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social sciences

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United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present  
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Towards Greater Freedom

Continuing into the 1990s, concern about Clause 28 inspired numerous celebrities to come out, in emulation of the example of Ian McKellen. In May 1989, McKellen and other celebrities joined with gay and lesbian activists to found the Stonewall Group (now Stonewall UK), a professional parliamentary, legal, and media lobbying organization. One of the primary goals of Stonewall was to establish an all-party parliamentary working group to monitor gay and lesbian issues in legislation and to draft a homosexual equality bill in consultation with both politicians and gay and lesbian organizations.

From the time of its foundation, radical gay and lesbian groups have criticized Stonewall for its efforts to attract celebrity support and its willingness to compromise with the political establishment in order to achieve specific goals. Another organization, OutRage!, founded in May 1990, has opposed Stonewall on many issues. Led by activist Peter Tatchell, OutRage! often engages in civil disobedience to attract attention to gay rights causes.

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Despite their differences, most queer political groups shared the common goal of further legal reform in response to the significant increases in the arrests of homosexual men in the late 1980s. In 1989, police in England and Wales recorded 2,022 arrests for "indecency between males," a number almost equal to the level of arrests made during the 1950s.

Coinciding with the rejuvenation of gay political organizations, the commercial network of cafes, bars, and clubs has been increasingly prominent in London, Manchester, and other major cities since the early 1990s. Catering to the "pink pound," trendy establishments have rejuvenated run-down neighborhoods, including Soho in London's West End and the so-called Gay Village in the vicinity of Canal Street in Manchester. In contrast to earlier British gay and lesbian venues, which tended to be discreetly closed off from the street, the new bars and cafes often have large plate windows that expose their patrons to view.

As some critics have emphasized, the bars and clubs exclude those who cannot afford to patronize them, and they often favor the young and attractive. Nevertheless, some of the businesses contribute significantly to the social and charitable organizations based in surrounding neighborhoods. Furthermore, the increased visibility of queer businesses probably contributed to the assertiveness of the queer community as a whole.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, but accelerating under the Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, a series of steps towards the achievement of equality for gay men and lesbians was achieved. In February 1994, Parliament, with the support of Conservative Prime Minister John Major, voted to reduce the age of consent for male homosexual acts from 21 to 18. Some activists derided this reform because it still left the age of consent higher for male homosexuals than for heterosexuals and lesbians. Nevertheless, Major's approval of this policy marked a notable shift from the aggressively anti-gay stance of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher.

On September 28, 1999, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled that the United Kingdom's ban on gay men and lesbians serving in the military constituted a violation of the basic human right to privacy. The case before the court concerned three men and a woman, who had been discharged during the mid-1990s after their sexual orientation became known. Despite their outstanding records, their appeals for reinstatement were turned down by British courts, and they initiated a joint suit before the European Court in 1996. Utilizing arguments similar to those still endorsed by the United States government, the British government unsuccessfully tried to convince the court that the presence of gay men and lesbians depressed morale in the military and made it difficult for others to do their jobs.

In response to the decision, the British government in January 2000 ended the ban on gay men and lesbians in the military. The new code of conduct instituted at that time emphasized that same-sex (as well as male-female) sexual acts between members of the military were strictly forbidden.

Especially in the past few years, Stonewall's strategy of collaborating with mainstream political groups has proved effective in securing specific legal reforms, although leftist groups continue to oppose any compromise with mainstream perspectives.

Angela Mason, Director of Stonewall from 1992 to 2002, was instrumental in helping to secure Parliamentary support for the Adoption and Children Bill (2002), which provided same-sex couples full parental rights. In 2000, Scotland quietly abolished its equivalent of Clause 28 by an overwhelming vote. In 2003, after repeated attempts by Prime Minister Blair to repeal Clause 28 had been stymied in the House of Lords, the offensive bill was finally repealed. Also in 2003, gay hate crimes were added to the Criminal Justice Bill.

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