30th 2000 the Speaker of the House of Commons announced that he had signed a certificate
stating that the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill should pass under the Parliament
Acts for royal assent, even though the House Of Lords consistently voted the measure down.
The Bill to equalise the age of consent for gay men became law on the day which
marked the hundredth anniversary of the death of Oscar Wilde.
Angela Mason, Executive Director of
Stonewall, said "This is a great step towards equality. When the history books
come to be written I believe it will be seen as the moment when this country finally began
to change, when lesbians and gay men started to take our place as equal members of
society. To those who still have doubts about this law I would say that experience will
teach us all that equality is not the enemy of protection. An equal society is a safer
society for all our young people. It is wonderful that it's happening on the anniversary
of Oscar Wilde's death. It marks the end of bad old law that has caused enormous
suffering, - an irony that he surely would have appreciated. Tomorrow is also World Aids
Day. I am convinced that ignorance and shame contributed to many deaths. My hope is that
too that tolerance and equality will help to save many lives in the future."
politicians and religious leaders still objected to the move. Baroness Young, the former Tory minister who has led the Lords
campaign against the Bill, said the government's decision 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," she told a news conference.
Earlier, in a letter to The Daily Telegraph, religious leaders pleaded with the
government to think again, to "protect young people of both sexes from the most
dangerous of sexual practices.... 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".
In 1957 the
Wolfenden Report recommended that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in
private be no longer a criminal offence". The report added, "there must remain a
realm of private morality and immorality which is
not the laws
business". While the stance of the report incensed the puritanical pillars of the
Establishment, it nevertheless led to the introduction of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.
The new legislation, to some extent at least, decriminalized gay sex in England and Wales
by setting a homosexual age of consent of 21. This still meant however, that while
straight teenagers were able to shag themselves senseless from the age of 16, gay
teenagers were legally enforced to remain celibate for another five years.
in the law was first challenged in 1993, when Stonewall took a case to the European Court
of Human Rights (ECHR). The case not only prompted the government of the day to debate the
issue, but a proposal to equalize the age of consent was put to parliament a year later.
Although the motion was defeated by 27 votes, the gay age of consent was lowered from 21
case was presented to the ECHR in 1996, the Commission of the European Court found that
the UK's unequal age of consent laws were in violation of the European Convention on Human
Rights. As a result of the ruling, the newly elected Labour government had to agree to
timetable another parliamentary debate on the age of consent.
In 1998, an
equality amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill was voted upon, and while it passed
successfully through the House of Commons, the House of Lords rejected the clause.
Conservative Anti-equality campaigner Baroness
made another attempt at equalization in 1999 by introducing the Sexual Offences
(Amendment) Bill. But again, although Commons sense prevailed, the Lords queered the
pitch. This was largely due to an orchestrated anti-gay campaign led by Tory peer Baroness
Young. As far as Young and her Christian cronies were concerned, when it came to allowing
gay teenagers the basic human right to sexually express themselves as they choose, they
could go and get fucked. (But only figuratively speaking of course).
twist happened on November 13th 2000 when once again peers voted down proposals to reduce
the legal age of consent by 205 votes to 144, a majority of 61. Once again it was
Conservative Baroness Young who led the attack and speaking after the vote she said:
"The Parliament Act was intended for matters of great national constitutional
importance, not for gay rights." Making the case for reform the Labour peer Lord Alli
said: "We are not asking for you to approve of homosexuality or homosexual acts.
"I am not even asking you to understand why they happen. What I am asking you to do
is to remove the penalty and weight of the law from those young men aged 16 and 17, who
consent to have sex with other men."
Angela Mason of
Stonewall after that latest setback said "An equal age of consent is just and fair.
The House of Commons and the majority of professional medical, legal and childcare opinion
support it. Baroness Young and her supporters have had their day. She must now accept the
will of the elected House." UK government ministers have already promised the
measure will become law "one way or another". They could use the Parliament Act
to force it onto the statute book, and a spokesman for the Home Office said: "The
Bill is subject to a free vote and has been previously overwhelmingly endorsed by the
House of Commons".
LATEST UPDATES: On the 20th
December 2000 the government announced that the commencement date for the Sexual Offences (Amendment)
Act which equalises the age of consent will be 8 January 2001, having previously invoked the
On the 25th
April 2001 the Advertising Standards Authority censured Baroness Young and her supporters for placing
an advert in the national press that misled the public. OutUK has a full report on this and the latest
on the repeal of Section 28.