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Queen Elizabeth II ruled through decades of change on gay rights, but her LGBTQ legacy is complicated

The queen was supposed to be a symbol of unity, one historian said, which led her to refrain from giving her opinion on issues seen as partisan, such as LGBTQ rights.
The Queen Receives The President Of Kazakhstan
Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace on November 4, 2015.Chris Jackson / Getty Images file

In 1952, when Queen Elizabeth II took the throne after the death of her father, same-sex sexual relations were criminalized in Britain. The same laws were also brought to the Commonwealth countries that it colonized. 

By the time she died, the landscape for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights looked dramatically different — at least in the United Kingdom — in part because she approved of many pro-LGBTQ measures, such as same-sex marriage. That support has led some to argue that she was a “quiet” supporter of LGBTQ rights, but to others she was just doing her job.

Image: Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II waves to the crowd from the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London following her coronation, on June 3, 1953.AP file

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

After years of gay activism, Parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which partially decriminalized same-sex sexual relations. Nearly 40 years later, it passed the Sexual Offences Act of 2003, which repealed the 1885 measure and decriminalized gay sex completely. 

Queen Elizabeth II gave both of the measures her royal assent and went on to continue to approve pro-LGBTQ policies. She signed a historic equal rights charter in March 2013, and just a few months later, she gave her royal assent to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, which legalized same-sex marriage in England and Wales. 

In May 2021, she announced that the U.K. would ban so-called conversion therapy, which is a discredited practice that attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Some have taken the queen’s support of these measures as an expression of her personal views, but Upchurch said that wouldn’t be accurate, because the queen will give her assent to any bill that passes Parliament.

Same sex marriages
Ron Williams, left, and Ian Scott embrace after becoming one of 10 same-sex couples to convert their civil partnerships into marriages simultaneously at Brighton Town Hall, Brighton, East Sussex, England, on Dec. 10, 2014. Gareth Fuller / PA Wire/Press Association Images file

When she presents her annual queen’s speech, he said, she is simply stating what the government policy is, and “it’s not her personality at all coming through.” 

“She’s a constitutional monarch — she is supposed to be a symbol of what unites Britain, not what divides it,” Upchurch continued. “She’s not supposed to resist at all and try and put her stamp on legislation or initiatives of the government that wins the election.”

Beginning with the reign of Queen Victoria, who was the monarch from 1837 to 1901, political power moved away from the throne, according to the Royal family’s website

Given her purposeful distance from politics, Upchurch said, people shouldn’t credit the queen with the passage of pro-LGBTQ legislation. By the same token, he added, she shouldn’t be held responsible for the passage of Section 28, a 1988 law that she gave her assent to that barred schools from “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” 

“I just don’t think it’s right to ascribe to her the LGBTQ legislation that has passed and she has given her assent to as somehow reflecting her personal opinion,” Upchurch said. “She doesn’t express her personal opinion on a lot of issues that are political, and for most of the history of LGBTQ rights, it has been very political and politicized and very partisan.”

One politicized issue that the queen refrained from engaging in was the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. So when Princess Diana became closely involved in AIDS activism, Upchurch said, it was “amazing” to queer people. Princess Diana opened the U.K.’s first HIV/AIDS unit at London’s Middlesex Hospital in 1987, and she also went on to visit patients in hospitals in New York City and London. 

“She was certainly in a very different position from the queen, but was someone with a connection to the royal family, reaching out and doing AIDS charity work, and many people were deeply affected by that and found that very moving,” Upchurch said. “That’s not the type of thing that we saw from the queen over the course of her reign, but I think that has more to do with how she sees her role in relationship to the government and the people as opposed to her personal feelings on LGBTQ issues.”

But some LGBTQ people have said they would have liked to have seen Queen Elizabeth II do more. 

Oz Katerji, a journalist who lives in London, said he believes the queen had “precisely zero impact” on LGBTQ rights, “and while many would correctly argue that staying neutral was part of her job, she could have made gestures that she simply never chose to make.”

Katerji, 35, said he would have liked to see the queen make a gesture on anything related to LGBTQ rights, but noted that “she never made any gestures towards anything else either, so people project their beliefs onto her.”

Kacper Surdy, who lives in Peterborough, England, said that he believes the queen has had a positive impact on LGBTQ rights. 

“The broad consensus here in the U.K. is that although the monarchy is the epitome of tradition, Elizabeth II was very progressive,” Surdy, 19, said. “She was a queen for all people.”

Surdy also pointed to some recent reporting that the queen has expressed support for LGBTQ people behind closed doors.

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Queen Elizabeth II during a visit to HMS Queen Elizabeth at HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, ahead of the ship's maiden deployment, on May 22, 2021.Steve Parsons / PA/AP file

Carl Austin-Behan, the first openly gay lord mayor of Manchester, met the monarch in 2021, he told the BBC after her death. He said the queen requested an LGBTQ choir to perform at an event to mark the 600th anniversary of the royal charter to establish Manchester Cathedral.

Austin-Behan was discharged from the Royal Air Force in 1997 because he was gay, and he told the BBC that he and the queen talked about how far the country had come.

“I feel she genuinely cared about our community,” he told the BBC.

Some people have also pointed to her 2013 pardon of Alan Turing, a World War II code breaker often referred to as the “father of computer science” who was convicted of “homosexual offenses” under the 1885 law. 

Upchurch, however, said the pardon and some of her other actions on LGBTQ rights are likely part of a “readjustment” that helps to keep the monarchy in line with popular opinion rather than her own opinion.

“I would hope that this is a sort of expression of what she might feel personally, but I think that she is so good at what she does in her job that it’s difficult to say that for sure,” he said, “because again, she is a symbol that is above politics.”

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