A campaign group has claimed that Britain has ‘far greater influence’ over LGBT agendas across Europe while in the EU, as they set their case out against a Brexit in the upcoming referendum.
Much of the debate so far has based around economics and immigration – but the UK relies on EU conventions such as that on human rights for many rulings on civil rights and liberties.
As a result, a leave vote on the June 23 could see an upheaval in the way our rights are legislated.
One key area of debate, that so far has received little attention, is how the referendum might affect LGBT rights, both in Britain and abroad.
LGBT campaign group LGBT for Europe strongly believe that remaining in the EU is the best way to guarantee LGBT rights within Britain while also promoting them in countries where freedoms are less widely held.
Where’s best for LGBT rights?
— LGBT For Europe (@LGBTforEurope) 7 April 2016
“The big thing is that because we’re part of a group of 28 nations representing 500million people around the world, we have far greater influence on other countries and their LGBT agendas than we could ever have alone,” Simon Millson, LGBT for Europe co-ordinator, told MM.
“Take negotiations – the EU has far more clout in negotiations with countries with human rights abuses because it is so much bigger, so much richer.
“It’s the most powerful trading block in the world and one of the most populous and therefore people listen to the EU far more than they ever would to the UK. It’s just a fact.”
The EU’s 2013 guidelines for supporting human rights prioritise bringing an end to discrimination against LGBT communities, while the EU also funds campaigners working against homophobic and transphobic violence.
However, Mr Millson noted the importance of unity on such matters – the EU gains its power from its collective strength and fewer member states would mean a weakened hand when it comes to negotiation.
“I think the EU, its reputation in the world, it’s standing in the world will take a huge knock as will ours,” he said.
“Our reputation will take a huge knock. We will be a lesser a country as a result.
“For the EU, the fifth largest economy walking away from it would mean it would be viewed as a weaker entity.
“We are and always have been far better when we work together.”
Mr Millson believes that if asked 20 years ago, his view on the debate about the EU and LGBT rights would have focussed on ensuring that Britain introduced legislation to give full equality and full rights to LGBT people in the UK.
However, he believes that the UK, aided by the EU, has progressed enormously in the meantime, with same sex marriage being a good example of the way the EU has helped to prevent discrimination and promote LGBT rights.
He said: “It wasn’t until probably the Blair government, maybe the Major government of the mid-90s that we really began to accelerate on LGBT rights in this country.
“Now we’ve won those rights, it’s up to us to work with other nations to promote those rights across the world – and that’s not just LGBT rights but human rights as well.”
— LGBT For Europe (@LGBTforEurope) 17 May 2016
Despite this, he believes that the rights enjoyed by the LGBT community in Britain cannot be taken for granted and fears that leaving the EU could risk empowering groups in the UK who are indifferent at best towards LGBT civil liberties.
Citing the example of same sex marriage, Mr Millson pointed out that approximately 70% of those MPs that currently sit in the leave camp voted against the act on same sex marriage in 2013, while 80% of remain MPs voted in favour of it.
“I can see a situation where if we on the June 23 vote to come out, you’ll have a Tory party the next day that could be run by those MPs, because they will take over the party and therefore you could have someone like Boris Johnson in charge,” he said.
“It doesn’t take too much to realise that rights are not safe in their hands considering that they voted against one of the most important rights that we’ve achieved over the past 20 years.
“Pulling out of the doesn’t in itself mean that we have no rights but because we would have no recourse they would be under threat by people who didn’t want them in the first place.”
Boris Johnson came forward in March to urge LGBT voters towards a leave vote, citing the UK’s progressive attitude to LGBT rights, although his apparent pride in this was somewhat weakened when his record on the subject is taken into account.
The ex-Mayor of London and Leave campaign figurehead has previously been quoted apparently ridiculing the notion of same sex marriage, saying prior to its legalisation in 2013: “If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog.”
Johnson caused another controversy in 2000, when he promoted the since-repealed clause 28 – a clause of the Local Government Act 1988 that prohibited schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality or spending money on educational materials and projects perceived to promote a gay lifestyle.
He defended the clause in an interview with The Telegraph, saying: “The essence of that Tory case is unchanged … it is more sensitive to spare parents’ anxieties than to allow left-wing local authorities to waste taxpayers’ money on idiotic and irrelevant homosexual instruction.”
The argument to leave the EU from Johnson, which has been echoed by LGBT leave group Out & Proud, revolved largely around the idea that the poor record of other EU nations threatened the UK and the only way to maintain control of UK freedoms was to vote to leave.
— LGBT For Europe (@LGBTforEurope) 17 May 2016
However, Mr Millson rejected this notion as ‘ridiculous.’
He said: “I hate that argument, it just drives me mad when I hear it.
“It’s like saying just because Northern Ireland doesn’t have same sex marriage, let’s leave the Union.
“That’s all the more reason to stay. The first civil partner recognition only came in 1989 in Denmark, the first marriage came in 2001[in the Netherlands].
“This is a journey, the progress that we’ve been fighting for over the past 50 years. The job is not done, which is why we’ve got to stay and complete it.”
Mr Millson recognises that the EU is far from flawless, pointing out that the of transparency of needs to be dealt with to make the EU a more democratic entity and citing immigration as another issue that requires reassessment.
However, he said that many people are unsure exactly what it is that the EU offers them.
He said: “A lot of people ask ‘what’s in it for me? What do I get out of it when I travel across Europe?’
“And of course there’s lots of great things like how you can travel and work wherever you want, you can do visa-free travel, you have cheap flights, you have small things like roaming charges are about to disappear.
“But, importantly, for an LGBT person, if you’re married, you can travel across the Union, knowing that you can’t be discriminated against because the EU protects you as an EU citizen.
“These are tangible things.”
Image courtesy of LGBT for Europe, via Twitter, with thanks