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AS I SEE IT - LGBTQ+ Rights in a Post-Brexit Britain By Harry Moreby

The UK’s departure from the European Union has clearly given rise to many questions about the future of our nation’s laws, including this Government’s approach to domestic human rights.

The UK must face these challenges with Boris Johnson at the helm—a man who has a history of questionable behaviour regarding the LGBTQ+ community, including calling gay men “tank-topped bumboys”[1], equating Same-Sex Marriage to bestiality[2], and suggesting the teaching of LGBTQ+ issues in schools is “appalling”[3].

With the largest House of Commons majority since Tony Blair in 2001, and the release of the UK from EU legislative restrictions, many LGBTQ+ Britons are concerned about their place in Johnson’s United Kingdom.

A large proportion of the anti-discrimination laws currently afforded to LGBTQ+ individuals only exist in UK statute due to law enforced by the European Union. The Charter of Fundamental Rights, for example, outlines in Title III, Article 21, that “any discrimination based on […] sexual orientation shall be prohibited”[4].

It should, however, be noted that the UK government has its own legislation to deal with discrimination based upon sexual orientation, with such protections being provided under the Equalities Act (2010).

This does not go to say that losing the Charter doesn’t matter.

A report into the impacts of Brexit upon LGBTQ+ rights published by Gay Star News and co-authored by Jonathan Cooper asserts that the Brexit process has removed the UK from the “only international binding legal instrument that expressly prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation”[5], leaving our rights more vulnerable than they have been for years.

Whilst this is not an immediate threat to the liberties and freedom of LGBTQ+ individuals, it should still be considered deeply troubling. With our exit from the EU any government has effective carte blanche over our discrimination laws, meaning a government with the intent to fight a culture war could easily infringe upon the already tenuous human rights of LGBTQ+ individuals up and down the country.

The most immediate real-world representation of this threat comes with the current consultation for the Gender Recognition Act (2004) that was started under Theresa May’s government in 2018.

Comments by Equalities Minister Liz Truss about both the protection of same-sex spaces and preventing minors from making “irreversible” decisions about their gender identity suggests a worrying change in the rights afforded to trans people.

Truss has also argued that her department’s equality policy must be overhauled, moving away from ‘fashionable’ topics like race, sexual orientation, and gender, and instead to focus on “real concerns that people face”[6].

This suggests issues of gender identity are not considered “real concerns” despite more than 4 in 5 young trans people self-harming, with 2 in 5 attempting to take their own lives. They are not “real concerns” despite one in eight trans people being physically attacked at work, and two in five being the victims of hate crimes due to their gender identity[7].

None of these positions suggest a positive attitude towards LGBTQ+ rights within this Government.

These comments buy into the idea of trans existence as disruptive, as well as the old trope of ‘it’s just a phase’, echoing a rhetoric used in the past to justify anti-gay legislation like the reprehensible Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988).

I reached out to Helen Belcher, co-founder of trans-awareness charity, ‘Trans Media Watch’, and Liberal Democrat politician, for comment on LGBTQ+ prospects post-Brexit.

Belcher professed her concerns in the shifting media environment around these issues, including the narrative that used to “[look] at the problems trans people faced to one where trans people […] are painted as a problem”, specifically in reference to the trials trans women face in public life.

One area that she outlines as particularly troubling is the idea that trans experiences are being manipulated by political opponents into something that is undermining both free speech and the safety of others – an idea that simply cannot be backed up.

“Those who claim to protect free speech seem to mean only protecting their free speech, attempting to shut down anyone with a counter narrative. Those who claim trans women are dangerous can only do so by warping the rare studies into something they are not. It’s real “black is white” stuff.”

To Belcher, this is a greater concern now that we find ourselves estranged from the EU, with examples of agencies set up to defend human rights step back from trans rights altogether. These developments have left trans people feeling like strangers in their own home, considering emigration due to the “moral panic” caused by the uncertainty that Brexit brings.

This panic is made harder through the lack of oversight by national media and agencies that are supposed to protect them, which Belcher describes as “absolutely galling” to experience. This is made more frustrating due to the overwhelming support from the British public for trans freedoms to be who they wish to be and to move through society as they wish.

Wide public support for trans existence is an important issue broached in this interview, and although it may be difficult to see, the future of LGBTQ+ rights in the UK is not necessarily all doom and gloom.

YouGov polling in July 2020 found that Britons stand by trans freedoms in public life. 53% agree with the statement that a “transgender woman is a woman”, and a “transgender man is a man”, with 47% of polled individuals disagreeing (with undecideds & ‘don’t know’, 41%/36%).

When asked if trans women should be able to use women’s bathrooms, 61% agreed, and when asked the same question of women’s refuges for domestic/sexual abuse, 64% agreed[8].

These statistics should provide every LGBTQ+ person with hope, showing that despite a questionable Government, the public are firmly on our side.

Further, the UK’s departure from the EU does not affect its place in the European Court of Human Rights, which has time and time again ruled to defend the right of LGBTQ+ Britons, such as their striking down of the unequal age of consent for homosexual men.

This lack of EU constraint could end up being good for LGBTQ+ human rights, with the UK government potentially acting beyond the scope of the EU, allowing LGBTQ+ individuals more freedom than ever. Although this is a possibility, it is hard to feel optimistic about such an eventuality.

With a global pandemic and the UK’s departure from the EU, we have not faced such unique challenges for generations—only time shall tell if the UK will emerge from crisis with its head held high as the bastion of personal freedoms it strives to be, or regress to the discrimination of the not-so-distant past.

References

[1] Bienkov, A. (2018) ‘Boris Johnson’s sexist and homophobic articles about ‘hot totty’ and ‘tank-topped bumboys’ revealed’, Business Insider, 5 January. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/boris-johnson-women-gay-people-sexism-bumboys-totty-toby-young-2018-1?r=US&IR=T (Accessed: 25/01/2021).

[2] Johnson, B. (2002) Friends, Voters, Countrymen. London, UK: HarperCollins Publishing, 2nd Edition.

[3] Johnson, B. (2000) ‘Another Voice’, The Spectator, 15 April, p.8.

[4] European Union (2012) Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, 2012/C 326/02, 26 October. Available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3b70.html (Accessed: 25/01/2021).

[5] Cooper, J., Yoshida, K., Dunne, P., Palmer, A. (2018) Brexit: The LGBT Impact Assessment. Gay Star News, p.16.

[6] Parkinson, J. (2020) ‘Equality debate can’t be led by fashion, says minister Liz Truss’, BBC News, 17 December. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-55346920 (Accessed: 26/01/2021).

[7] Stonewall (2018) LGBT facts and figures. Available at: https://www.stonewall.org.uk/cy/node/24594 (Accessed: 26/01/2021).

[8] Smith, M. (2020) Where does the British public stand on transgender rights? Available at: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2020/07/16/where-does-british-public-stand-transgender-rights (Accessed: 01/02/2021).

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