Pride and Pressure


As we prepare to celebrate Pride season in the UK, revelling in hard won freedoms and legal equality that was unimaginable just a generation ago – never mind 50 years ago when pioneers from the Gay Liberation Front first marched in London – we should spare a thought for the millions of LGBT+ people around the world for whom equality with their heterosexual compatriots remains a distant dream. 

While attitudes to LGBT+ people in many countries, from Thailand to Mexico to Japan, have slowly edged towards acceptance – there has even been a softening in attitudes in some African countries such as Kenya – in other countries hostility remains as entrenched as ever and some nations, most noticeably the United States, have even seen a marked reversal in the march towards equality.

In fact, in 2021, just six years after President Obama illuminated the White House with a rainbow to celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling that the fundamental right to marry applied equally to same-sex couples, American legislators filed a total of 268 anti-equality bills, 27 of which have so far been signed into law, including 13 that specifically target the rights of trans-gendered youth. So far this year more than 300 pieces of state-level legislation have targeted transgendered youth in one form or another.

The most notorious of these is Florida’s Don’t Say Gay Bill – or to give it its full title, the Parental Rights in Education Bill- which specifically prohibits any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in the state’s kindergartens through third grade, “or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards”. Standards which are, of course, set by the state legislature. Much like our own Section 28, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 and repealed by Tony Blair in 2003, it is feared the Bill will not only weaponise education but have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable LGBT+ students, leading to an increase in bullying, forced outings, and even suicide. It is estimated that an LGBT+ youth attempts suicide in the US every 45 seconds.

The Human Dignity Trust is a London- based charity that campaigns to uphold LGBT+ equality laws around the world. I asked its Chair of Trustees, former Tory, then Labour, MP Shaun Woodward, who famously crossed the floor of the House of Commons in 1999 in protest at Section 28, whether the march towards equality has stalled.

“It is feared the [Don’t Say Gay] Bill will not only weaponise education but have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable LGBT+ students, leading to an increase in bullying, forced outings, and even suicide”

“The answer is possibly, but not necessarily. Anything that’s anti-equality seems to me unreasonable. I’m most concerned with what might happen in my own country, the UK. Should we be mindful of what’s happening in the USA? Yes, of course, because people look elsewhere, they look at what they might be able to do and if people get into their heads that they can reverse positions that have been long argued for, long fought for and finally achieved, then they might get it into their heads that they can get rid of them here.” The potential reversal in the US of Roe versus Wade, which guaranteed a woman’s right to seek an abortion in the US, has set alarm bells ringing with fears it might lead to a wider dismantling of human rights.

“If you can undo that then why can’t you undo gay marriage? And if you can do that in the US then does that mean that in other democracies people will think we can undo it here too? Do I think people in the UK might start thinking that we can dismantle the legislation that upholds gay marriage? Yes, they could. 

“Do I think we all need to campaign very hard against that, and I don’t just mean one organisation like Stonewall, but all of us, yes, I do. People must be mindful that if we dig into our silos we are at danger of being picked off. We need to work together. An attack on one is an attack on all. We should be paying close attention to what’s happening in the US because if equality legislation can be undone there it can be undone elsewhere.”

Woodward’s concern is underlined by the fact that after 28 years of marriage to a woman Woodward himself married his male partner just a few weeks ago. I ask Woodward who these people are who might wish to undo our current legislation.

“You have to remember that in 1967 we decriminalised homosexuality, and in 1987, 20 years later, a Conservative government introduced Section 28. I’m not picking on any particular party, or an individual, I’m remarking on the fact that it can never be taken for granted that because you have made progress it can’t at some point be undone. I don’t think anyone in their right minds would consider Section 28 a progressive piece of legislation. It was regressive and came after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, so the idea that because you’ve made progress in one area means it can’t be undone 20 years later…well, history teaches us that it can.”

There were very real fears among some in the LGBT+ community that Brexit could lead to an erosion of LGBT+ equality here in the UK. I ask Woodward if he thinks those fears were well-founded.

“If the argument that Brexit allows us the freedom to do what we want in our lives becomes the undoing of legislation to protect people’s right to inclusion, diversity and equality then undoubtedly that would be regressive. One of the strengths of being part of a broader group of countries in the European Union was if we were to be challenged the challenge would be far less likely to succeed. At the moment I don’t see those challenges emerging. Personally, I liked the protection that came from being in the European Union. Equally, let’s not be too misty-eyed about it. Being in the EU was not in itself a guarantee of equality and diversion. In a number of European countries there is still prejudice, homophobia, transphobia, discrimination and a lack of equality on a whole bunch of fronts. But, in order to fight that, you are stronger in the European Court of Human Rights. Again, pay close attention to challenges that might come to the Human Rights Act because that, of course, would be a very serious issue.”

In Europe it is not just in Poland, with its proliferation of LGBT+ ideology-free zones, or Hungary which introduced its own version of Section 28 last year, that have seen LGBT+ citizens suffer a sharp rise in hostility, aggression and physical attacks. An increase in murders, assaults, “corrective” rapes and anti-LGBT+ police brutality, in the vast majority of which cases the police were not held accountable, was reported across many parts of Europe. In Germany there was a reported 39 per cent increase in anti-LGBT+ hate crime and a new app in France which allows people to report anti-LGBT+ hate crime recorded almost 4,000 incidents in its first year.

However, there is some good news. For all the state-sponsored anti-LGBT+ rhetoric and discriminatory legislation that continues to be promoted by politicians the world over, there is strong evidence that it is not matched by public opinion. Even in these politicians’ own countries support for the LGBT+ community has never been stronger. A poll commissioned by Amnesty International in Hungary found that 73 % of Hungarians reject the government’s false claim that gay and lesbian people abuse or harm children. A clear majority of Hungarian society (74.5%) believes that transgendered people should be allowed to change their sex while 59 % support gay marriage. Similar figures were reported in Serbia which, despite having a lesbian prime minister, currently has no plans to legalise same-sex marriage. Sixty-eight per cent of Romanians believe that all families, including rainbow families, should be protected while 40 per cent of Bulgarians would support a party that is pro-gay.

While the rest of the world slowly catches up, the UK has, according to ILGA Europe, fallen from 10th to 14th place in its Rainbow Ranking of European countries, a drop largely attributable to the UK government’s failure to implement its sexual orientation and gender identity and equality action plan. It is the most significant drop in the rankings of any European nation. 

So, while we are out celebrating Pride – and there is much worth celebrating- we should nonetheless remain vigilant and remember that there is much more at stake than just a party, and that the rights which we owe to those incredibly brave gay pioneers of half a century ago can be erased with far more ease than it took to secure victory in the first place.