There is little reference to homosexuality in London prior to the 20th century, yet today around half a million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people live in the capital.
The earliest evidence of homosexual behaviour comes from court records. Anal sex between men was illegal from 1553 to 1967. However, a number of high profile Londoners, including several monarchs, may have been homosexual.
Since the Wolfenden Report of 1957, homosexuality has been increasingly accepted, particularly in London’s urban milieu. The first London Pride march was held in 1972.
From the mid 1980s, the gay community had to deal with the impact of HIV. The introduction of civil partnerships in 2005 acknowledged the validity of lesbian and gay relationships.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people form one of the largest minority groups in the capital, with an estimated half million gay people currently living in London.
Homosexual life in London is poorly recorded prior to the 20th century. One of the earliest documents dates from 1395 and records the questioning of John Rykener, a cross-dressing prostitute who called himself Eleanor.
The majority of evidence comes from court records of prosecutions for sodomy (anal penetration). The ‘Vice of Buggery’ became punishable by death in 1553. Thus homosexual men sought partners in the secluded areas of public places.
In the 17th century molly houses began to emerge in London. These were rooms in a public or private house which were used as meeting places for ‘mollies’, a term for homosexual men.
In the 18th century the Societies of the Reformation of Manners raided London molly houses and cruising grounds. This resulted in increased prosecutions, imprisonments and suicides of homosexuals.
The history of lesbian London is even more difficult to uncover. Lesbian relationships have never been illegal, so court records do not exist. It has always been acceptable for women to live together and enjoy close relationships.
It is known that female transvestites existed in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially among the poorer classes.
However, not all women who dressed as men were lesbians. Transvestism allowed women to play a fuller part in public life, to have jobs and to be financially independent.
In 1861 the death penalty for buggery was abolished, but the act still remained a crime. In 1885 a new law made it an offence to commit an act of gross indecency with another male, in public or private.
The writer Oscar Wilde was notoriously prosecuted for homosexual acts in 1895 and sentenced to two years' imprisonment. Wilde's literary reputation survived him and he became an inspiration to generations of gay men who were forced to hide their homosexuality.
By the 1950s a rise in the number of prosecutions against homosexuals led to a review of the legal situation. The highly publicised ‘show trial’ of Lord Montagu and Peter Wildeblood brought the subject of homosexuality into public view.
In 1957 Sir John Wolfenden led a parliamentary committee that recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The Wolfenden Report led to the founding in 1958 of the Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS).
The HLRS evolved into an influential lobbying group with an office on Shaftesbury Avenue. Together with its charitable partner the Albany Trust, it led the campaign for legislation and opened the way for future activism.
In 1963 Esme Langley and Diane Chapman set up the Minorities Research Group, the first UK lesbian organisation. It published the magazine 'Arena Three' aimed at gay women.
In 1967 the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised sex in private between two consenting men aged 21 and over. Within three years the Gay Liberation Front was shouting ‘Gay is good’ around the streets of London.
The 1970s saw the emergence of many lesbian and gay social groups, support networks, newspapers, pubs and clubs in London and across the country. In 1972, 2000 lesbians and gay men took part in the first London Pride march.
The 1980s brought with it the threat of AIDS and a swift response from the gay community. In 1983, two years before the government tackled the issue, the Terrence Higgins Trust and the gay press led the way in educating gay men about AIDS.
A setback to lesbian and gay rights occurred in 1988 when Section 28 of the Local Government Act banned the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities.
This was the first piece of anti-gay legislation to be passed for 103 years, and the first to legislate against lesbians. The campaign against Section 28 gave the lesbian and gay community its highest public profile yet.
Recently published figures suggest that gay men and women earn up to £10,000 a year more than the average salary. Companies which have targeted the gay market include Barclays Bank, L’Oréal and EMI. With the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005, gay couples in relationships now have legal rights.
Nonetheless, there are areas in which homosexuals do not have full equality under the law and they remain targets of attack. In April 1999 a bomb exploded in a gay pub in Soho, killing three people, a reminder that London is still not free from prejudice.