Writing for PinkNews in celebration of Democracy Day, Jonathan Cooper reflects on how democracy has served the LGBT community in recent years.
Today is Democracy Day. Winston Churchill had this to say about democracy, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” But what is democracy? And what’s it ever done for LGBT people in the UK?
If democracy is just about voting every five years or so and the party which gets the most MPs wins and goes on to form the government, then, it’s done very little for us. The offence of gross indecency, for example, which tyrannised us all – women and men – for over a century by criminalising intimacy between men, was created by an elected House of Commons. They didn’t even bother to vote on it. In 1885, they just passed the law which contained it. To his credit, Churchill recognised that gay men were being tormented, but conceded his Government could do little or nothing about it. He pointed out in 1954, ‘… I wouldn’t touch the subject. Let it get worse – in hope of a more united public pressure for some amendment… Remember that we can’t expect to put the whole world right with a majority of 18.’
During the 1950s as many as one thousand gay men would be in prison at any one time for being gay. Pressure from the Church of England and then the Wolfenden Report calling for decriminalisation did bring about a partial reprieve but not until the end of the 60s when legislation was introduced clarifying that consensual sex between men was still illegal unless both were over 21, there was only two people involved and they were in private. Anyone else would go down. Ironically, after the law changed in 1967 there was an increase in convictions.
And then nothing from our Parliament for 30 years except a refusal of our elected representatives to create an equal age of consent and the introduction of section 28, which added to our vilification. By the end of the 70s the UK had protection against race and sex discrimination, but we could be fired, not hired, made homeless and denied services simply because we were gay, lesbian or trans. Equality came but it was offered principally by Europe’s multi-layered democratic mechanisms and New Labour rode that wave with confidence. In order to do that Blair had to out manoeuvre the opposition. Even his huge parliamentary majorities at times felt powerless against those who were hell-bent on keeping us as second class citizens.
If democracy is about accountable government, where elections play a crucial but not a defining role, then democracy has come to the rescue of the beleaguered LGBT community in the UK. As the most straightforward way of holding a democratic government to account, human rights have transformed us from being grateful for anything that Westminster might do for us (or rather not do to us) to be equal bearers of rights. Our rights are the same as everyone else’s – not bigger (or smaller), the same. We have privacy rights, so does everyone else. They can’t be vilified and targeted and nor can we. They mustn’t be discriminated against and neither must we. They might need protection and so might we. From a European perspective, it is a slow ongoing process before the European Court of Human Rights, but we are getting there. And for the UK, the whole process has been sped up because we have the Human Rights Act. All our courts and tribunals can guarantee our human rights, not just that Court in Europe. And then, the EU’s democratic institutions transformed everything by ensuring our equality through regulations. Not to be out done, out of the dying embers of the New Labour project came the Equality Act which put us at its very heart.
Once human rights law confirmed our equality, those we elect to represent us had no choice but to follow. It was as if MPs of all parties breathed a great big sigh of relief. They no longer had to be homophobic (some of them could even come out). Cameron is a shining example of how our equality has enriched us all. He embraced our equality with verve and has used all democratic opportunities to welcome us into the fold.
Without democratic institutions holding government to account and nudging representative democracy along, experience continues to prove that the situation of the LGBT community is dire. Jamaica, Uganda, Nigeria (all purporting to be democracies) foment LGBT persecution. The list seems endless as does the violence and the deaths. Apartheid South Africa bashed LGBT people. With liberation also came their equality – a Bill of Rights, a Constitution with its Court and a Commission devoted to upholding human rights for all ended the legal framework that stifled that community. The reality of their struggle remains as lesbians continue to be subjected to rape and violence because they are lesbians. And what does so-called LGBT equality mean in the poverty of the townships? But institutions are striving to ensure the Constitution is relevant to everyone.
Democracy Day is a day to celebrate, but for democracy to be meaningful, it is so much more than elections. It is about democratic institutions beyond the legislature and enforceable human rights. Churchill also had this to say about democracy, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” No doubt many of us will be disappointed by the outcome of the election in May, but now that democracy and its institutions can protect human rights in the UK, I feel less daunted by the prospect that others also have the right to vote.
Jonathan Cooper is the Chief Executive of the Human Dignity Trust. Follow the Human Dignity Trust on Twitter: @HumanDignityT