Saying “being gay used to be illegal” is a simple way of saying “historically throughout history the LGBT community has faced discrimination, often on behalf of the church and state, and often resulting in harsh punishments such as death, imprisonment, and castration. The sad-punchline is, of course, that many countries, regions, and cultures still criminalize the identities and relationships found in LGBT community today.
Was it Illegal to “Be Gay”? Is “Being Gay” Still Illegal?
“Being gay” (same-sex activity and partnership) used to be illegal in the U.S. and the U.K., and being gay is still illegal in many parts of the world. The details are complex.
Prior to 20th-century reforms, punishment for homosexuality in places like the United States and the Britain included incarceration, fines, castration, and even death. Even after aspects of same-sex relationships were decriminalized, discrimination and prejudice on behalf of the state continued in many respects. 
LGBT rights throughout world history is a complex subject. Some cultures had progressive stances on LGBT issues long before Britain and the US, yet other cultures still consider “being gay” a crime punishable by death and imprisonment today. Even today, state-sponsored LGBT discrimination still exists in the West. For instance, same sex marriage only recently became legal in the U.S. and still illegal in Northern Ireland. 
In all there are (roughly) 79 countries where being gay is illegal (subject to change) and there are still a few US states that still have discriminatory laws toward the LGBT community.A History of LGBT rights at the UN. The U.K. and U.S. have made progress (along with a number of other progressive countries), but when we consider the world as a whole, the story gets darker.
THOUGHTS: How do you prove someone is gay? Think about that one for a second.
Quick Answers on LGBT Rights
LGBT rights in regards to the world stage are complex, as mentioned above. With that in mind here is a few simple answers.
- When was Homosexuality Legalized in the US? It differs by state; reform started in 1962, is mostly in place between 1986 – 2014, and is still ongoing. See Sodomy Laws in the US.
- When was Homosexuality Legalized in the UK? It differs by region, reform started in 1932 in Poland, in 1967 in Britain, is mostly in place by 1987, and is still ongoing. See Sodomy Laws in the World.
- How Many Countries have Not Yet Decriminalized Homosexuality? About 80 of 195 countries in the world still have laws discriminating against homosexuality.
FACT: Being lesbian and being a male homosexual were often treated differently in history. For instance, it was never criminal to for women to be lesbians in Britain.
FACT: In 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote a law in Virginia which contained a punishment of castration for men who engaged in sodomy. At the time, death was the maximum penalty for the crime of sodomy, so the law was meant to be “liberal.” That gives you an idea of how homosexuality was treated. Jefferson’s reform was rejected by the Virginia Legislature. 
A Quick History of LGBT Rights in the 20th and 21st Century
The history of each state, country, or region in regards to LGBT rights isn’t something that can be summed up neatly. I won’t try; rather I’ll just point you at a well laid out time line and explain a few key points. :
- Prior to the 20th century, LGBT rights and discrimination can simply be studied along with world history. Every culture has dealt with this, because, you know, people are born gay and always have been. When we consider that “partaking in same-sex activity” is not the same as “being gay”, and that gender identity is different than sexual identity, the discussion obviously becomes more nuanced.
- An encyclopedia like series could be created on the stories, the criminalization, and sometimes discrimination and acceptance of LGBT. There are many points in history and many cultures you wouldn’t think of as progressive, that have amazing stories predating LGBT rights in America and the UK. For instance, in the 19th century, the Netherlands, Brazil, and what is now Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) all decriminalized homosexuality. Around the same time, the last known execution for homosexuality took place in Britain.
- Around the early 1900’s with the rise of feminism, technology, and WWI people started “coming out” (gay pubs were opening, and feminists were bravely standing up for LGBT rights).
- In 1932, Poland codified the equal age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals at 15. This is the first notable reform in our modern 20th – 21st-century history of the U.K.
- In 1937 the first use of the pink triangle for gay men in Nazi concentration camps.
- In 1938, the word Gay is used for the first time on film in reference to homosexuality
- In 1957, the word “Transsexual” is coined by U.S. physician Harry Benjamin.
- In 1961 Illinois becomes the first U.S. state to remove sodomy law from its criminal code through passage of the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code.
- 1967, the Black Cat Tavern in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles is raided on New Year’s day by 12 plainclothes police officers who beat and arrested employees and patrons. The raid prompted a series of protests that began on 5 January 1967, organized by P.R.I.D.E. (Personal Rights in Defense and Education). It’s the first use of the term “Pride” that came to be associated with LGBT rights.
- In 1967, The Sexual Offences Act decriminalized homosexual acts between two men over 21 years of age in private in England and Wales.
- In 1969, The Stonewall riots occur in New York. This year sees a lot of anxiety, rebellion, and the start of reform across the U.S. and U.K.
- In 1970, The first Gay Liberation Day March is held in New York City.
- In 1972, Sweden becomes first country in the world to allow transsexuals to legally change their sex.
- In 1988, Massachusetts Representative Gerry Studds reveals he is gay on the floor of the House, becoming the first openly gay member of Congress.
- In 1988, Sweden is the first country to pass laws protecting homosexual regarding social services, taxes, and inheritances.
- By the end of the 80’s many parts of the U.S. and most of the U.K. had decriminalized same-sex activity (but not all, and not all laws were equal, to say the least).
- In 1991, The red ribbon is first used as a symbol of the campaign against HIV/AIDS.
- From the 90’s until now LGBT rights progress quickly and it becomes near impossible to fit all the milestones on a short list like this.
- By 2001, the last two pieces of unequal law regarding gay male sex are changed.
- By the mid-2000’s civil partnerships became legal.
- In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI condemns British equality legislation for running contrary to “natural law” as he confirmed his first visit to the UK.
- On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that states must license and recognize same-sex marriages. Consequently, same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands and Northern Mariana Islands.
REMINDER: I know that we missed some really important milestones above. Feel free to make suggestions. Comment below.
See Wikipedia’s timeline of LGBT history here.LGBT History and History of Homosexuality – Documentary Youtube
FACT: Victims of discriminatory laws in the west included important historical figures like Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing (both charged with “gross indecency”). Those who circumvented the laws and remained in the shadows, like J. Edgar Hoover, also likely had calculate-able affects on culture. And Those who died in the name of LGBT rights like Harvey Milk are important figures to remember as well. Next to these greats stand countless men and women who all deserve mention, even though their names may not be mentioned in any history.
- “LGBT rights in Europe” Wikipedia.org
- “LGBT rights in the United Kingdom” Wikipedia.org
- “LGBT rights in the United States” Wikipedia.org
- “Same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom” Wikipedia.org
- “Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments” press-pubs.UChicago.edu
- “Timeline of LGBT history” Wikipedia.org