Prejudice to Progress: The relationship between the Law and the LGBTQ+ Community in Manchester

“Those who can imagine anything, can create the impossible.” ― Alan Turing

"Those who can imagine anything, can create the impossible."

Alan Turing

Throughout the history of the United Kingdom, there have been untold numbers of men and women who achieved great milestones throughout their lives. Huge progress has been made in areas of culture, science, industry and even in times of war. But these people were often subjected to prejudices in wider society and particularly in the UK legal system.

As part of the Manchester Pride 2022 celebrations, we’d like to highlight these legal injustices faced by two notable LGBTQ+ individuals, how these laws changed over time and the significance of Manchester Pride and its role in affecting change both in the law and to the LGBTQ+ Community in recent years.

Oscar Wilde and the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885

Oscar Wilde was a man of notable status during the late nineteenth century in England. A playwright, poet and novelist Wilde remains arguably most famous today for his 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. A gay man, he often found himself at odds with the societal norms of Victorian England.

While the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 abolished the death penalty for acts of sodomy, it still made the act punishable by a minimum of ten years imprisonment. Despite this minor improvement for LGBTQ+ rights, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 created a new offence of Gross Indecency relating to all sexual activities between men. [1] [2] [3]

The legislation was often used to blackmail and punish individuals, one of whom was Oscar Wilde. His alleged affair with an aristocrat, Lord Alfred Douglas, was made public by Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensbury.

Queensbury made public several letters of a romantic nature between Oscar and Alfred, which were seen as enough evidence of Wilde’s guilt. After a retrial, Oscar found himself sentenced to 2 years of hard labour in Pentonville and later Reading Gaol, an experience which he recounts in The Ballad of Reading Gaol as traumatic and difficult. [4] Though he was released in 1897, his health, both mental and physical, had suffered greatly and on November 30th, 1900, he died at the age of 46, an exile in Paris. [5]

Alan Turing and the Beginnings of Change

Alan Turing was an English mathematician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist. Turing played an instrumental role in decoding enemy communications during World War II, the scale of which has led many leading experts to claim that he shortened the war by several years, saving millions of lives. [6]

While his extraordinary legacy and contributions to computing and British freedom have been honoured in recent years, Turing was victim to appalling persecution during the time he lived. [7] The same archaic law that had imprisoned and led to the death of Oscar Wilde at the turn of the century was used against Turing in 1952 for a relationship he had with a man named Arnold Murray. For this relationship, Turing faced the option of either imprisonment, or a course of hormonal “treatment” consisting of chemical castration. Turing chose the latter.

In 1954, Alan Turing was found dead in his home aged 41. [8] He was found beside a half-eaten apple, laced with cyanide. The experimental treatment had taken a mental and physical toll on him, which he could take no longer.

Turing was a man of incredible achievements, intelligence and wit. He faced cruel and undeserved persecution at the hands of the British justice system. At the very least, his death led to the beginning of slow and gradual change.

Three years later, the Wolfenden Report in 1957 recommended that homosexual behaviour between two consenting adults in private should no longer be considered a criminal act. But it wasn’t until the Sexual Offences Act 1967 that same-sex acts in the UK between men were partially legalised. Scotland and Northern Ireland followed over a decade later in 1981. But there remained a long way to go. [9]

As more and more movements began to spread across the UK throughout the ’70s, including the Gay Liberation Front in London and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality movement in Manchester, it seemed as if changes were slowly coming into effect.

The fight for sexual equality was met with yet another obstacle however in the form of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which prohibited local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’. Many young people therefore were denied access to the support they needed to deal with their identities [10]. A step back in an otherwise progressive few decades of transformation.

Manchester’s Role in Challenging the Status-Quo

Gay Pride flags in front of a building in Canal Street Manchester

Manchester’s role in challenging the status quo throughout the years was huge. In 1985, the first ever Manchester Pride was held, despite police hostility. Additionally, in 1988, 20,000 people protested against the introduction of Section 28 in the city centre. At this time, Manchester was almost unique in its vocal resistance. [11] Manchester’s protests were one of the first notable examples of non-LGBTQ+ individuals supporting the continued fight for equality via allyship.

Pride continued to attract more and more visitors, as people from across the country recognised the relative acceptance of Manchester’s atmosphere and culture compared to that of other cities. And the bustling Canal Street and Gay Village gradually grew to become one of the most famous and large in Europe.

Manchester’s Pride festival attracted over 100,000 people throughout the ’90s and early ’00s, raising tens of thousands of pounds for good causes. Pride in 2022 is the city’s biggest parade and is also one of the largest in Europe. [12]

Since 2007, Manchester Pride has been an established charity to raise money and awareness for LGBTQ+ people and issues across Greater Manchester.

Head over to our JustGiving page to help support this life-changing organisation

Legal Change in the 21st Century

As more visibility was granted to the legal injustices faced by LGBTQ+ people, after over a hundred years since the death of Wilde, the law began to reflect the changes in society’s attitudes. In 2004 both the Civil Partnership Act and Gender Recognition Act came into effect, allowing same-sex couples to enter binding partnerships and allowing trans people full legal recognition of their gender identity. In 2013, the Same-Sex Couples Act was introduced, allowing marriage between couples in England and Wales and later Scotland. More recently, the Equality Act in 2010 gave LGBTQ+ employees protection from discrimination, harassment and victimisation at work. This was a critical step in making real progress towards equality after centuries of legal persecution of LGBTQ+ people in the United Kingdom.

Remembrance of Past Injustices

While Pride is a celebration and recognition of queer identities, it is also a remembrance of previous struggles undergone by LGBTQ+ people across the whole world, many of which continue today. While once the law was used to persecute people of different sexualities and identities, today it is used to protect them. While Turing and Wilde remain solemn reminders of the legal system’s past, Manchester Pride serves as a joyful and hopeful vision for the future.

If you’d like to join us in raising money for LGBTQ+ people across Manchester, please consider donating to our JustGiving page here.

Citations

[1] https://www.bl.uk/lgbtq-histories/articles/a-short-history-of-lgbt-rights-in-the-uk

[2] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/oscar-wilde-is-sent-to-prison-for-indecency

[3] [4] [5] https://www.history.com/topics/gay-rights/oscar-wilde-trial

[6] Copeland, Jack (18 June 2012). “Alan Turing: The codebreaker who saved ‘millions of lives'”. BBC News Technology. Archived from the original on 11 October 2014. Retrieved 26 October 2014.

[7] [8] https://studentsforliberty.org/north-america/blog/alan-turing-irrational-persecution

[9] [10] https://www.bl.uk/lgbtq-histories/articles/a-short-history-of-lgbt-rights-in-the-uk

[11] https://themanc.com/news/history-of-manchester-pride-and-how-far-its-come

[12] https://www.manchesterpride.com/history-of-manchester-pride

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