Before Stonewall: The Challenge and Progress of Homosexual Law Reform


In the past few weeks the British parliament passed legislation to move forward in allowing same sex couples to marry in England and Wales. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill for England and Wales received its first reading on 24 January 2013. On 5 February 2013, the House of Commons debated the bill, and later approved the legislation on second reading in a 400–175 vote. Hitherto, civil unions were allowed between same sex couples under the law since 2005. This is very welcome news indeed. Certainly English society has come a long way from when homosexual sex between consenting adults were decriminalized in 1967. Still, there is determined opposition to amending the law to allow same sex marriage, most notably from religious institutions. The Catholic Church in England and Wales together with the Church of England are campaigning against this legislation. The Muslim Council of Britain and the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue are also opposed. The more things change, the more they stay the same it seems.

The shift in public attitudes towards gay people that has allowed for tolerance and increasingly acceptance across the Western world is largely attributed to the Stonewall riots which took place in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1969. Following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, three days of rioting by gay people, fed up with police harassment, erupted. In the aftermath a more determined drive for gay liberation was born. While this is true, it is worth noting that there had been a campaign for the civil rights of gay people years before the Stonewall riots. For example, in the United States, the Mattachine Society, the first national gay rights organization, was founded by Harry Hay in 1950. The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian civil rights organization, was founded in San Francisco in 1955. These and other homophile societies as they called themselves worked toward effecting a change in public attitudes with the desired goal of the decriminalization of homosexuality. Religious opposition to homosexuality was as pronounced, if not more so, during the 1950s and 1960s, but then as now, there were exceptions. For example, the Council on Religion and the Homosexual was founded in 1964 by the Glide Memorial Methodist Church and representatives of Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran and the United Church of Christ. Its mandate was to educate the church going public and to advocate for rights of gay people.

The Challenge and Progress of Homosexual Law Reform was published by the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in 1968 with contributions from other groups representing gay and lesbian people. It is a collection of essays which survey the history of attitudes and laws concerning homosexuality in England and the United States, noting the decriminalization of homosexual sex acts in England in 1967. At the time of publication, Illinois had become the first state to decriminalize homosexual sex in 1961. New York State attempted a revision of its laws concerning homosexuality in 1965, but this failed to pass. Pennsylvania, Delaware and Michigan had finished reports of revision commissions recommending decriminalization and California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Washington had set up reform commissions to review the laws concerning homosexuality. It concludes, optimistically, that “the homosexual minority will reap concrete benefits from changed laws and changing attitudes.” While this has largely come to pass, as evidenced by the recent legislation in England and Wales, the struggle gay people face for their civil rights continues in the present as does the vehement religious opposition.

Posted by Geoffrey

6 thoughts on “Before Stonewall: The Challenge and Progress of Homosexual Law Reform

  1. geoffreyandmika Post author

    Thank you so much for commenting and do know that your support will go a long way particularly for younger gay people who are struggling with their identity, especially those who are growing up in a religious culture that neither accepts nor tolerates people with a homosexual orientation.

  2. Jeanette Heguy

    I completely agree with this post and can’t begin to explain how much I support your cause. It’s time that people begin to care more about each other and understand that homosexuals also have the right to be happy and enjoy all the goodness of marriage as heterosexual couples do. Do know that you have my complete support!

  3. geoffreyandmika Post author

    I am finding it interesting how some Christian clergy and churches were involved in the early effort to uphold the civil rights of gay people. Sometimes support comes from the least likely sources.

  4. gmorado88

    Growing up in the UK I used to frequent a couple of gay themed pubs where often older gay men would reside. It was fascinating to hear history changing from the perspective of someone who was there. I feel it is important for younger gay people to understand this, because they should not take their rights for granted and need to realise that things can and do get better in the future.


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