Tomorrow is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. I will be celebrating the gains made by LGBT people in the UK since the decriminalisation of homosexuality over 50 years ago. It is a mark of how far we have come that both major parties finally now recognise the inherent justice of treating LGBT people as equals – at least in law, if not yet in reality.
I am especially proud to have been a part of a party that recognised at its Bournemouth conference in 1986 that LGBT people needed particular protection following the oppression visited upon them by the odious Section 28. This disgraceful and overtly discriminatory measure was put on the statute book by the Thatcher government, egged on by the red top tabloids in full cry. It effectively singled out LGBT people as a threat in our schools; it treated them as if they were ‘alien’ and delegitimised their very existence in law by referring to their relationships as ‘pretend’. It caused untold misery and suffering.
And as the first openly out lesbian minister in any UK government, I was very proud indeed to have been part of a Labour government that largely achieved equality in law for LGBT people during its 13 years in office. Indeed the civil partnership legislation normalised LGBT relationships by granting legal protections equating to marriage.
These were landmark social reforms but their achievement was not inevitable, nor easy. Each reform was hard-fought and resisted by the very forces that gave birth to Section 28 in the first place. Eliminating discrimination against LGBT people in UK law required heavy political lifting. It was undertaken out of conviction and it carried considerable political risk at the time, even if it seems in retrospect that it was all straightforward. I got fed up of seeing the Labour government characterised in the tabloids as being obsessed with LGBT rights or seeing us characterised as being run by a ‘gay mafia’.
Section 28 was not repealed easily, as those of us who were there will attest. It took three years to get it through the House of Lords whilst the party opposite fought tooth and nail to keep it. Equalising the age of consent was not achieved easily – we had to invoke the Parliament Act to get it on the statute book after three attempts because the Lords would simply not vote for it. They did however outdo themselves in debates by comparing gay sex to bestiality.
Now we have a welcome agreement across political parties that LGBT people should not face legal discrimination, and I speak in this debate as just one LGBT MP in what has been called “the gayest parliament in the world”. Who would have thought it? As we celebrate that progress, though, we have to remember that the forces of reaction have not been vanquished completely here and certainly not in the rest of the world.
IDAHO day calls us to contemplate the work we still need to do to ensure that our LGBT sisters and brothers across the globe are able to achieve their own liberation from discrimination and bigotry. That moment is a long way off when we realise that 72 countries still criminalise same sex relationships and this involves the potential application of the death penalty in eight of them.
Stonewall’s international work shows that one quarter of the world’s population still believes that being LGBT should be a crime. LGBT people are losing their lives as a result of bigotry and violence directed against them in what has been estimated to be a killing every two days.
So while we have seen the forces of progress advance in recent years, there is still much work to be done. We cannot and must not be complacent about what has been achieved because we are in an era of backlash which should remind us that things can go backwards and rights once achieved can be taken away. And the warning lights are flashing.
The 2019 Rainbow Europe list shows that LGBT rights are even going backwards in Europe for the first time in ten years. Turkey is failing to uphold fundamental civil rights, Bulgaria has repealed a law allowing trans people to change their names and gender. Poland has made it harder for lesbians to access reproductive rights.
Everywhere the rise of the far right is threatening work to counter bigotry and discrimination against LGBT people. And in some places this is reversing the gains already made. The far right use of the politics of hatred and resentment to foster blame against identified groups of people who they can scapegoat for all of our society’s ills.
They are organised globally and often adopt similar tactics wherever they appear. Call them right wing populists or the alt right, they are hostile to difference and wish liberation movements be it for LGBT people or women to be crushed. They want us back in the closet and women back in the kitchen. They also direct their ire at the black and minority ethnic communities, religious minorities or foreign nationals too.
I believe that there is a connection between all forms of prejudice and bigotry, and we are undoubtedly living in an era when there is an acceleration of it in all of its most reprehensible forms. And it must be exposed and opposed. In the aftermath of the EU referendum in the UK, there was a spike in all kinds of hate crime. In the three months after the vote to leave, such crimes against LGBT people rose by a massive 147%.
There is a sense that this kind of bigotry has now somehow been normalised and the LGBT community is suffering because of it. So are others. Women, religious minorities, black and ethnic minorities, the disabled.
We now have candidates standing in the EU elections across Europe who are openly advocating removing civil rights from sections of the population or scapegoating immigrants. Others are unapologetic about issuing rape threats via social media to serving politicians. And much of this anger and hostility is being incubated and spread by social media. We have much to do to counter these disturbing trends if we are to be able to celebrate our progress on future IDADO days. We must not fail.