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    First Published: Before August 2002
       This is an OutUK Archive Item and so some of the links and information may be out of date.
The UK has been brought kicking and screaming into line with most of Europe and is giving gay teens the same rights as their straight friends. The age of consent for gay and straight people alike is now 18, but it's been a battle.

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On November 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."

Opposition 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".

BACKGROUND BRIEFING

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 law’s 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.

This inequity 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 to 18.

After another 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.

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Conservative Anti-equality campaigner Baroness Young

The Government 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).

The latest 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 Parliament Act.

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.

 

 

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