The deeply shocking tragedy of the Orlando shooting has brought up two big issues confronting the leading power of the liberal western world: gun control and prejudice against LGBT people. It’s a grave reminder that LGBT people face danger from prejudice even in the places where we feel safest.
We are incredibly lucky in the UK - we have progressive LGBT legal protections as well as strict gun control laws that mean US-style gun attacks are proportionally much less likely. We are world leaders when it comes to both of these issues and we are a safer, better place because of it. We should provide a leadership role on LGBT issues for other countries, and we will not do that by isolating ourselves from them and diminishing our own power in the process.
If nearly every economic expert and academic that has commented on the EU referendum is right, and we struggle economically post-Brexit, it is hard to imagine that we will be prioritising a leading charge for LGBT rights and protections worldwide.
To articulate the case for why we should stay in the EU to promote our world leadership role on LGBT equality I will use this statement taken from Out and Proud, the ‘LGBT campaign to leave the European Union’:
‘We have a duty to protect and promote those (LGBT) rights around the world. The European Union has failed in that task - whether in improving attitudes to LGBT people in Eastern Europe, or fighting for equality in the rest of the world. The European Union is too insular, too bureaucratic and too indifferent to injustice. A more internationalist, globally-engaged UK will be an even more effective champion of LGBT rights around the world. As we will be able to sign our own free trade deals, we will be better placed to put pressure on countries to improve LGBT rights, especially within the Commonwealth.’
This collection of simplistic and naively hopeful statements assumes far too many things, including that a UK government post-Brexit would even want to prioritise LGBT rights and equalities around the world. David Cameron has said that he wants to be at the forefront of improving protections for LGBT people globally. But we aren’t sure if Cameron will stay if we leave the EU, and if Boris Johnson has anything to do with it, we’re in trouble. He’s courting our vote now of course, but we cannot ignore the fact that he once said: ‘If gay marriage was OK - and I was uncertain on the issue - then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog.’
The assumption that the UK would be better placed, on its own, to improve LGBT protections everywhere is misplaced. The EU, within which the UK has a very powerful voice, offers a proven and legitimate base from which to demand conditions from its member states as well as those outside it. It is more powerful base than the UK alone on the back of bilateral trade agreements. As well as this there is a lack of general public support for LGBT rights in those countries which currently offer little or no protection. Again, best practices and conditions that have been established by stable, multi-state consensus probably have more power to persuade than the perceived wants of a single country. And yes, these conditions take time, but regional agreements that have been through the required checks and balances do not happen overnight.
It’s also unfair to say that the EU courts have failed. The EU, through the European Court of Justice, has provided important protections for citizens within all of its member states, such as the legalisation of same sex sexual activity, and a ban on employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. There is clearly a huge amount that still needs to be done, but more protections are on the way.
There are also less visible implications of a Brexit outcome for European LGBT families. Specialist family lawyer Natalie Gamble says: ‘We desperately need some law which recognises the parentage of same-sex parents across Europe (and the world) consistently so that families which move around Europe have secure family status. We currently see quite a few LGBT parents choosing to settle in the UK from other European countries in order to raise their families because the UK laws and our social attitudes are so progressive, and they see the UK as the best place for their children. Without free movement, it may significantly restrict the freedom of parents (and would-be parents) to make those kinds of choices.’
Ulrike Lunacek, Austrian MEP and Vice President of the European Parliament, says: ‘The UK at the moment and for a number of years has been a leading figure.. I mean to have a Conservative government who have introduced gay marriage, in Austria we just couldn’t imagine that...It might be the case that a government in the future repeal anti-discrimination laws, but as an EU member you have to have them.’
If we extricate ourselves from the EU, the EU as well as the UK risks becoming less of a beacon and effective leader for LGBT rights around the world. The UK risks becoming less equal, as does the EU without it. And that in turn takes away the power that we collectively have to change the world for the better.
This was first published on the Huffington Post on 14/06/2016