Ben­jamin Co­hen


You’d need to be liv­ing un­der a rock to have missed that the United King­dom will be vot­ing in a ref­er­en­dum on 23 June on whether to leave the Euro­pean Union. The vote will be the most im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion that’s been made in our coun­try in more than a gen­er­a­tion.

On the face of it, the de­ci­sion that we’ll make will be about the econ­omy, is­sues such as the free­dom of move­ment and about na­tional sovereignty – and there­fore not hugely about LGBT rights. Even so, an LGBT pro-Brexit group Out and Proud has been setup.

It’s cer­tainly the case that the UK has gone from be­ing the coun­try with the high­est num­ber of anti-gay pieces of leg­is­la­tion on the statute book to one of the best places to live if you’re LGBT. Un­like many of the coun­tries in the EU, we have same-sex mar­riage – al­though not in North­ern Ire­land – and we have strong pro­tec­tions against dis­crim­i­na­tions in the pro­vi­sions of goods and ser­vices. You can be banned from a ho­tel for be­ing a gay cou­ple in Italy, for ex­am­ple, but you can’t in the UK.

Now, while nei­ther of these pro­tec­tions ac­tu­ally came from the EU, or the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights, some other fun­da­men­tal rights did come from the lat­ter. Un­til 1982 it was il­le­gal to have gay sex in North­ern Ire­land. This was over­turned in 1981 at the Stras­bourg court on the grounds that it breached the Euro­pean Con­ven­tion of Hu­man Rights (ECHR). Our coun­try also had an un­equal age of con­sent un­til 2001, when a law came into force passed by Par­lia­ment – but only af­ter the Euro­pean Court had ruled in 1997 that an un­equal age of con­sent was un­law­ful. Un­til 2000, we had a ban on gay peo­ple serv­ing in the mil­i­tary. Who changed the rules? You’ve guessed it – a rul­ing in 1999 by the Euro­pean Court made the govern­ment change the pol­icy.

We’ve been a sig­na­tory of the Euro­pean Con­ven­tion since 1950, the year af­ter the Coun­cil of Europe was es­tab­lished. The Coun­cil is the body which in­cludes the mem­bers of the EU and other Euro­pean coun­tries, in­clud­ing Rus­sia. Be­ing a mem­ber of the Coun­cil re­quires that the coun­try is a sig­na­tory of the Euro­pean Con­ven­tion, and be­ing a mem­ber of the Euro­pean Union re­quires that the coun­try In other words, you can’t be a mem­ber of the Euro­pean Union with­out be­ing a sig­na­tory of the Con­ven­tion, the le­gal doc­u­ment that gave us all the rights I listed above.

If we leave the Euro­pean Union, we en­ter a new world. One where the govern­ment will need to ne­go­ti­ate new deals for our place in the world. This will in­clude a de­ci­sion about whether Bri­tain will re­main a mem­ber of the Coun­cil of Europe, and there­fore a sig­na­tory of the Euro­pean Con­ven­tion.

will hap­pen to the ECHR if we leave the EU, Some say we’d stay as sig­na­to­ries. Oth­ers say we’d leave but still be pro­tected by the UN’s Univer­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights, but then go si­lent when I re­mind them that the Dec­la­ra­tion doesn’t cover sex­u­al­ity or gen­der – it hasn’t caused the law to be changed in the 70-plus coun­tries where be­ing gay is a crime.

The rea­son for the con­fu­sion over the ECHR is that no one knows what would hap­pen. That’s likely to be a de­ci­sion for who­ever will be the next Prime Min­is­ter. We might stick to it, or in the name of na­tional sovereignty, we might exit. If we did, then there’s noth­ing stop­ping a fu­ture govern­ment, if it could muster the ma­jor­ity and the pub­lic sup­port, from rein­tro­duc­ing an un­equal age of con­sent, ban­ning gays from the mil­i­tary or, if it wanted to, make it il­le­gal to be gay in the UK again. This dooms­day sce­nario prob­a­bly won’t hap­pen, but we have no guar­an­tee of it. We do have a guar­an­tee that it can’t hap­pen for as long as we are in the EU.

UK acts rather as a ‘light unto the na­tions’ now on LGBT rights. We rep­re­sent a coun­try that’s gone on a long jour­ney to­wards le­gal pro­tec­tions for our com­mu­nity, and we’re an ex­am­ple to the many Euro­pean coun­tries who don’t have the same level of LGBT rights as we do. Walk­ing away from in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions re­moves our voice from the ta­ble and help­ing oth­ers to move for­ward, too.

If we leave, there’s noth­ing stop­ping a fu­ture govern­ment from mak­ing it il­le­gal to be gay in the UK again. We have a guar­an­tee it can’t hap­pen for as long as we’re in the EU.



“I want EU to stay...”

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