Did Queen Elizabeth II fight for gay rights? Hmmm… maybe not


The passing of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II is without doubt a historic moment. She’s Britain, and Australia’s, longest reigning monarch who served for over 70 years, but platitudes describing the Queen as a champion of LGBTIQA+ rights are questionable.

It’s not surprising that news of her death, and the ascension of King Charles III to the throne, has dominated the news cycle for the last two days. The 96-year-old passed away peacefully at her Scottish home of Balmoral on Thursday triggering a wave of tributes, praise and recollections.

The world today is extremely different to the one that existed when the 25-year-old Queen Elizabeth began in her role back on the 6th of February 1952. The musical Singin’ in the Rain was a new release at the cinema, most homes didn’t own a television, the first ‘Don’t Walk’ sign was installed at a cross walk in New York City, and homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom.

US based queer focused publication LGBTQNation announced the monarch passing describing her as a “quiet supporter of LGBTQ rights”. They noted the Queen’s 2013 pardon of mathematician Alan Turing as a turning point where Elizabeth II began publicly showing her support for gay rights.

They also acknowledged that the same year the monarch signed a charter for Commonwealth nations that said the signatories opposed ““all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, color, creed, political belief or other grounds.”

The Commonwealth was committed to supporting LGBTIQA+ rights to the level that it fell into the etcetera and vagueness of “other rights”.

The Queen however was only fulfilling her role and following the instructions of the government of the day. Almost all of the quotes that highlight Her Majesty saying something positive about LGBTIQA+ communities are from events like the opening of parliament – where she reads out the government of the day’s plans for the year ahead, or from the passage of bills.

While the Queen would have signed the laws which decriminalised homosexuality in 1958, in the 1980s she also endorsed the Thatcher government’s Clause 28 legislation which stopped homosexuality being “promoted” within government buildings. Something that the government would apologise for decades later.

During her 2003 opening of parliament the Queen said the words “same sex couples” for the first time when she announced the government’s plan to introduce civil unions. It would be more than a decade before she was publicly heard saying other words related to the LGBTIQA+ communities.

It was not until 2014 that the Queen publicly said the words “gay” or “lesbian”. As London’s Gay and Lesbian Switchboard celebrated their 40th anniversary, the Queen made history by acknowledging their existence. Sixty-two years after she took up her role.

As Britain passed through the AIDS Crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, Princess Diana was praised for breaking down barriers and reducing stigma around the virus. There have been reports claiming the Queen suggested she focus on something “more pleasant”.

It would be 2017 before the Queen mentioned “sexual orientation” for the first time, again it was in a speech for the opening of parliament. The speech is written by the government of the day, and simply read by the monarch.

“My government will make further progress to tackle the gender pay gap and discrimination against people on the basis of their race, faith, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.” Queen Elizabeth said.

In a social media post noting her passing Perth’s LGBTIQA venue The Court Hotel cited this speech as an example of how “Her majesty Queen Elizabeth II served our country and fought for LGBTQ+ rights”

But it wasn’t about our country – and she was simply reciting the government’s position. In 2021 at the opening of parliament she read out the government’s commitment to banning conversion therapy.

In the television drama The Crown, which presents a fictional version of the Queen’s reign, there are scenes where the Elizabeth II is shows as being at ease with “friends of Dorothy”. Whether the scene is based on true life accounts or is simply creative speculation is unknown.

Unknown is probably the best way to describe the Queen’s attitudes towards LGBTIQA+ rights. Her role required her to remain politically neutral, and she was a master of not letting on what her personal views were.

For all the law changes, speeches and symbols that can be cited as signs of her support for gay rights, there are just as many signs that could be interpreted as negatives.

In 2018 there was significant press highlighting that 21-year-old Ollie Roberts, a young gay man, was serving as one of the Queen’s footmen. Soon after Roberts was demoted for “courting publicity” with accusations he had spoken to media outlets and encouraged the reports. He resigned from his role.

The same year the Queen’s cousin Lord Ivar Mountbatten married his partner James Coyle, some people have suggested that fact that the Queen did not attend his wedding is a sign that she may not be supportive of same-sex marriages.

It would be an unfair judgement though, as the Queen rarely attended weddings outside of her immediate family, and as Lord Mountbatten was divorced it may have also been a factor. As the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, she didn’t attend her own son’s second wedding.

As an employer the Queen is exempt from most of the Britain’s anti-discrimination laws and papers have shown that in the 1960s Buckingham Palace had strict rules forbidding the hiring of staff from ethnic minorities.

Each year the Queen threw a ball for her staff, same-sex partners were not allowed to attend until there was a public outcry in 1994.

Most importantly though, homosexuality remains illegal in 32 of the 54 countries which are members of the Commonwealth. Additionally, many former British colonies still have colonial era laws outlawing homosexuality.

In Brunei and Northern Nigeria gay people face the death penalty. Jamaicans face 10 years imprisonment and hard labour. In Kenya people face 14 years in jail, Malaysia has law that calls for 20 years imprisonment and flogging, and LGBTIQA+ people can face life sentences in Bangladesh, Barbados, Guyana, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda.

Elizabeth II was the Queen of England and Queen of Australia, she was Queen of Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Jamaica, Papua and New Guinea, Saint Lucia, the Solomon Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, and she was also Queen of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Homosexuality only became legal in Antigua and Barbuda on the 5th July this year, the laws in St Kitts and Nevis were struck down by courts less than a fortnight ago. Same-sex sexual activity is still illegal in Papua and New Guinea, as it is in Jamaica – where people face torture and vigilante beatings – and homosexuality is still illegal in St Lucia, the Solomon Islands, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

If she was a “quiet supporter” who “fought for” LGBTIQA+ rights, she must have been doing it very quietly, subtly and incredibly slowly.

Graeme Watson 

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