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Opinion: Theresa! Take the LGBT community for granted at your peril

Jonathan Cooper June 2, 2017
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Human rights barrister Jonathan Cooper writes for PinkNews ahead of next week’s election.

There is one thing that is certain in this General Election. Theresa May is not homophobic. Countless people say this.

Eminently gay Charles Smith, who stood against her as the Labour Party candidate in the 2015 election rejects any suggestion that she could be homophobic.

I have observed her at LGBT events and she mingles amongst us very comfortable in her skin. Why then has she throughout this election campaign managed to offend the LGBT community? She visits a homophobic church, she gives her personal backing to a Conservative candidate who has expressed deeply held nasty views about LGBT people, she argues that marriage equality in Northern Ireland (NI) is a matter for the NI Assembly.

Her manifesto commits to being rid of the one human rights document, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which expressly protects against sexuality discrimination without putting anything in its place to replace that provision. And be of no doubt losing clearly articulated rights that protect us does matter.

Her manifesto is very poor on LGBT rights. There are just two references, which feel fleeting. Concern is expressed about the violence that people are subjected to on grounds of their sexuality internationally and there is an acknowledgment that hate crime laws in the UK should be extended to sexuality and transgender identity. That’s it. There are no actual references to gay and lesbian people, bisexuals or people who are trans.

Looking back with rose-tinted glasses, how different things were under her predecessor. David Cameron famously tells of canvassing in Witney back in 2001, eager to become the constituency MP. He approaches a house where surely the incumbents must be Tories. Two men come to the door. They are a couple. They point out to the Tory hopeful that all their inclinations are to vote Conservative, but they simply can’t because of their policies towards the gay community. The Tories back then were still in the dark days of voting for an unequal age of consent, the retention of s.28 and resisting any notion of rights and protections for LGBT people. Partnership rights, let alone marriage, weren’t even a distant dream.

Cameron, like May, once elected as MPs, to their shame followed the Tory whip into these anti-gay lobbies. That is something for their consciences to resolve. Their actions caused real hurt. But responsibility for harming gay and lesbian people and keeping us downtrodden and marginalised rests with the then Tory leadership. It is William Hague who belongs in the dock along with his successors, Michael Howard and Ian Duncan-Smith. The case against them is clear cut. But Cameron’s encounter with these two men tapped into something he clearly already believed in. There are many sources for Cameron’s commitment to social liberalism, but amongst the persecuted LGBT community of Oxfordshire it had found its roots.

The rest of Cameron’s story in forging a more liberal Britain is familiar to us all, culminating in marriage equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. The day gay marriage came into force, Cameron announced that gay kids can stand just that little bit taller in the school playground from now on. A comment that reveals genuine empathy.

Cameron achieved equal marriage despite the Conservative Party, not because of them. Without the backing of Labour (and Cameron’s Lib Dem Coalition partners) it would have failed. Most Tory MPs voted against it. Cameron stood firm. He backed equal marriage because he was a conservative, not despite being a Conservative, he argued. He wanted every couple to share the same commitment and have the same security and recognition that he had with his wife.

May’s manifesto is a far cry from Cameron’s avowed commitment to gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people everywhere. For him, the criminalisation of people because they are gay across the globe offends his very essence. What he wanted was for the Commonwealth to lay the foundations to end LGBT persecution. The FCO had its role, but leadership from the Commonwealth, he believed to be essential. And do you remember the trouble he got in to when he suggested the Bill team who worked on gay marriage could be borrowed by other jurisdictions wanting to provide equality? His respect for the Lib Dem MP and Minister in the Coalition Government, Lynne Featherstone, who steered equal marriage through Parliament was genuine and fulsome. And then there was that rather adorable moment when he got all indignant that the UK was no longer the best place to be gay and that Malta was now so honoured. “What are they doing that we’re not?” he demanded to know, anxious for the UK to be returned to the top spot.

Of course Cameron had his own political priorities and he and George Osborne turned the Conservative Party’s fortunes round by creating a liberal agenda which persuaded many of their economic one, or allowed the impact of their austerity measures to be overlooked. Their commitment to LGBT rights is the best example of how they did this. Whilst the LGBT community thrived liberal Britain bloomed and so did the Tories. Cameron and Osborne knew this. But that said, their commitment to the rights of the LGBT community was not token. It was heartfelt.

Cameron watched our backs. Do we feel that same commitment with Theresa May? Cameron looked out for us. Fighting our corner added to his stature. He cherished the bond that equal marriage gave him with President Obama. Actions speak louder than words. And Theresa May’s actions by visiting homophobic churches, for example, do matter. Despite her kind words recognising LGBT equality, assuming she wins the Election, when those Tories who resent our equal status once again propose that B & B’s should not have to accept gay and lesbian couples, will she stand up for us? After all, why should homophobic Christians have to put up with homosexuals in their own home? Once B & B’s can discriminate, it’s just a short step to adoption agencies and other services. Should Christian bakers have to ice a gay cake? Hard-edged human rights protection matters. And the fact that Theresa May is prepared to dilute those legal safeguards speaks volumes.

Theresa May’s record at the Home Office is relevant. To her credit, she insisted her civil servants were trained better on LGBT issues, especially those dealing with asylum, but she continued to detain LGBT asylum seekers. The cruelty of detaining people who are LGBT is breath-taking. The persecuted flee because they are targeted for their sexuality or gender identity and then they are detained with people from countries where they persecute people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Even gay Russians are detained and in the context of the camps in Chechnya this is staggering.

When May’s manifesto is matched against the other political parties on LGBT issues, there is no comparison. The others are rich in their support for and protection of LGBT people in the UK and abroad. The Lib Dems have even helpfully produced a mini manifesto just on what that Party will do for LGBT people and its impressive. Labour is as good. They go further in one respect and commit to a LGBT Envoy, which in my view is essential if there is to be any meaningful inroads into ending LGBT persecution globally. The Green Party is equally visionary.

Unlike May, Corbyn has an impeccable voting record on LGBT issues. He also championed the “gays” when so few people in power were prepared to speak out for us. As Cameron recognised, those of us that have been marginalised and dispossessed need more than platitudes to make us feel included. Of course May will not want to have upset or offended our communities during this Election, but she has and that reveals so much about her.

Does it matter? Sarkozy insulted the LGBT community of France. He lost the election to Hollande (who championed LGBT people) by 4% of the vote. Do LGBT issues influence elections? The LGBT vote has been guestimated at 4%.

Jonathan Cooper is a human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chamber and you can contact him at @jonathancoopr.

Related topics: Gay, LGBT, May, Politics, Theresa, Theresa May

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