From Criminal to Citizen: The LGBT journey in the UK

As LSBU celebrates LGBT History Month with a series of events, it seems timely and apt to look back at how far we have come in the UK, a journey which has seen same-sex relations move from a position of criminality and censorship to a place where LGBT people increasingly live as equal citizens under law.

Looking at the past

In reading the histories of same-sex intimacies it should come as no surprise that homosexuality has existed throughout all of history, in all types of society, and among all peoples. However through these texts we also learn to appreciate how, over the millennia, our societies have been convulsed and obsessed by the presence of same-sex desires and practices. Historically, various penalties, punishments and regulations against homosexuality have been dreamed up and zealously enforced with a fervour that has successfully stigmatised same-sex intimacy, and seen whole societies become complicit in a sophisticated conspiracy of silence and invisibility.

A change in social attitudes

Recent years have seen dramatic changes in social attitudes towards LGBT people. The factors considered responsible for changes in social attitudes, and for the many recent legislative advances around sexual orientation, include: the work of the feminist and civil rights movements; gay liberation activists; a demise in the moral authority of the churches; greater diversity within society; economic prosperity; international travel; new stories and voices; greater representations within the media, literature and theatre; and presence of ‘out’ role models in all areas of society – in media, politics, business, and organisations.

Sexuality as sexual citizenship

Aligned with these changes in recent years, the language of rights around sexualities, has coalesced around a call for citizenship, or more accurately for a sexual citizenship which embraces lesbian, gay, and bisexuality. The turn to sexual citizenship as a means to end exclusion, marginalisation and stigmatisation has come to dominate gay politics, and the language of citizenship has become popular in academic scholarship, in legislature, and latterly within the political mainstream.

But what exactly is a sexual citizen? Here one can perhaps attempt to consider the sexual citizen as, a person who feels able, to publicly and confidently declare their sexual orientation (whatever that might be) and who is able to (practically and holistically) live a life where his/her integration into, involvement with, and contribution to society is unhindered by prejudice, discrimination, stigmatisation or heteronormative hostility towards their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Defining equality

Equality in sexual citizenship requires that sexual orientation is no barrier to legal protection, or engagement with the state, with institutions, organisations, career, community and social affections. Sexual citizenship which delivers on its promise requires that dominant cultural narratives move from homo-negativity, or indeed mere tolerance, but rather towards an embracing, inclusive and representational celebration of sexual identity in all its manifestations and performances. Sexual citizenship promises much for sexual minorities, and indeed the UK, alongside much of the European Union has seen dramatic advances in legislative protection.

Changes in the law

Not only has the United Kingdom scrapped the old sexual offences laws, under which thousands of men were arrested and criminalised; gay people have now secured legislative protection against hate crimes, against discrimination and differential treatment in relation to housing, employment, welfare, and in provision of goods and services; they also have the right to civil partnership, and/or equal marriage (except in Northern Ireland), the right to foster and adopt children, and the right to serve in the military – advances unthinkable just two decades ago.

The University environment

However, despite the end of criminalisation, huge changes in social attitudes, greater visibility, and a raft of protective legislation, too many LGBT people continue to face marginalisation, exclusion, and prejudice within society – and this includes universities. For example, a recent study conducted by Stonewall, entitled LGBT in Britain – Universities Report (2018) reported that two in five LGBT students (42 per cent) have hidden their identity at university for fear of discrimination. The report findings also show that three in five trans students (60 per cent) and more than one in five lesbian, gay and bi students who aren’t trans (22 per cent) have been the target of negative comments or conduct from other students. Furthermore, LGBT disabled students are reported to be particularly likely to be the target of such remarks from other students; with almost half of LGBT disabled students (47 per cent) having experienced this.

Looking forward: acknowledging successes and seeking improvements

And so in summary, despite many advancements, inconsistencies remain, such as lack of unequivocal political support, continuing heteronormative dominance, everyday homophobia, hate speech, and online vitriol. In some organisations, heteronormative and homophobic cultures continue to stigmatise gay employees preventing many from coming out. We also need to acknowledge the continuing criminalisation and the increasing oppression of gay people in many countries outside of the UK and Europe, which is often motivated by religious extremism, right-wing nationalism and totalitarian regimes. And so, while the gains need to be acknowledged and celebrated, the fact that prejudice and bigotry continues to exist, calls for continuing vigilance so as to protect the rights which we have gained from been taken away, which would see a reversal from citizen back to criminal.