Some were hostile. Many were curious or bewildered. Most had never knowingly seen a gay person, let alone hundreds of queers marching to demand freedom. They just gawped.’

1974: First lesbian kiss is broadcast on British television

Another first for BBC with the drama Girls, which broadcast British TV’s first lesbian kiss. The drama starred actors Alison Steadman and Myra Frances, who played army corporals and ex-lovers. 

1977: Lemon v Whitehouse – Blasphemy Trial

Mary Whitehouse, founder of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, took Gay News to trial for blasphemy – the first such case in the UK in 50 years. Whitehouse had taken issue with a poem Gay News had published – James Kirkup’s poem titled ‘The Love That Dare not Speak Its Name’, which was about a gay centurion’s love for Jesus. 

Gay News ultimately lost the case, but the legal costs were covered by community donations, known as the Gay News Fighting Fund.

The ’80s

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December 1981: First UK case of AIDS

A 49-year-old man was admitted to Brompton Hospital, London, suffering from Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia. This was later recorded as the first UK case of AIDS. The man died 10 days after admittance. 

1982: Terrence Higgins Trust is established

Terry Higgins dies of AIDS in St. Thomas Hospital. His partner Rupert Whittaker and friends organised the Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s first AIDS charity. The charity set out to ‘raise much needed awareness among affected communities, fund research to give hope and fight for the proper Government response required to stem the tide of lives lost’.  

1985: The Black Lesbian and Gay Centre is founded

The Gay Black Group approached the progressive Greater London Council (GLC) for funding and was approved. The Black Lesbian and Gay Centre was then set up and open to all lesbians and gay men. A year later, however, the GLC was abolished. This meant funding was pulled, and the centre thereon had to rely on donations and membership.

The centre remained active into the 1990s.

May 1988: Controversial Section 28 is enforced

A copy of the picture book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bosche was found in a library in 1983, causing a public outcry. The Daily Mail criticised local councils for promoting homosexuality to children at the taxpayer’s expense.

The outcry resulted in the now-infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Section 28 banned local authorities from expressly supporting homosexuality. Funding was subsequently withdrawn from various arts projects, and educational resources that ‘prompt[ed] an alternative gay family’ were censored.

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Section 28 was abolished in Scotland in 2000. For England and Wales, the ban wasn’t lifted until 2003. In 2009, British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a public apology for it.

1989: Sir Ian McKellen helps to establish Stonewall

In response to Section 28, Sir Ian McKellen came out on BBC Radio 3. In 1989, he co-founded Stonewall, a group set up to campaign and lobby for LGBTQ+ rights.

Stonewall was granted charitable status in 2003.

The ‘90s

1990: OutRage! founded

OutRage!, the LGBT human rights group, was founded following an increase in murders and targeted policing of gay people. The group was set up by Keith Alcorn, Chris Woods, Simon Watney and Peter Tatchell.

OutRage! was the most prominent gay rights group in the UK until disbanding in 2011.

1992: World Health Organization (WHO) removes homosexuality as a mental disorder

After 24 years, homosexuality was removed from the World Health Organization’s list of mental disorders. Until its declassification, many LGBTQ+ people in the UK were subjected to harmful counselling, as well as aversion and conversion treatments, to try to ‘cure’ their sexuality.

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February 1994: Age of consent for gay men reduced to 18

Conservative MP Edwina Currie motioned to lower the age of consent for homosexual acts from 21 to 16, in line with the age for heterosexual acts. The vote was ultimately defeated, and the gay male age of consent was lowered to 18 instead. It would take another 7 years for the motion to successfully pass.

The lesbian age of consent was not set.

The 2000s

2000: UK Government lifts ban on LGBT people serving in the Armed Forces

Before the millennium, gay, lesbian and bisexual people were not allowed to serve in the Armed Forces. If their sexual orientation became known, they risked being fired.

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2001: Age of consent for gay/bi men is lowered to 16

After several defeats, the Labour Government succeeded in reducing the age of consent to 16 for gay men. This is now in line with the heterosexual age of consent.

2002: Equal rights for adoption are granted

The Adoption and Children Act made it possible for unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, to adopt and foster children in the UK. Before this, neither same-sex couples nor unmarried heterosexual couples had this right.

2003: Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations

The passing of this legislation made it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. These regulations ‘prohibited employers unreasonably discriminating against employees on grounds of sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation, religion or belief and age.’

2003: Repeal of Clause 28 in England and Wales

Section 28 was repealed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (not for the first time). Finally, the ban on ‘promoting’ homosexuality in schools through teaching LGBT-related topics was lifted.

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18 November 2004: Civil Partnership Act

Introduced by the Labour Government, the Act gave same-sex couples the right to register a civil partnership. This allowed them the same rights as married heterosexual couples in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

2004: Gender Recognition Act

This Act allowed transgender people to apply for a new birth certificate, giving them full legal recognition in their appropriate gender. Before this time, gender options were limited to “male” and “female” in the law.

2005: UK Black Pride is established

Co-founded by activist Phyllis Opoku-Gyimah (aka Lady Phyll), Black Pride began in the UK. Starting outing out as a trip to Southend-on-Sea with members of the online social network Black Lesbians in the UK, it has since evolved into Europe’s largest celebration for LGBTQ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Latin American, and Middle Eastern descent.

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2008: The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act

The Act allowed same-sex couples to be recognised as the legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated sperm, eggs or embryos.

The 2010s and beyond

17 July 2013: Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act

While same-sex civil partnerships were made legal in 2004, it wasn’t until a decade later that same-sex marriage became legal. The Marriage & Civil Partnership Act was passed in 2013, with the first same-sex marriage taking place in March 2014. Under this law, same-sex couples who got married abroad – and were then treated as civil partners upon their return to the UK – could now be recognised as married in England and Wales.

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2013: Alan Turing receives posthumous royal pardon

Famous codebreaker Alan Turing was granted a posthumous royal pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. Turing, who had most notably helped crack the Enigma Code, had taken his own life in 1954 – two years after being outed and convicted of ‘indecency’. Eight years following this royal pardon, in March 2021, the Bank of England chose Turing to feature on the new £50 note.

2017: ‘Alan Turing Law’ is passed

After the Alan Turing Law received Royal Assent, posthumous pardons were given to thousands of homosexuals with historical convictions of gross indecency in England and Wales. This new law also allowed those still living to apply to have their convictions erased.

May 2019: World Health Organization (WHO) declassifies ‘Gender Identity Disorder’

In a bid to achieve a ‘liberating effect on transgender people worldwide’, WHO’s governing body voted for new diagnostic guidelines that ditched the categorisation of gender nonconformity as a ‘mental disorder’.

January 2020: Same-Sex Marriage is legalised in Northern Ireland

Same-sex marriage became legally recognised in Northern Ireland in January 2020.

11 May 2021: Government sets out to ban conversion therapy

As part of the annual State Opening of Parliament, Queen Elizabeth stated that the UK would take legislative steps to ban conversion therapy aimed at LGBTQ people.