We must remain outspoken in defence of gay rights

4th July, 2009 8:58 am

By Nick Clegg MP

The fight against Section 28 helped define my generation. It created stark dividing lines. Stopping councils from distributing material showing gay relationships in a positive light was flagrantly homophobic. There were those of us who knew that. And there were those people who bought into the pernicious myth that homosexuality posed a subversive threat to decent family values.

I was at university when the clause passed through Parliament. It was a huge wake-up call. I had been raised by very liberal parents, and taught by very liberal teachers. Gay, straight, it didn’t matter. But Thatcher’s demonisation of homosexuality was a powerful backdrop to my early adult life. It deepened my liberal commitment to tolerance.

Since then a lot has been accomplished. Section 28 repealed. The age of consent equalised for gay and straight people. Same sex couples can now adopt. There’s better protection against hate crime, and against discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of sexual orientation. That is not a list to be sniffed at. I spoke at Pride London last year and, looking out at the thousands of campaigners (and revellers) who had gathered to trumpet these successes, pride is precisely what I felt. I am immensely proud to be the leader of a political party that has always thrown its weight behind these causes.

In light of these triumphs, however, the inequalities that persist are frustrating. It is ludicrous, for example, that there is still a blanket ban on gay men donating blood, irrespective of whether they practice safe sex or if they have tested negative for HIV. Plus, although civil partnerships have been a step forward, until same sex marriage is permitted it is impossible to claim gay and straight couples are treated equally. And in school playgrounds ‘gay’ is still used as a four letter word.

These are more than just the final remnants of our bigoted past. Like many people, in 1997 I hoped that with the right cast into the political wilderness a permanent victory for gay rights was in sight. But discrimination still lingers in the statute book, and homophobia still festers in homes, offices and classrooms.

Gay rights, like all minority rights, should by now have become unquestionable. But in practice they are still too often treated like privileges, falling in and out of favour with politicians. David Cameron’s recent apology over Section 28 is a prime example. Leadership is about speaking out on issues when they matter, not simply when you judge public opinion has moved.

Take the Human Rights Act too. This was a milestone in crystallising our indivisible, individual liberties. The very point of it is that these are basic rights, universally applied. Yet the Act is regularly trashed by both the Conservatives and Government Ministers. Both blame it, for example, for the botched administration of the immigration system. The same fate may well await the current Equality Bill. Although it doesn’t go far enough in countering discrimination, it does contain some welcome steps, including more equal treatment for LGBT people from public bodies. But when Ministers are looking to court the right-wing opinion, what’s to say this legislation won’t take a battering too?

Any equivocation towards gay rights is dangerous. Especially now. Anger at the recession and towards mainstream politicians following the scandal over MPs’ expenses has created huge opportunities for extremists. At the Euro elections last month almost a million people turned out for the BNP – a party of fascist thugs. And while the Conservatives try to appear gay-friendly in the UK, they have just formed a new allegiance in the European Parliament with extremists from across the EU. They now stand shoulder to shoulder with bigots who have banned gay marches and declared homosexuality a pathology.

In this volatile atmosphere the gains that have been made for gay rights will remain vulnerable. The reforming zeal of the Labour Government is running out of energy and conviction after twelve exhausting years in power.

So I am determined that the Liberal Democrats will remain outspoken and steadfast in our defence of gay rights, from backing same sex marriage to stopping the deportation of gay asylum seekers to countries were homosexuality is punishable by death. There has been much progress in recent years, and much to celebrate. But as long as homophobia still rears its ugly head in workplaces, in classrooms, and even in the home – politicians must continue to speak out in favour of the values of gay rights. For me, it is quite simply one of the touchstones of what a liberal society should be: open, tolerant and free of prejudice.

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