It is 20 years today since the age of consent was finally equalised in the UK after a bruising, years-long campaign from LGBT+ activists.
Today, queer people enjoy many of the same rights as their straight counterparts in the UK – but that wasn’t always the case. Homosexuality was illegal in all circumstances up until 1967, and same-sex marriage was once just a distant dream.
Among the many legal hurdles queer people had to overcome was the battle to equalise the age of consent. Gay and bisexual men had been governed by a separate age of consent for decades, pushing them further into the shadows in the process.
On 8 January, 2001, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act finally came into force after it was passed by parliament on 30 November, 2000, lowering the age of consent for gay and bisexual men to 16 in England, Scotland and Wales, and 17 in Northern Ireland – finally granting queer people the autonomy over their bodies they so desperately craved.
The debate surrounding the age of consent for gay and bisexual men in the UK began as early as 1957, when the Wolfenden Report first recommended that the ban on homosexuality be overturned. Crucially, that same report also recommended that the age of consent for gay and bisexual men be set at 21, a full five years later than for straight people.
A decade on, the recommendations made in that report finally made it into law in the form of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. As was recommended in the Wolfenden Report, gay and bisexual men would be allowed to have sex, but only in certain circumstances – and only when they were aged over 21.
According to historian Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, this “discriminatory provision” was added to the law to reflect “the longstanding association between homosexuality and corruption, particularly the corruption of the young by the older, supposedly ‘hardened’ homosexuals”.
The House of Lords blocked efforts to equalise the age of consent
In the years that followed, the debate around the age of consent continued – but it wasn’t until 1994 when the law finally started to change. Conservative MP Edwina Currie, joined by more than 40 Tory MPs, proposed an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill to equalise the age of consent in 1994. The amendment was voted down by parliament, but MPs did agree to lower the age of consent for gay and bisexual men to 18.
However, the fight was not yet won, with queer men still not granted the same rights as their straight counterparts.
In 1998, Labour MP Ann Keen introduced an amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill in an effort to equalise the age of consent, and it passed with a majority of 207 in the House of Commons. But when it went to the House of Lords, it was firmly rejected by a majority of 168.
The government dropped the bill temporarily, but it was revived later that year and once again sailed through the Commons only to be blocked by the Lords. This second rejection prompted the government to invoke the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, which limited the powers of the House of Lords to block acts. Finally, the age of consent was on track to be equalised.
On 30 November, 2000, speaker Michael Martin announced the passage of the act and it received Royal Assent several hours later.
This is a piece of legislation driven by Metropolitan, London attitudes and is completely out of step with the rest of the country.
But the government’s decision to effectively bypass the House of Lords did not pass without controversy. Baroness Young, the former Tory minister who fought tirelessly against equalising the age of consent, said the government’s invoking of the Parliament Acts was a “constitutional outrage”.