All done and dusted; dispelling the myths of LGBT equality 50 years on

This post was contributed by Leslie J Moran, Professor of Law in the Birkbeck School of Law

It was a great honour and privilege to welcome Peter Tatchell back to Birkbeck to give the 2017 College Annual LGBT History Month Lecture. Peter has a long and notable reputation for his work as an activist promoting gender and sexual justice for LGBT people. The title of his lecture was, ‘All done and dusted; dispelling the myths of LGBT equality 50 years on.’

Peter Tatchell with Les Moran

Peter Tatchell with Les Moran

The ’50 years on’ refers to the fact that 2017 is an auspicious year, marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. That Act holds a key place in the history of struggles for sexual justice and sexual citizenship. Following the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee the ’67 Act decriminalised two criminal offences, buggery and gross indecency, as they applied to consensual sexual relations between men over 21 years of age in private. Acknowledging this major achievement, Peter also noted a more sinister side of this reform. In the wake of the ’67 reforms the number of convictions and cautions relating to consensual sexual acts between men increased dramatically; by as much as 400% between 1966 and 1973. And it wasn’t until the Sexual Offences Act 2003 that criminal offences associated with State sponsored homophobia were finally reformed.

Peter went on to identify key moments in what he called ‘the unsung civil rights struggle of our times’; the law reforms that transformed the status of LGBT people from dangerous outsiders who threatened the state to respectable citizens. Highlights of this major revolution include the Human Rights Act 1998, Gender Recognition Act 2004, Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the Same Sex Marriage Act 2013. But as Peter explained these major achievements also contain provisions that allow prejudice to continue. These are a part of ‘unfinished business’ of the struggle for gender and sexual justice that he then went on to catalogue.

The qualified exemptions from some of these reforms based on religion have the potential to sustain discrimination in the delivery of a wide variety of services now provided through faith based organisations. While the civil partnership and same sex marriage legislation introduced sweeping changes they did so through the creation of 2 types of marriage; one for mixed sex couples and one for same sex. Separate, Peter concluded, is not equal. He concluded with a long list of ongoing problems that effectively work against equality for LGBT people; ranging from the particular difficulties facing LGBT refugees to ongoing failure to respond to homophobic harassment and bullying in school and the blight of day to day experiences of hate crime. Change, he concluded, needs people to come together saying ‘enough is enough’, to dream of what a better future might look like and then to engage in the struggle to make it happen.

It was particularly rewarding to note how Peter’s lecture resonates with the internationally recognised research and teaching at Birkbeck. BIGS, the Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality forum has a lively programme of activities that brings together scholars working in the arts and humanities and the social sciences and encourages dialogue with practitioners in the creative industries as well as with non-academic constituencies. The College’s MA Gender Sexuality and Culture provides Birkbeck students opportunities to study sexual justice and social change across the social science, humanities divide. Birkbeck’s School of Law has a long tradition of research and teaching that explores the interface between sexual and gender justice and law. Undergraduate and postgraduate modules cover a wide variety of issues in both law and criminology/criminal justice.

The event was a wonderful opportunity to bring together and celebrate not only the work and passion for justice of Peter Tatchell but also that which is to be found in the wider Birkbeck community.

Leslie J. Moran is College Equality and Diversity Champion, Chair of the College Equalities Committee and Professor in the School of Law. His published research explores sexuality in law in a variety of contexts, from Criminal law and hate crime to debates about sexual diversity in the judiciary.

The Annual LGBT History Month Lecture is part of the College’s programme to promote knowledge and awareness of equality and diversity issues both within the College and the public.  The programme is organised by the College Equality and Diversity Leads in the Human Resources Department.  The College is a proud member of Stonewall Diversity Champions programme, an Athena SWAN Bronze Award holder, Disability Confident member and Mindful Employer.  It is committed to working towards a Race Equality Charter award.  

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