New equality laws mark another major step in protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. Coming after a series of landmark reforms, is the job now done for gay rights campaigners?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
It is not as photogenic as its predecessor, which was hailed with showers of confetti and kisses on town hall steps.
But the Equality Act, coming 16 months after civil partnerships made the headlines, could later be judged as equally significant, at least in its symbolism.
It is not a piece of legislation welcomed by all and it was bitterly opposed by parts of the Catholic Church. But it marks the last of a series of major legal reforms which have transformed the treatment of homosexuality by the state.
As well as civil partnerships, there has been a lowering of the age of consent and the repeal of Section 28, which prevented councils and schools from intentionally promoting homosexuality.
THE EQUALITY ACT
bans discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief or sexual orientation in the provision of goods, facilities and services, the management of premises, education and the exercise of public functions
establishes the Commission for Equality and Human Rights to replace existing commissions governing race, disability and equal opportunities
Although gay rights campaigning is older than we thought - a document discovered last week reveals written protests as early as 1749 - the speed of change in the last 10 years is unprecedented.
And last year Sir Ian McKellen remarked that the EuroPride march, once a strong political statement urging equality, had instead become a "celebration".
So does this act mark the end of the road for gay rights campaigning?
"It's one of the final jigsaw pieces to put in place," says Angela Eagle, one of the few openly lesbian MPs. But there are a few reforms required "round the edges", she adds, such as harsher sentences for violence targeting homosexuals and women.
The journey of the gay rights movement from fringe to political mainstream is neatly reflected by the career of Peter Tatchell, who began protesting in the UK in 1971 and is now preparing to stand as parliamentary candidate for the Green Party.
"We've overturned nearly all the homophobic legal discrimination in the last decade," he says. "The gay rights movement has been one of the most successful law reform movements of all time."
More than 30 years ago, the focus was on police harassment, the medical classification of homosexuality as a disease and pubs that refused to serve gays and lesbians.
1999: Ban lifted on serving in Armed Forces
2001: Age of consent made 16
2002: Same-sex couples can adopt
2003: Repeal of Section 28
2005: Civil partnerships
2007: Equality laws
Things have moved quickly since but there's still plenty to do, says Mr Tatchell, not least fixing the "sexual apartheid" which stops gay people from getting married and heterosexual couples from civil partnerships.
Other outstanding issues include addressing injustice for asylum seekers fleeing homophobic persecution and punishing homophobic reggae singers and Muslim clerics who openly advocate the murder of gay people but escape prosecution, he says.
But changing the law isn't everything, he says, because there are still bastions of homophobia such as sport and business.
Michael Cashman MEP, who co-founded Stonewall in 1988 with Ian McKellen and Douglas Slater, says: "Just because we have achieved equality doesn't mean we pack up and go home."
Laws can be changed suddenly, he says, and there is still homophobia within religious organisations and a rising tide of prejudice in eastern Europe.
Cashman (left) says the EastEnders gay kiss changed attitudes
Twenty years ago, Mr Cashman's on-screen gay kiss as Colin in EastEnders caused a storm and he believes that storyline began the social change which happened alongside the legal reform.
And the way the Pride events have become less political as a result is something to celebrate and not regret, he says.
"I think young gay people recognise that if you don't have time to party, you don't have time to live. Equality is absolutely about getting on with your life and the difference being taken out of the equation.
"What I love about Pride is seeing our Armed Forces and our police and fire service and ambulance service marching in their uniform, feeling proud and not feeling under threat."
But Mr Tatchell says young gay people should be more aware of the battles of the past.
"Since most of the institutional homophobia has been overturned, there's a creeping apathy and complacency within the lesbian and gay community.
"Most people no longer see the need to campaign. They take all the recent recognition for granted and assume that the battle for equality is over."
Ian Burford and Alex Cannell, partners for 45 years, remember the time when attending a gay pub could provoke a police raid and arrest.
"We were criminals and anyone eminent was open to blackmail," says Ian, 74. "But we were lucky our circle of friends were tolerant people living in a city."
They were the first couple to sign the London Partnerships Register in 2001 and say the speed of change has surprised them.
But novelist Jake Arnott, creator of iconic gay gangster Harry Sparks in The Long Firm, hopes the legal reform is just the beginning.
"In the 70s there was a much stronger notion of liberation. It's good there's a sense of a level playing field but I think what needs to happen is a sort of return to that idea that there needs to be a whole sense of liberation about sexuality and gender.
"The problem is that it [this act] means everything is parcelled up and everyone gets their own slice of things, but there's still a huge problem in the way people express themselves or are allowed to express themselves in their emotional and sexual lives."
A selection of your comments appears below.
Clearly as many of the responses have shown, whilst laws have moved on, many peoples outdated attitudes have not. As wonderful as legal equality is, this does not necessarily transmit to everyday queer experiences. If we look at attitudes towards homosexuality (and transgenderism) in our schools we see how little attitudes towards queer people have really moved on. Moreover covert heterosexism that is the staple of most work environments makes the reality of that 'equality' hard to accept. Legal equality is great, now lets have social equality.
Debbie Clements, Manchester
The greatest tragedy is that since we've gained more equality in the UK, the concept of the political gay pride movement has died out. Try taking your civil partnership certificate outside Europe and see how equal you are. There are gay people in the world whose relationships are illegal, as they were here 40 years ago. We need gay pride marches which demand worldwide equality, not parades of drag queens. Whatever happened to campaigning?
Steve, Coventry, UK
Look at the picture globally and tell me the job is done!! There are many, many countries where a woman doesn't even have a voice, let alone a vote or the 'right' to be gay. we are born as we are there are many , many who still wake up afraid.
If I still get people yelling anti-gay abuse at me when I walk past my local pub, how can the job be done for gay rights campaigners? If you're straight you never get heterophobic abuse thrown at you - in that respect, you will always be "more equal".
Jon, London UK
Why is everyone who is against the practice of homosexuality called 'homophobic'? The dictionary defines a phobia as: 'a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it'. I'm against the practice of homosexuality, but I'm not afraid of gays or lesbians - I treat them with the same respect as everyone else. I just don't agree with their lifestyle. Please don't apply words that are not true or correct. My last boss of four years was a gay man and we got on fine and worked very well together - I just didn't agree with his lifestyle.
Leo Donaghy , London
No, everything isn't done. The comments from Leo Donaghy prove it.. the use of the words practice and lifestyle are deeply offensive... look up the term practice and tell me that relates to day-to-day life as a gay or lesbian living in the 21st Century.. This government and the EU have done some amazing things to repeal laws that discriminated against gay and lesbian people living in Britain but until people understand you don't practise, choose to be gay or live it as a lifestyle, the battle is not over. As for getting on well with us but not agreeing with our lifestyle, aren't we a lucky bunch?!
Justin, Greenwich, London
I think as far as gay marriages go, the job has indeed been done. Gay people can obtain the same rights as a married couple which I think was one of the major reasons for it being introduced. I don't really see what else there is to achieve with this issue apart from perhaps religious ceremonies allowing gay marriage but that can only be down to the church's discretion.
Andrew Harvey, Portsmouth
Life's a lot better for gay people, agreed. But the UK is only one country and we don't have to go too far to find open discrimination or worse. And how can it be offensive to children seeing two people kissing whilst there are children being exposed daily to bombs, murder, rape, starvation and 100 other horrible things and all you have to do is watch the news to see it? The only sick thing here is this obsession some adults have of who falls in love with whom and who has sex with whom.
The majority of insurers will require gay men to take an HIV test, when sexuality is disclosed on life insurance applications. Outrageous! As Angela Eagle says, there are still lots of bits-and-pieces that need to be done. Three cheers for the Labour government remaining true to its socially liberal traditions and encouraging - even enforcing - equality.
Having read the bill, I think the legislation passed is sound. Changing the law doesn't change attitudes though. Even living in such a socio-liberal city as Brighton there are areas we don't feel safe in at night. This doesn't apply just to gay people however, it applies to all those who could be deemed different. Until our children, and indeed some of us who are much older (who can be conditioned by prejudice) are taught (at home and at school) that there are good folk and bad folk and no other factors for assessment, we cannot truly move forward
Reuben Fennell, Brighton
Whilst I support gay equality perhaps it is now time to stop all the hassle and complaints. They don't have to be "more equal" than others now do they?
We have certainly made strides, leaps and bounds over the last 10 years towards full equality, and I for one will always be grateful to this Labour government. But until gay people can get married like straight people then we will remain unequal in the law. Meanwhile the battles against homophobia and homophobic bullying in schools and colleges continue, and here we have such a long way to go.
David Holder-Twomlow, Birmingham UK
I am old fashioned. I believe in Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. However, I appreciate people have their rights, no matter how odd they appear in my eyes. But I also think this is another example of the state bowing to the wishes of a noisy and aggressive minority. At the same time, how about a promotion of values which research has shown would improve society? Marriage, family, etc. They do this in the States and records show an improvement on un-wanted pregnancies and also divorce rates have dropped. Isn't this the sort of society we want as well?
The past 10 years have been amazing, and I am now in a civil partnership which is recognised by the law. But being gay is just as unremarkable as being straight. No issue can be constantly in the headlines, but the ubiquity of gay people and the everyday lives they are seen to lead feeds the growing acceptance by the general public. Yes, there are zealots out there who will always hate us, but the law is now on our side to protect us.
Tim, North Yorkshire
As a transplanted Brit living in the USA, I commend the UK for taking the bold steps to grant some degree of equality to its gay and lesbian citizens. However, until civil partnerships are accorded legal marriage recognition. They are a step in the right direction, but anyone who truly believes in equality should not settle for second best. Why would anyone want to settle for second-class citizenship which is what civil partnerships are all about, separate but "equal"?? The UK should have followed the lead of Holland, Belgium, Spain, Canada and S. Africa, the only countries that believe in true democracy and equality for all.
Robert W. Pierce, New York, USA
Please do not make the mistake of assuming that we all approve of gay rights, or even the legalisation of homosexuality for under-21s. In particular, the picture of two men kissing is particularly offensive to many people, especially on a website read by children.
Clothilde Simon, Leeds
I myself am straight, but have no problem accepting homosexuals. It is this 'fear' of various things that provokes all the gun crime and other things that the government is desperate to eradicate. Do you think the various black gangs would carry guns if they were not being discriminated against? I think that this is the best thing that has happened in a long time for homosexual couples everywhere. And as for people who feel that the picture of two gay men kissing will offend and 'emotionally scar' children, are you simply saying that the act of showing love between to people will scar children? Hardly, as many people argue that the lack of affection being shown around children is what leads to the yob culture.
A Cousins, Bath
I don't like the way 'religious homophobia' is mentioned in every one of these debates. Established and moderate religious organisations in this country are not 'phobic' of gay people - ie. they don't condone abuse against something they feel threatened by. It's just as much the right of the religious to simply incorporate a disapproval for homosexual acts into their practices as it is for gay people to be allowed to carry out homosexual acts.
It's a bit like being black. You can be told that it's ok to be black although it never changes that you are...black, but what is relevant is how you are treated within society which cannot be legislated. People will always have their fears, misconceptions and prejudices. I would be a hypocrite if I didn't admit mine as a gay black male. I think we have a way to go as it relates to empathy for those who are different from us or hold different beliefs. I feel human rights is a more comprehensive goal for all people not just one group, although if it happens one group at a time, so much the better than not at all.
Kevin Spellman, London, UK
Whilst I wish gay couples no harm, I really do think this has been done to death. After all gay and living sexually with the same sex is not normal or they would be just one sex, it is a fact that men and women mate to reproduce same sex cannot for just this reason. But let's give it a rest now and not shout it from the roof tops.
Marina Dormer, Croydon
Marina, as a straight man I can assure you I have never mated to reproduce. Observing human and primate interaction shows that sex quite clearly isn't for the sole purpose of reproduction.
Ms Dormer remarks - 'it is a fact that men and women mate to reproduce'. I assume she herself only engages in such acts when she is attempting to become pregnant then.
I fully understand the need behind legislation to promote the rights of our community for all. If two people are paying for a house it's only right that they should own half each, or whatever proportion equivalent to their input. That's not gay/straight/race rights, that's just plain fairness. My one thought is that in light of the recent raft of legislation, if gay activists keep up the same rate of public pressure, opinions will start to reverse in society itself. The legislation might be in place but public attitudes will regress, akin to the charity giving fatigue. The public, that includes the non-activist gays, will get tired. I'm a straight man and I can bet you I won't get a fair deal in a divorce court. Legislation never gets it all right. Ps. I still think that any man who fights for the right to get married is of his head ;-)
This is fantastic news for the gay community, it's another step in the right direction but we're still not totally there. For example gay men are still not allowed to give blood, is this not one of the most blatant discriminations of gay men ?