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LGBTI History Month: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone

Did you know that you could have faced the death penalty for being gay in the UK?

Admittedly you would have had to been around in the 1530s when the Buggery Act was brought in. Scarily, it remained a capital offence until 1861 (and 1889 in Scotland). The last two men who were hanged in the UK for sodomy were executed in 1835; James Pratt and John Smith died in front of the Newgate Prison in London.

Shamefully, homosexual acts by two men over the age of 21 ‘in private’ were only decriminalised in 1967 England and Wales.

Now we have equal marriage, except in Northern Ireland, criminalisation seems a long time ago, let alone the death penalty. It’s very easy to look back on progress made and forget this did not just happen. Our politicians and government did not just wake up one morning and decide: you know what it seems like it has been pretty tough to be gay – let’s give them equal rights.

The clamour for change has always come from the bottom up. For every right we now enjoy here in the UK, people have fought, lost and fought again for to make our society fairer and more equal – often at a heavy price.

Take decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland. Right up until 1982, ‘male homosexual acts’ were a crime. It was finally decriminalised following a human rights case brought forward by Jeff Dudgeon, a gay rights activist from Belfast. It also set the legal precedent that meant that the Council of Europe requires the decriminalisation of homosexuality by its members.

So if you think that this LGBTI history month we can just sit back – you are wrong. Remember how far we’ve come and spare a thought and thanks for those who fought so hard to get us here.

We must never forget that progress is neither linear, nor set in stone.

Just six years after homosexual acts were finally decriminalised across the UK, the then Conservative government brought in Section 28 in the Local Government Bill 1987. It was a truly offensive piece of legislation designed to prevent the so-called 'promotion' of homosexuality in schools; as well as stigmatising our LGBTI community. I was nine years old when this came into force. For me it meant should I have come out at school, or wanted to ask my teachers for help for being bullied because I was gay they would have been forbidden from helping me. In fact, they were forbidden for the next 12 years. Luckily for all of us it galvanised the LGBTI community to fight against it and thus was the birth of Stonewall.

Today, being gay could get you arrested or even executed in at least 78 countries. Here in the UK, and thanks in large part to the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act our rights are protected by law. Just this week the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Croatia’s immigration rules discriminated against LGBTI families. 

The Human Rights Act protects all of us all of the time. So it seems strange that our current government wants to scrap it. At Amnesty we want the Human Rights Act to be protected, we do not want to go backwards.

Much of the recent progress for LGBTI rights was hard won using our human rights laws. We know it helped us with decriminalisation, but what about allowing gays to openly serve in the military? Tick. How about greater rights for transgendered people, resulting in 2004’s Gender Recognition Act? Equalising the age of consent? Lifting the ban on gay couples adopting in Northern Ireland? Tick. Tick. Tick.

We must remember, however, that human rights are hard won and easily lost. It took ordinary people a very long time to win those rights and we shouldn't let politicians take them away at the stroke of a pen.

We must also consider what message it would send to people fighting for their rights around the world if we let our government abandon our commitment to our hard-won human rights here?

How would we explain to the transgender community in Argentina, three of whom have recently been killed, that we let our government roll back our rights?

What comfort could the Tunisian government take from UK signals that politicians can pick and choose who deserves to have rights – at a time when six Tunisian men have just been sentenced to three years in prison for sodomy.

So this month it is time to take a stand. Don’t let universal freedoms turn into privileges for a chosen few. Call on Justice Secretary Michael Gove to save the Human Rights Act. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. We don’t protect their legacy at our peril. 

Join our LGBTI activist network 

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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