Queen Elizabeth II Ruled During A Time Of Great Change For Gay Rights, But She Left A Complex Legacy For The LGBTQ Community

According to one historian, the queen avoided giving her opinion on issues considered political, such as LGBTQ rights, to represent unity.

As soon as Queen Elizabeth II took over the throne in 1952 after her father died, same-sex sexual relations were criminalized across the British Empire. The same laws were also adopted in all those Commonwealth nations that it colonized. 

Because she approved of many pro-LGBTQ measures, such as same-sex marriage, by the time she died, the landscape for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer rights looked dramatically different – at least in the United Kingdom. Her support of LGBTQ rights has led some to claim that she was a “quiet” supporter, but others said that she was just doing what she was supposed to do.

“The 1950s were one of the worst times for LGBTQ people,” said Charles Upchurch, a professor of British history at Florida State University. To arrest and prosecute queer people, specifically men, for same-sex sexual relations, the British government used the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act — which sentenced playwright and poet Oscar Wilde to prison in 1895.

It took nearly 40 years for Parliament to repeal the 1885 measure and in 2003 decriminalize gay sex completely after years of gay activism. 

It was Queen Elizabeth II who approved both of these measures and continued to approve policies for LGBT individuals. In March 2013, she signed a historic equality charter, and just a few months later, she signed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, a law legalizing same-sex marriages in England and Wales. 

She announced in May 2021 that the U.K. would ban conversion therapy, which attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The queen’s support of these measures has been interpreted as an expression of her personal views, but Upchurch said that would not be accurate, as the queen will assent to all bills passed by Parliament.

His main point was that when she presents her annual queen’s speech, she simply summarizes government policy, and “it doesn’t reflect her personality at all.” 

She is supposed to be a symbol of what unites Britain, not what divides it, Upchurch said. “She should not resist, nor should she try to put her mark on legislation or initiatives adopted by the government that wins the election.”

According to the Royal family’s website, political power began to shift away from the throne during Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901. 

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As a result of her purposeful absence from politics, Upchurch said, people shouldn’t assume she passed pro-LGBTQ legislation. As for Section 28, which she enacted as a law in 1988 that prohibits schools from teaching the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship, he said, she shouldn’t be held responsible for its passage. 

Upchurch said that it’s inappropriate to attribute LGBTQ legislation to her as a reflection of her personal opinion because it has passed and she has given her assent to it. For most of LGBTQ rights history, it has been very political, politicized, and partisan. She doesn’t express her own opinion on a lot of political issues.

In the 1980s, the queen avoided politicized issues such as HIV. Therefore, Upchurch said, queer people were amazed when Princess Diana became involved in AIDS activism. In 1987, Princess Diana opened the first HIV/AIDS unit in the U.K. at London’s Middlesex Hospital, and she later visited patients in New York City and London. 

Her position certainly was very different from the queen’s, but she also had a connection to the royal family, and she was involved in AIDS charity work, which deeply affected many people and was very moving to them, Upchurch said. Those aren’t the kinds of things we’ve seen her do over the course of her reign, but I think it has more to do with the way she perceives her role in relation to the government and the people than with her own feelings about LGBTQ issues.”

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