By Diricia De Wet from Johannesburg, South Africa - Lesbian AngelsUploaded by ZH2010, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9556620
In his recent video for the LGBT Brexit group, ‘Out and Proud’ Boris Johnson, with typical disregard for the facts, asserted that the U.K.’s progressive attitudes on LGBT rights were entirely the work of “us, the British people”. By implication, ‘Europe’ had contributed nothing. The reality is very different. Europe’s two main organisations, the Council of Europe and the EU together did much to create the momentum for change in the late 1990s and early 2000’s. This followed 17 years of Conservative government which, far from progressing LGBT rights, supported the introduction of a law that prohibited local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality.
The Council of Europe’s main contribution came through a series of rulings against the UK under the European Convention on Human Rights. These condemned discrimination in a number of areas, including the criminal law in Northern Ireland, the unequal age of consent, the ban on LGB employees in the armed forces, and the failure to provide adequate legal gender recognition procedures for trans people. They compelled the Blair government to initiate legislation, leading to extensive parliamentary debates over a number of years that in themselves did much to change public attitudes.
The EU’s contribution was just as important. The main elements were a 1996 judgment of the EU Court of Justice that discrimination because of gender reassignment is prohibited by EU gender equality legislation, and a 2000 directive prohibiting employment discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. Before the EU directive was proposed the Blair government had resisted proposals for a similar UK law. The judgment and the directive provided the impetus for new laws giving LGBT people comprehensive protection against discrimination in the fields of employment and goods and services. Moreover, their implementation had huge knock-on effects. It required the training of judges working in relevant fields, helping to reduce discriminatory attitudes and raising awareness in an important constituent of government. It also put great pressure on employers and providers of services across the public and private sectors to ensure that they avoided being taken to court for discrimination, with all the attendant costs and damage to reputation. This goes a long way to explaining the rapid adoption by UK employers of equality policies and the growth in company sponsored LGBT employee groups. In short, these laws led to systematic change across government and business on an unprecedented scale.
So what about the future? EU membership prevents the UK from removing many of the anti-discrimination protections we enjoy, and is currently enabling a challenge to the UK’s refusal to require equal survivor’s pensions for same-sex couples. By contrast, Brexit would allow a future government to repeal the Equality Act 2010 (for example, as burdensome regulation of business), and maintain discrimination with regard to UK pensions that violates EU law (the EU Court of Justice has made two rulings that pensions for surviving civil partners and spouses must be the same).
In many other parts of Europe LGBT people need the EU much more than we do in the UK. Indeed, in his video for “Out and Proud”, Boris Johnson comments that LGBT rights are “under threat in Poland, Hungary, Romania and other parts of the EU”, and that “it is absolutely vital that we fight for those rights today”. But he concludes by implying that this can best be done by leaving the EU. Nothing could be further from the truth. The EU has played a vitally important role in supporting LGBT rights both within member states and in the rest of Europe and continues to do so in a way that no single European state could hope to achieve.
Recent events in the Ukraine illustrate this. In November 2015 Ukraine’s parliament amended the Labour Code to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This was the first significant step towards equality for LGBT people in Ukraine since decriminalisation some 25 years before. The legislation had been under discussion for years, but was only adopted because the EU made it a condition of visa-free travel to the EU for Ukrainian citizens. Indeed, much of the political class and society more generally remain deeply homophobic and transphobic, notwithstanding the election of the pro-Western President, Poroschenko in 2014. The Ukrainian LGBT organisation “Nash Mir” has documented numerous examples of hate motivated actions against LGBT people in 2015, including six murders and six occasions on which LGBT events or meeting places were attacked.
The disruption of the Lviv Equality Festival in March 2016 gives an idea of the problems which can face LGBT activists. Before the festival there were calls from religious leaders and members of regional and city councils to “fight back” and the organisers received numerous threats. All venues cancelled agreements to host events, while private security companies refused their services, and the police and Mayor failed to respond to requests for help. Their public events were then banned by the authorities. During an unsuccessful appeal against the ban at the city court, a hostile crowd was allowed to intimidate them. When they finally found a hotel willing to let them hold a meeting, it was surrounded by around 200 extremists, some armed with stones and iron bars. Local police refused to protect them, one officer accusing the organisers of being “provocateurs”, so they were forced to call for help from the national police in Kiev. After four hours special forces police arrived and, following a bomb threat, evacuated them in buses under a hail of stones and fire crackers, to chants of “kill, kill, kill”. No single person was arrested. The conference participants were released into the city without protection, despite the police acknowledging that they were being hunted by armed people. The following day the Mayor wrote on his Facebook page that the Festival was “a carefully planned provocation”.
Not every LGBT event in Ukraine is treated so shockingly by the authorities. The 2015 Kiev Equality March was protected by the police, although it did meet with violence and injuries to 10 police officers and nine participants. In March 2016, in the same week as the Lviv events, an international conference took place in Kiev without incident. It was attended by a junior minister, an MP, police officers, and a representative of the European Commission. Tellingly, the conference focused on meeting European human rights standards, its title being “LGBT issues and the European Integration of Ukraine”.
The dynamics in Georgia, Moldova, and the countries of the Western Balkans are similar. On the one hand, there are deep-seated discriminatory attitudes and egregious examples of human rights violations. On the other, governments trade progress towards creating effective democratic institutions, and implementing the rule of law and human rights, in return for improved trade agreements, for visa liberalisation, and for moving forward in the EU accession process. LGBT rights are part of the deal. Any progress achieved in this ‘top-down’ manner cannot but be fragile. But the EU influence makes a vital contribution: it helps create a space in which LGBT activists can begin dialogue with government officials, build up their communities and organisations, and start the process of changing hearts and minds in the wider population. Without the ‘pull’ of the European Union, achieving progress would be extremely difficult. Indeed, for LGBT activists in these countries, the EU acts, sometimes all too literally, as a lifeline which the UK alone could not even begin to provide.
Some Brexiters will no doubt respond that the EU will continue to fulfil this role, whether or not the U.K. is a member. But the departure of its second-largest economy would certainly weaken the EU’s influence. And, far worse than that, at a time when the EU faces crises over the euro, refugees, terrorism and the rise of right-wing authoritarianism in some of its member states, Brexit would further destabilise the Union, potentially contributing to its collapse. Putin would be delighted and the courageous LGBT activists of Eastern Europe would have lost their lifeline.