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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Andrew Gregory Health editor

UK regulator to apologise to gay doctors struck off because of sexuality

Doctor with patient
The head of the GMC said the findings of its review of proceedings up to 1994 were ‘shocking’. Photograph: Charday Penn/Getty Images

The UK medical regulator is to apologise to gay doctors struck off because of their sexuality, the Guardian can reveal.

The General Medical Council will issue a formal apology to medics it investigated, sanctioned, issued warnings to or banned from practising due to convictions they had under now-repealed legislation outlawing male homosexuality.

Established in 1858, the GMC is one of the world’s oldest medical bodies and the independent regulator of doctors working in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It has the power to begin inquiries that can ultimately determine whether medics can continue to treat patients.

Between 1899 and 1994, it initiated fitness to practise proceedings against at least 40 male doctors because of their sexuality, according to the results of a recent internal investigation by the GMC. At least eight were struck off the medical register as a result – unable to practise medicine ever again.

Charlie Massey, the chief executive of the GMC, said the findings uncovered by its review were “shocking” and apologised for the harm caused to doctors’ professional and personal lives.

“As a regulator we took action against male doctors who were convicted of engaging, or attempting to engage, in consensual sexual activity with other men,” he said. “We adversely impacted, and in some cases ended, careers. For that we want to apologise.”

In a statement to be issued on Thursday, the GMC will express how “truly sorry” it was for the actions taken against doctors with convictions under homophobic laws that it said would now be considered unjust.

In the apology, Prof Dame Carrie MacEwen, the GMC chair, will say: “Homophobic laws and attitudes, that were in place into the 1980s and beyond, caused personal and professional harm.

“We compounded that harm when we also took additional regulatory action against those who were on the medical register. In some cases that meant the end of a practitioner’s career. For this we are truly sorry.”

The GMC’s archivist, working with the regulator’s LGBTQ+ staff network, searched records for cases of doctors subjected to fitness to practise proceedings because they had criminal convictions based on sexuality.

The Sexual Offences Act decriminalised private homosexual acts between men aged over 21 in England and Wales in 1967. The law was not changed in Scotland until 1980 or in Northern Ireland until 1982.

At least 40 cases were found. Eight doctors were struck off as a result. The last confirmed erasure was in 1966, but other doctors were still being investigated or issued with warnings over their sexuality decades later.

“That we were still considering cases, and sanctions against doctors, as late as the 1990s is shocking,” said Massey. “Even when regulatory action wasn’t taken, the stress of having a case before the GMC, and with it their sexual orientation condemned, will have been considerable.”

MacEwen conceded that the GMC did not know the precise total of how many doctors were reprimanded or struck off because of their sexuality. “We cannot be sure of the true number of doctors we took historic action against,” she said.

Dr Duncan McGregor, of Gladd – the Association of LGBTQ+ Doctors and Dentists – welcomed the apology from the GMC.

“The profound impact of these actions on their lives cannot be overstated,” he said. “This apology is an important step in righting the wrongs of the past and, while the hurt and damage that has been caused to those doctors cannot be undone, it is important to acknowledge past injustices.”

Although sexuality no longer poses the threat of being struck off the medical register, prejudice against LGBTQ+ healthcare staff persists to this day, McGregor cautioned.

“This apology represents progress towards justice for those impacted by these historic homophobic laws, and progress for the LGBTQ+ community. We hope this gesture brings some measure of solace to those affected doctors and their loved ones.”

McGregor said it was particularly important to recognise that the initiative came from within the GMC. “We extend our gratitude to members of the GMC’s LGBTQ+ staff network for their work and dedication in helping to bring about this apology.”

MacEwen acknowledged more still needed to be done to support LGBTQ+ doctors and patients. “We all have a part to play in this,” she said. “As a regulator and employer, we’re committed to championing equality, diversity and inclusivity in all that we do.”

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