LGBTQ+ Rights in Britain

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 4, Key stage 5

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750, Empire and Industry 1750-1850, Interwar 1918-1939, Postwar 1945-present, Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: Crime and Punishment, Diverse histories, LGBTQ+ Histories, The British Empire, Victorians

Suggested inquiry questions: How have LGBTQ+ people’s lives changed over the last 300 years? How have they not? To what extent do different laws and policies affect people’s individual lives?

Potential activities: Create a timeline of LGBTQ+ laws in the UK. Plot each of these sources on the timeline. What kind of laws are affecting the people in each source?

Download: Lesson pack

How have changes in laws and attitudes affected LGBTQ+ people in Britain?

People have always existed who engaged in same sex relationships, defied conventional gender norms, or lived as a different gender to the one they were assigned as at birth. The social climate these individuals lived in, and the language they had available to them, has changed significantly over the last 1,000 years – the span of The National Archives’ collections. The history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people in the UK is a complex mixture of moments of pain, resistance, and progress.

‘LGBTQ+’ is used as an umbrella term to describe people historically who were either not cisgender or heterosexual. These individuals would have used a variety of different language to describe themselves in their own lifetimes. We recognise our records contain words that are at times offensive, however some of the original language and legal terms are preserved here to accurately represent our records and help us fully understand the past. Please note that some of these sources contain non-explicit references to sex and sexuality.

Use this lesson to find out more about LGBTQ+ rights and lives from the 1700s to the present day. The documents are listed chronologically.

This lesson has been developed in collaboration with the Bishopsgate Institute.

Bishopsgate Institute logo


Source 1

1701: Papers related to the trial of Charles Worrell for sodomy.

  • Why is Charles Worrell on trial? What evidence has been used against him, and according to what law?
  • How did Worrell initially manage to avoid punishment?
  • How can you show the precariousness of Worrell’s situation?
  • How is homosexuality portrayed by the witness, Jenkin Williams?

Source 2

1835: Letter from police magistrate Hensleigh Wedgwood to the Home Secretary Lord John Russell about two prisoners condemned to be executed for having had sexual relations with each other.

  • How is homosexuality portrayed in this letter?
  • Look at the LGBTQ+ laws timeline. How long after this case was the death penalty for sodomy abolished?
  • Does this letter give any suggestions as to why these two might have been the last two men ever executed for sodomy?
  • Wedgwood suggests that these men were arrested not just because of the act itself, but because of their class and lack of wealth. Why is this?
  • Look at this and other cases in this lesson. How does class play a role in how LGBTQ+ people have been able to navigate the law?

Source 3

1841: Anne Lister’s will, in which she leaves her estate, Shibden Hall, to her wife Ann Walker.

  • What clues do you get about the reality of Anne Lister and Ann Walker’s relationship in this will?
  • Why does Lister need to use language that is vague or coded in this document?
  • Why do you think Lister included a stipulation about Walker marrying?
  • What does this document tell you about Lister’s class background?

Source 4

1871: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexual intercourse [it was considered an ‘unnatural offence’].

  • Why do you think this law has been applied to the Straits Settlements (a group of British colonies that today form part of Malaysia and Singapore)?
  • How does this law reflect British attitudes and laws towards homosexuality at the time?
  • This law, called Section 377 still exists in several countries that were formerly British colonies. Find out if Section 377 still exists/has been repealed in the following countries?
    • India
    • Singapore
    • Malaysia
    • Bangladesh
    • Pakistan
    • Myanmar
  • What can you find out about colonial laws on homosexuality in Africa under British colonial rule? What did those laws look like in Uganda or Nigeria?

NB Some of these countries do not have the same names now as they did in the period under British colonial administration.

Source 5

1895: Calling card left by Marquis of Queensbury calling Oscar Wilde a ‘posing somdomite’.

  • Why do you think these objects are labelled ‘A’ and ‘B’?
  • Why do you these items were used as evidence in the trial of Oscar Wilde?
  • The Marquis of Queensbury called Oscar Wilde a ‘sodomite’ on his calling card. Why was this word offensive to Wilde?
  • Look at the timeline of laws. Why might it have been dangerous for Wilde to be called a sodomite at this time?

Source 6

1921: Discussion around a clause that was proposed to be added to the Criminal Law Bill in 1921.

  • Why do you think this clause was proposed around this time?
  • Why do you think this clause was rejected by the House of Lords?
  • This source shows how the clause was rejected because it “may lead to unlooked for and evil results”. What do you think are the results they are referring to?
  • How does this source show the difference in legal treatment of female same-sex couples and male same-sex couples? Can you think of any reasons for why this difference might have existed?

Sources 7 a & b

1935: Police observations on the Shim Sham Club.

  • What descriptors is the policeman using that stick out to you? What does the language used in this police report infer?
  • What does this report tell you about the type of people that the police might view as cause for concern?
  • What does this report reveal about the people who went to the Shim Sham Club?

1928-31: A group of most likely gay men having a beach day.

  • Looking at the description of this photo, why might we assume that this is a photograph of gay or queer men? What are the limitations of this assumption?
  • This photograph was taken close to the same time as the police observations on Shim Sham Club (Source 7a). How do they compare in terms of the story they tell about LGBTQ+ communities?
  • What might this source and Source 7a tell you about LGBTQ+ lives in 1930s Britain?
  • Which members of the LGBTQ+ community are not present in either of these sources? Why do you think some members of the community might be more present in archival materials?
  • What other sources might you look for to get a clearer picture?

Source 8

1930s–‘60s: Portrait of Patrick Nelson by Duncan Grant, 1960-63.

  • Look at this painting and note what you can see. What can it tell you about Patrick Nelson?
  • How do you think Duncan Grant, the artist, felt about Nelson based on this portrait?
  • Do you look at the painting differently after learning more about their relationship?
  • Find out more about Patrick Nelson’s life. What can it tell you about the lives of LGBTQ+ Black people in early 20th century Britain?
    • What kind of spaces did Nelson exist in?
    • Why do you think he worked as an artist’s model?
    • How open do you think he was about his relationship with Grant? Why?

Sources 9 a & b

1954: Discussions around The Wolfenden Report.

  • Why do you think a Committee was tasked with reviewing laws against homosexuality in the 1950s?
  • What are the reasonings behind making homosexual acts legal, according to the Committee? What are the reasonings against?
  • After reading this source, why do you think it took so long (ten years) for the Wolfenden recommendations to be implemented?

1976: Table showing the number of offences of ‘indecency’ between males in England and Wales 1946-76.

  • Identify the year 1967 on the chart. What was happening to the number of offences around this time?
  • What happens to the number of offences after 1967?
  • Can you think of any reasons why offences might rise after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act?
  • What does this tell you about how well the Sexual Offences Act addressed the needs of the LGBTQ+ community?

Source 10

1962: Article: ‘My Strange Life’ by April Ashley in The News of the World, 6 May 1962.

  • How does April Ashley’s family react to her coming out as transgender?
  • What kind of emotions are described in this article?
  • How does Ashley teach her mother about her identity?
  • How does Ashley present herself in this article?
  • How would the ruling against Ashley in her divorce case eight years later come to affect both her and other transgender people?

Sources 11 a-d

1976: Photos from a Drag Ball at Porchester Hall in West London.

  • What do these photos tell you about the culture at these Drag Balls?
  • Return to these photos after reading Source 12. Taken together, what do these sources tell you about life for LGBTQ+ people in 1970s Britain?
  • Which members of the LGBTQ+ community are not present in either of these sources? Why do you think that may be?
  • Learn more about Ballroom culture in the 1960s and 1970s. What has been its impact on today’s LGBTQ+ community?

Source 12

1977-79: Letter to the Home Office Committee on Obscene, Indecent and Violent Publications from The Colchester Group of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

  • According to this letter, what are some of the barriers that faced LGBTQ+ people, specifically gay and bisexual+ men, in 1970s Britain?
  • What is the letter-writer trying to achieve by sending this letter?
  • How does this letter portray the 1967 Sexual Offences Act?
  • After reading this letter, how do you think obscenity laws have been used to target LGBTQ+ people?

Source 13 a & b

1986: Letter to Margaret Thatcher, then-Prime Minister, about the AIDS government health campaign, 24 February.

  • Why was the government preparing a major AIDS awareness campaign in 1986? Suggest at least three reasons.
  • Why do you think one of the handwritten notes uses the word ‘unpleasant’ in reference to the campaign?
  • What does then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s response tell you about the concerns that the government had about a campaign like this?

1993: ‘Die-in’ protest at Trafalgar Square, 28 August 1993.

  • Looking at this photo, what do you think a ‘die-in’ is? What is it meant to draw attention to?
  • Look at the banners and the actions of the protesters. What do you think they are protesting against? What are their aims?
  • Look again at Source 13a. What do you think are the differences between the concerns of the government and the concerns of the LGBTQ+ community when it comes to HIV/AIDS?
  • Why is it important to seek out sources from LGBTQ+ perspectives when learning more about the AIDS crisis?

Source 14

1988: Clause 28 protest leaflet.

  • Why has this leaflet been created?
  • According to this leaflet, what are some of the effects that Clause 28 may have had?
  • What tactics are they using to try and stop the law?
  • Why do you think the government introduced this law? What might they have been hoping to achieve?
  • Look at the date of this document in the top left corner. Why do you think the leaflet is connected to an AIDS activist group?

Source 15

1989: Page from the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre newsletter showing community activities.

  • Why was this the newsletter produced for the Black lesbian and gay community?
  • What does it reveal about this community?
  • What different types of community activities can you see?
  • What was the significance of the Blackout magazine published alongside the newsletters?


The National Archives perspective

The National Archives has a unique view of LGBTQ+ history; our records reflect the state perspective, relating to UK government departments and major courts of law. Our archives give a valuable insight into how government interacted with and viewed LGBTQ+ communities in the past, through police, criminal, policy and legislation records. For most of our collections there has been significant criminal or social risk in LGBTQ+ people recording their lives, our collection therefore offers a rare material evidence into lives in this period before decriminalisation. Other archive collections are more likely to reflect personal documents relating to LGBTQ+ lives, such as the photographic and campaigning collections held at the Bishopsgate Archives.

The challenges of being an LGBTQ+ person are and historically have been significant, but even more so when intersected with other factors, such as race, disability and class. These intersectional experiences are underrepresented in the history that is told and in the surviving records. At The National Archives we actively work to find these voices and redress this balance.

Historical overview

Until recent decades, people who challenged sexual or gender norms were seen as a ‘threat’ to the ‘natural order’ of society. It has never been illegal, as such, to be gay, but the associated sex acts between men have been punishable at various times throughout history. Changing the gender you presented as has not been regarded a criminal act, but the law and society could make it very difficult.

In the Early Modern and Medieval period, the church and ecclesiastical courts determined the approach to homosexuality, seeing it as at odds with Christian values of heterosexual marriage and procreation. In 1533 the Buggery Act was introduced under Henry the VIII. For the first time in England sex between men was formally criminalised, with a potential penalty of the death sentence. The last two Englishmen to be hung for sodomy were James Pratt and John Smith at Newgate prison in 1835.

Domestic legislation also had an impact beyond the UK. The British colonial government introduced Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlawed ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ in 1860. This was loosely modelled on the 1533 Buggery Act. Similar legislation spread to other parts of the British Empire. When countries gained independence, they inherited colonial legislation, and in some Commonwealth countries these laws continue to exist.

In 1885 the Criminal Amendment Act, including the controversial Labouchere Amendment, became law. This amendment actually extended the acts that were criminalised between men. The law was thought to have been influenced by the case of Fanny and Stella in 1870. Theatrical performers, the duo presented as women both on stage and off, and records held at The National Archives reveal that they used he/she pronouns and their masculine/feminine names interchangeably among family and friends. They were accused of the ‘abominable crime of buggery’, but the physical act of sodomy could not be proved. Such cases influenced the broadening of the law, to criminalise a wider range of acts relating to homosexuality.

Homosexuality was increasingly visible in society and the press; there was a moral panic. Cleveland Street scandal had seen a male brothel hit the headlines, as lots of high-profile individuals were rumoured to be involved. Oscar Wilde decided to fight public accusations of his homosexuality in the courts. He was made an example of receiving the harshest sentence of two-years hard labour for gross indecency. The Wilde trials influenced public attitudes for many years.

Despite the role of the law in policing gay and bisexual men’s lives, there was an everyday homelife that was possible for some LGBTQ+ people. From 1841 to 1921 census records reveal the same sex units people were living in. Gender non-conforming artists Gluck and E M Craig were listed as living together at 30 Tite Street, Chelsea in 1921, while author and free love advocates Edward Carpenter and George Merrill can be seen living together across many decades of census forms in their home Milthorpe, near Sheffield. Author Radclyffe Hall and sculptor Una Troubridge are listed as ‘joint head of household’ in their 1921 census record.

Sex between women was never criminalised, but was socially unacceptable. In 1921 a Parliamentary Bill to criminalise ‘gross indecency between females’ failed to become law. It was feared that it would lead to a greater visibility of lesbians. Women who loved women are present in our collections, but the law’s focus on policing same sex acts between men means that their lives can be harder to trace. These come to us through wills, census records, divorce files and censorship cases. Not long after this bill went to parliament was the headline grabbing trial of Radclyffe Hall’s the Well of Loneliness, which was controversial for its depiction of lesbian relationships. Censorship of LGBTQ+ literature and arts was a reoccurring way of attempting to control and restrict the public image of same sex relationships between women.

In spite of the law, LGBTQ+ people have always found ways to gather, meet and create their own spaces. The 1920s and 1930s particularly saw a network of underground clubs develop that cultivated a queer clientele. The National Archives has a rich collection relating to some of these spaces, from the Harlem inspired Shim Sham club to ‘London’s greatest bohemian rendezvous’ the Caravan Club. These spaces were a haven for, particularly working class, men to meet other men, but they were also vulnerable to police raids. Public spaces were also policed.

Men would meet in parks and cottages (public toilets). Police used controversial methods of undercover policing to catch men engaging in homosexual acts.

The twentieth century increasingly saw a shift from a criminal view of homosexuality to a medicalised one, seeing it as an illness. In 1952 Alan Turing, famed codebreaker and computer scientist, was arrested under the Labouchere Amendment and later prosecuted. He was given oestrogen injections, rather than a prison sentence, in attempt to ‘cure’ his sexuality. Turing committed suicide not long afterwards. The prevalence of such cases, and several high-profile incidents in the press, led to a desire for legal reform. The result was the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which recommended the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.

There have always been individuals living as a different gender from the one they were assigned at birth or expressing a non-normative gender. By the 1950s gender affirming surgery was increasingly available. In 1961 April Ashley’s assigned sex at birth was revealed by the press as she went through a divorce case, known as Corbett v Corbett. An annulment was granted on the grounds that Ashley was considered legally male. Corbett v Corbett set a legal precedent, preventing trans people from changing their gender on legal documents for several decades.

The 1967 Sexual Offences Act finally acted on Wolfenden’s recommendations a decade later and decriminalised sex acts between men. However, it did not grant homosexual men a parity with heterosexual couples. There was a higher age of consent, the Armed Forces and Merchant Navy were exempted, and acts were only decriminalised ‘in private’. Arrests actually increased – the police and public were more aware of the parameters of the law. It only applied in England and Wales. Equivalent law changes did not happen in Scotland until 1980, and Northern Ireland until 1982. But, while only partial, the 1967 Act was a huge step forward and galvanised LGBTQ+ campaigns for greater equality. The 1970s saw a shift in political consciousness towards pride and equal rights; in the UK it was the decade of the first Gay Pride parade, the opening of Gay’s the Word bookshop, and the launch of Switchboard, one of the first LGBTQ+ helplines. Campaign groups such as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and the Gay Liberation Front were increasingly active.

LGBTQ+ individuals were greatly impacted during the 1980s by the rising number HIV infections and the subsequent AIDS crisis. It was a traumatic time, marked by ignorance and misinformation. The government instigated TV and cinema adverts to reinforce awareness about preventing the spread of AIDS, and took the unprecedented step of sending educational leaflets to every household in the country. In 1988, Section 28 was introduced, under the Local Government Act, prohibiting the ‘promotion of homosexuality’. It was feared this would hamper the gains made around LGBTQ+ rights and stop AIDS education reaching the population. This attempt to supress LGBTQ+ lives fuelled a fight back, including the founding of the campaigning organisation Stonewall.

The 2000s saw the age of consent lowered to the same age for homosexual and heterosexual acts, the UK Government lifted the ban on lesbians, gay and bisexual people serving in the Armed Forces and Section 28 was repealed. This was followed by a raft of progressive legislation, including the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013. The Gender Recognition Act also came into force in 2005, enabling trans people to change their legal gender. April Ashley was finally able to have legal documentation that matched her gender identity.

The shift in LGBTQ+ rights over the last few centuries is significant. Where our records about the UK government were once dominated by criminalisation and ostracization, they now reflect equality legislation, Civil Service LGBTQ+ staff networks and presence at Pride parades. However this history also shows that progress is not always linear, and it is important to recognise that these changes were hard fought for. Whether it was through collective campaigns or individual acts of resistance LGBTQ+ people have repeatedly strived for, and continue to fight for, change and acceptance.

Teachers' notes

This lesson provides a chronological overview of the shifting laws and attitudes that have applied to the LGBTQ+ community in Britain and the former British Empire since 1701, and how they have affected the community. Owing to the number of sources, teachers may wish to break this lesson down into two parts or assign small groups to work on different sources and report back.

We recognise our records contain words that are at times offensive, however some of the original language and legal terms are preserved here to accurately represent our records and help us fully understand the past. Please note that some of these sources contain non-explicit references to sex and sexuality.

Discussion questions

  • What is the significance of the lesson banner image?
  • Why are archives important in researching LGBTQ+ histories?
  • What are the limitations of using government archives when researching LGBTQ+ history?
  • Does looking back through history change your assumptions or understandings about the LGBTQ+ community today? Why or why not?

Source 1 is a trial record from 1701 concerning a man named Charles Worrell who was convicted for sodomy. It consists of notes from Jenkin Williams, who worked on the same ship as Worrell and was witness to a tryst between Worrell and another man. His notes recount how, after going to the captain with this information, the captain instead entered into a blackmail scheme with Worrell, who provided him with gifts and money in exchange for his silence. The source shows how fluid 18th-century social practices could be even in the face of restrictive attitudes and laws.

Source 2 is a letter from 1835 about James Pratt and John Smith, the last two Englishmen ever hanged for sodomy. The letter is from Hensleigh Wedgwood, magistrate at the Police Office Union Hall. He argues that death is too harsh a punishment for the two men, on the basis that no one was harmed. He also points out that the only reason for the death sentence is that no lawyer wanted to defend such a shameful crime. Finally, he points out the class inequality in sodomy convictions, noting that richer men can more easily get away with the crime. This source helps students explore the nuance in attitudes towards homosexuality in the 19th century, as well as how issues of class may intersect with issues of sexuality.

Source 3 is Ann Lister’s will from 1841. Ann Lister is famously known as the ‘first modern lesbian’, as her diaries document her relationships with women and marriage to Anne Walker. In her will, Lister leaves her estate to her ‘friend’ Anne Walker – with the stipulation that Walker never marries. The source can be analysed to show how official documents may reveal evidence of LGBTQ+ histories, but in ways that had to be coded and hidden to avoid persecution.

Source 4 is Section 377 of the 1871 penal code in the Straits Settlements (a collection of British colonies that today consist mainly of Malaysia and Singapore). It comes from Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The Indian Penal Code, created in 1860 for Britain’s Indian colonies, was applied to other colonies in the British Empire. This code was inspired by the 1533 buggery act, intended to transfer British values to their Indian colonies. This act was not only spread throughout the British Empire, but also spread to Britain as well, inspiring the legislation against sodomy in the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act, which dropped the death penalty and replaced it with life imprisonment. When studying this source, students should be encouraged to get an understanding of how this law affects countries that were formerly British colonies today – for example by looking at how recently it was repealed in India and how many countries still have it in their laws.

Source 5 is the calling card left by Marquis of Queensbury calling Oscar Wilde a ‘posing sodomite’. Students can be encouraged to explore why it would have been dangerous to be accused of something like this. This source could also be paired with an exploration of the story of Fanny and Stella, who were on trial for sodomy in 1870. They were deemed not guilty as the act of sodomy couldn’t be proven. This indirectly led to the ‘Labouchere Amendment’ of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which made it illegal for any man to commit an act of ‘gross indecency’ with another man. Sexual acts no longer had to be proven. This was the act Oscar Wilde was convicted under in 1895.

Source 6 shows the attempted introduction in 1921 of a clause intended to criminalise sexual and romantic relationships between women. However, it was rejected by the House of Lords. Students can question why it was rejected, why relations between women were never criminalised, and what the attempted introduction of the clause says about attitudes towards lesbianism in the 1920s.

Source 7a is a police log of people coming in and out of the Shim Sham club, a London club frequented both by Black and LGBTQ+ communities. Students can interrogate why police were watching this club, and why this log was written in the way that it was. This source is paired with Source 7b, a photograph of presumably gay men having a fun day at the beach around 1928-31. These sources together can be used to encourage explorations of what life was like in the 1930s for LGBTQ+ people, showing joyful community gatherings but also police surveillance.

Source 8 is a portrait of Patrick Nelson by Duncan Grant in 1960-63. Patrick Nelson is a rare historical example of a Black gay man whose life is well documented, both through military records and ship logs contained in our collection, and through the love letters sent between him and Duncan Grant contained in the Tate archives. This painting is also a rare example of a depiction of an LGBTQ+ man by another LGBTQ+ man. This source can be used as a start point for students to further explore the life of Patrick Nelson, as well as the Bloomsbury Group, and to also find examples of other LGBTQ+ people of colour in British history. Students should be encouraged to recognise how rare historical depictions of Black LGBTQ+ people are, and to question why that might be.

Source 9a is a discussion from 1954 from the committee putting together the Wolfenden report, which was published in 1957. This report famously laid out the recommendations that homosexual acts between men over 21 in private should be made legal. The recommendations weren’t implemented until ten years later in the Sexual Offences Act 1967. This source reveals for students the debates that went on behind the scenes, highlighting the negative attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in the late 1950s. However, it also reveals the arguments that led to the recommendations being made.

Source 9b is a table showing the number of offences of ‘indecency’ between males in England and Wales 1946-76. It covers the period directly before and after the Sexual Offences Act 1967, in which homosexual acts were legalised. It shows how, contrary to what we might think, arrests actually went up after this act. This is because, while homosexual acts were now legal, it was under very strict circumstances – only in private and only between men over the age of 21. Both the public and the police were now better informed about these strict conditions and more primed to be on the lookout for anyone breaching them. Homosexual acts would not be on the same legal standing as heterosexual acts until 2004.

Source 10 is an article by April Ashley, a model who was outed as being transgender in 1961. The article is a rare example in our records of a transgender person’s own perspective, rather than that of government officials. It shows her describing her emotions when meeting her mother for the first time since transitioning, and her excitement about her upcoming wedding to Arthur Corbett. Their divorce would eventually lead to a ruling that their marriage was never legal due to Ashley’s assigned sex at birth. This source highlights the personal and emotional side of her story, not just the important legal precedent that it set, which tied transgender people’s legal status to their biological sex rather than their gender identities. This did not change until the 2004 Gender Recognition Act.

Source 11a-d are photos from a 1976 Drag Ball at Porchester Hall in West London. These photos show an example of British ballroom culture. Taken together with Source 12, they can provide a more nuanced view of what life for LGBTQ+ people was like in the 1970s. These photos can also be paired with Source 7a to show the evolution of LGBTQ+ spaces in London.

Source 12 is a letter from the late 1970s from the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. It was written because of a review of obscenity laws taking place, arguing for better representation of LGBTQ+ people in these laws. It reveals the limits of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, how negative attitudes remained prevalent, and lets students hear directly from activists writing at the time.

Source 13a is related to a government-run public health campaign about HIV/AIDS in 1986. At the time, AIDS had infected over 20,000 people in the UK, mostly men having sex with other men. The government wished to stop the disease from spreading and ease the pressure this was putting on hospitals with a public health campaign to inform the public about how to protect themselves from AIDS. Students can examine the language used in this letter, as well as Thatcher’s handwritten notes on the page, to explore government attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community and AIDS at this time. This is paired with Source 13b, a photograph of a ‘die-in’ protest by activists, reflecting the community response to government policies around AIDS.

Source 14 is a protest leaflet against Clause 28 from an organisation of LGBTQ+ British people residing in the United States. This source shows the argument from the LGBTQ+ community against Clause or Section 28, introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1988. This leaflet shows the large protest movement that was happening against the clause, both in Britain and overseas. It’s also important to point out that this piece of legislation came after many years of the AIDS crisis during which homosexuality was increasingly stigmatised and associated with disease. The clause was not repealed until 2003 – teachers may want to explore with students how LGBTQ+ issues are talked about in school nowadays, and how different it may have been only a few decades ago.

Finally, Source 15 is a page from a 1989 newsletter from the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre. It showcases the range of community activities that were present at this time and gives a different view of what life was like for LGBTQ+ people during the AIDS crisis and Section 28.

External links

LGBTQIA+ Archives | Bishopsgate Institute

One of the most extensive collections on LGBTQIA+ history in the UK covering the late nineteenth century onward.

A Short History of LGBT Rights in the UK | The British Library

From the British Library, a timeline of the LGBTQ+ community from 1533 to today.

Gay Black Group

Video from BFI about the formation of the Gay Black Group in 1980s London.

Aids – Iceberg advert

Video from BFI showing the famous 1987 ‘iceberg’ public information film informing the British public about AIDS.

Key dates for lesbian, gay, bi and trans equality

From Stonewall UK, a timeline of LGBTQ+ history from the 1950s onwards.

Your Story, Our History: LGBTQ+ legislation

Education videos and resource pack from the UK Parliament about LGBTQ+ rights and legislation.

LGBTQ+ History | English Heritage

Learn about LGBTQ+ stories uncovered at English Heritage sites.

Pride of Place: England’s LGBTQ Heritage

From Historic England, learn about LGBTQ+ history and heritage across England.

Queer Britain

Queer Britain is the UK’s first national museum about the LGBTQ+ community.

LGBTQ+ Archives – The National Archives blog

Blogs from The National Archives about LGBTQ+ history.

The National Archives LGBTQ+ history research guide

Research guide for finding LGBTQ+ history within The National Archives.

Connections to curriculum


Key stage 4

  • GCSE History EDEXCEL: Crime and punishment in 1700 to present day: nature and changing definitions of criminal activity.
  • GCSE History AQA: Power and the people: Equality and rights
  • GCSE History OCR: Crime and punishment, c.1250 to present

Key stage 5

  • Edexcel A level History: Britain in the later 20th Century: 1945- 90: Consensus and Conflict
  • OCR A level History:  Britain under Margaret Thatcher 1979–90
  • AQA A level History: The Making of Modern Britain, 1951–2007


AQA AS-level Sociology:

  • 2.2.2 Families and Households

AQA A-level Sociology:

  • 2.1 Culture and Identity
  • 2.2 Families and Households
  • 3.1 Crime and Deviance

OCR AS and A-level Sociology:

  • Introducing socialisation, culture and identity
  • Families and relationships
  • Media


The lesson could be used to support a school PSHE programme of study for Key stage 4.

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 4, Key stage 5

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750, Empire and Industry 1750-1850, Interwar 1918-1939, Postwar 1945-present, Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: Crime and Punishment, Diverse histories, LGBTQ+ Histories, The British Empire, Victorians

Suggested inquiry questions: How have LGBTQ+ people’s lives changed over the last 300 years? How have they not? To what extent do different laws and policies affect people’s individual lives?

Potential activities: Create a timeline of LGBTQ+ laws in the UK. Plot each of these sources on the timeline. What kind of laws are affecting the people in each source?

Download: Lesson pack

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