Gay rights: From the past to the present and on to the future

"Pride Flag.

At Howard Kennedy, inclusion and diversity is a key part of our personality. We are proud to celebrate our LGBTQ+ colleagues. June 2021 is our Pride Awareness Month. It's an opportunity for us to learn and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community, as well as hopefully educate and inform others. In a series of articles, we will be educating on each initialism that makes up LGBTQ+. 


The gay rights movement has fought for decades to ensure those with a different sexual orientation receive equal treatment under the law and has fundamentally altered how they are viewed by wider society. It is inextricably linked with the origins of Stonewall. Whilst many had been advancing pro-gay rights for years, it was founded following a series of brutal police raids in June 1969, on a series of Manhattan Inns, including that which bore its name. 

Fast forward 40 years. Both Stonewall and the many groups which followed in its steps hold a proud record, having advocated for and brought about significant change. UK Society has moved on significantly from the bad old days of Section 28, which infamously sought to prohibit the "promotion of homosexuality", as well as the widespread harassment of members of the gay community, for no reason other than their sexual orientation. 

Milestones in the UK 

For example, in 2000 and following a long legal battle, gay personnel were finally permitted to join and serve in the armed forces. This milestone marked the beginning of a new millennium and represented a landmark moment of real social and legal change, for the entire community in England and Wales. 

Following this notable early success, civil right groups were ecstatic when the Adoption and Children Act 2002 came into force paving the way for a new form of family unit: one in which a child could be adopted by same-sex couples in a Civil Partnership. This shift in the law was important but the broader impact was enormous. Often, we find that primary legislation is a reflection of society at that time but here was an example of government actively driving for social change. 

Despite the gaining momentum in gay rights legislation in the early 2000s, the following years were void of further meaningful progress. This changed in 2010, when the Equalities Act passed into law. It protects against all forms of discrimination, whether subtly or overt and on the basis of sexual orientation. Questions as to whether this piece of legislation was sufficiently wide ranging and affords enough protection to the requisite groups continue, given exceptions which allow for discrimination in respect of a number of exempt circumstances and occupations. 

Following this theme of significant social change came the Equal Marriage Act of 2013. Although Civil Partnerships were already permitted in law, opponents argued this distinction wrongly differentiated gay couples compared with traditional relationships between men and women. The Equal Marriage Act meant that gay couples were now viewed in the exact same way as any other relationship, benefitting from the same legal protections afforded to marriages between men and women. 


As we move deeper into the 2020s we shall see what further changes lie in store. Considering the UK's decision to leave the European Union effective this January, it will be important to see what, if any, negative impact will flow from our resultant withdrawal from the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which remains the only internationally binding legal instrument to expressly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. The risk is that gay rights will once again become the political football of old and that recent advances could be walked back. It is to be hoped that the UK government will make good on its promise to ensure that every such right remains protected elsewhere and that it works to ensure continued consistency across Europe. 

This article was written by Joel Leigh (Partner in Commercial Dispute Resolution) and Thomas Wild (Paralegal in Real Estate Dispute Resolution). 



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