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A step back in time: LGBT History Month celebrates 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality

By Kelly Woodward


When I was first introduced to Ryan Thompson he looked like he could jump straight into filming Fame. He had green hair, wearing black nail polish and a sparkly jumper. If anything, I couldn’t keep my eyes off him as he was so dazzling.

Ryan doesn’t and never has cared about what people think of him and this was one of the main reasons he wanted to curate the ‘Queerology’ project. The ‘Queerology’ project showcased queer art.

He said: “This presents us with a grand opportunity – to combine the celebration of a historic milestone with conversations around the current issues through the work of LGBT and Queer artists in and around Leeds.”

As I walked around the gallery I noticed how bright and colourful a lot of the work was. There was a tapestry woven in a bright red wool alongside pictures of people from the LGBT community which was put up above a woman offering free tarot readings for the visitors of the gallery.

The event was spectacular and perfectly showed the great pride Ryan had sharing the work of LGBT and Queer artists.

A selection of photography featured in the Queerology exhibition

Leeds has  been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England this month.

Every year Leeds City Council organises an LGBT History Month to raise awareness of homosexuality in all its forms.

There have been many colourful events this year starting with many of the centre buildings, including the Merrion Centre and First Direct Arena, lit up in pink to commemorate the occasion.

But what is the importance of this and why did we start celebrating LGBT History Month?

Let’s go back to 60 years ago in the year 1957 . After WWII, arrests and prosecutions for homosexuals increased including Alan Turing, the cryptographer who helped to break the German Enigma code. He was victimised for his homosexuality.

Because of this and other cases, the government set up a Departmental Committee under Sir John Wolfenden to consider both homosexual offences and prostitution.

Sir John Wolfenden’s report stated that if homosexual behaviour between consenting adults were in private it would no longer be a criminal offence.

Ryan Thompson, the curator of a project called ‘Queerology’ which took place at Aire Place Mills this year, spoke to me about the impact of this moment.

He said: “A lot of people get this fact wrong when speaking about the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England.

“Many people believe that anyone who was deemed homosexual could have homosexual relations in private but this was just ruled for men as people didn’t think that women were capable of such things.”

In 1958, the Homosexual Law Reform Society was  founded in Manchester. Its first premises were in London’s Liverpool Road and the Albany turn-off from Piccadilly.

Equality was still not perfect within the United Kingdom and many were still disgusted by the fact that men were allowed to have sexual relations with other men in the privacy of their own homes.

Fast forward ten years to the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967. Based on the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report ten years earlier, sexual relations between men were  partially decriminalised by the Sexual Offences Act, although only in England and Wales.

The new age of consent for sex between men was 21-years-old, for everyone else the age of consent was 16-years-old.

It was a big struggle for men and women at this time to show that their sexuality was normal and that they should be treated the same as heterosexual couples.

In Manchester, an early LGBT campaigning group, the Committee for Homosexual Equality was  formed before later changing its name to the Campaign for Homosexual Equality in May 1971.

Following Manchester’s example, the Gay Liberation Front held its first meeting in London in 1970. This notion came from New York where the Gay Liberation Front London founders Bob Mellors and Peter Walter first met immediately after the Stonewall riots, in which police clashed with gay demonstrators.

After this, many campaign groups were  founded and even women were showing the United Kingdom that homosexuality happens between men and women. In 1984, a group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners was founded to raise money for mining towns during the 1984-5 UK miners’ strike.

Many people believe that this was a pinnacle moment for the LGBT community as it not only raised awareness to the people of the UK but it also raised awareness to the mining community.  So much so, miners, along with Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, lead the parade at London Lesbian and Gay Pride in 1985.

The Pride flag fluttering high during London Pride 2016

Jeff Armitage, manager of The New Penny, said: “Leeds has a thriving LGBT scene and I am just so grateful to the men and women that put their life on the lines to show the world that there really is nothing wrong with being gay.

“The New Penny has been a safe venue for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans community both before and after the decriminalisation of homosexuality.”

The New Penny became the first in the country to be awarded a Civic Trust blue plaque after serving Leeds’s LGBT community.

The New Penny was the first pub to be awarded a Civic Trust blue plaque

During the same year as the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners lead the parade at London Lesbian and Gay Pride, the Labour Party passed a resolution supporting LGBT equality rights due to the block voting support from the National Union of Mineworkers.

At the end of the 80s, protests were held in London and Manchester to call for the abolition of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which makes it difficult for teachers to address LGBT issues in schools. It was also repealed in 2003, although its legacy still lingers in many classrooms today.

As you can tell, people were and still are starting to stand up for their rights and show the world that they won’t back down.

The 1980s was a time where fashion started to get more experimental, think Madonna donning her lace gloves in her Lucky Star music video or the florescent leg warmers worn by the cast of Fame.

Not only did fashion start to change but so did the views of government and some people in the UK about homosexuality.

A pinnacle moment in LGBT history was the election of Angela Eagle, the First Out Lesbian MP in 1997. Before this, the parliamentary forum on transsexualism was established.

Finally, the age of consent between men was equalised at 16-years-old in 2001 thanks to MP Angela Eagle.

Marriage for homosexual couples has been an issue for people in the UK and is still an issue in some countries around the world. In 2005, the Civil Partnership Act came into effect as a half-way house on the way to full marriage equality that was just granted in 2014.

Even in this day and age, members of the LGBT community are still finding it difficult to be equal and this is why LGBT History Month is so important.

Ryan believes that there is still a lot of work to be done in Leeds and around the UK to create an environment safe for the LGBT community.

He said: “Leeds is inclusive to a degree. Leeds is tolerant of people but not necessarily as accepting.

“There’s very much a need of being accepted, not just tolerated.”

What do you think?