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...”