Comment: How Europe has influenced the UK’s journey on LGBT rights

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With Britain increasingly questioning its relationship with Europe, Juris Lavrikovs, from ILGA-Europe, charts for PinkNews how membership of the EU has helped progress LGBT equality.

It’s never been smooth sailing when it comes to the UK-Europe relationship: with ongoing calls for less Europe, for the UK to exit the European Union and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Recent European Parliament elections once again activated those anti-Europe sentiments and the UK is now represented in the European Parliament by a significant number of Eurosceptics: out of 73 elected MEPs from the UK, 24 are from UKIP and 19 from the Conservatives.

Anti-European sentiments are of course present not just among the politicians, but also among the broader population including within the LGBTI communities. Some do suggest that LGBTI human rights and equality issues should be decided by the national parliaments and not by the European institutions. So why we at ILGA-Europe are concerned with such sentiments about the role played by Europe on LGBTI equality matters?

Let’s have a look at the UK’s current LGBT equality laws, which have now been in place for some time, and consider just how much was actually influenced by Europe.

• Criminalisation of same-sex acts: In 1981, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Dudgeon v UK that Northern Irish law criminalising consensual sexual acts between adult males violated the European Convention of Human Rights and subsequently that law was repealed.

• Discrimination against transgender people in employment: In 1996 case of P v S and Cornwall County Council, the EU Court of Justice said that firing a person who begun “life-test” living in another gender is discriminatory. As a result, the Sex Discrimination (Gender Reassignment) Regulations 1999 adopted subsequently protected people who had undergone or were proposing to undergo gender reassignment from discrimination in employment.

• Age of consent: Age of consent in the UK was equalised following another decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Sutherland v UK in 1997.

• Gay armed forces personnel: Ban on gay people serving in the UK military was repealed following a decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Lustig-Prean and Bakcett v UK and Smith and Grady v UK in 1999.

• Human rights law: In 1998, the Human Rights Act was adopted and gave further effect in the UK to the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights.

• Marriage right for trans people: In 2002, the ban on a transgender person to marry a person of the sex opposite to their reassigned sex was declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Christine Goodwin v UK.

• Employment equality: In 2003, protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in employment was introduced as a result of the UK implementing the 2000 EU employment equality directive.

• Pension right for trans people: In 2006 case of Grant v UK, the European Court of Human Rights made it possible for trans women to get pensions at the same age as other women.

All of these changes came about not because Europe said so, but because of a partnership between the European institutions the UK Government.

But the point here is not to idealise Europe, but rather to remind all of us why LGBTI groups from all over Europe came together under the umbrella of ILGA-Europe a couple of decades ago. The fact is that Europe has been and remains a hugely important tool to advance LGBTI equality in all European countries, including the UK, and this is why we should enhance it rather than abandoning or weakening it.

This is why, prior to the European elections, ILGA-Europe organised the Come Out campaign asking candidates from all 28 EU Member States to sign a 10-point pledge bringing together our key priorities for the EU over the next five years. Not because we want more Europe, but because the EU has the competence to bring about a lot of positive changes for LGBTI people across Europe.

The EU was the first international organisation to explicitly recognise sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as grounds of discrimination in law. In fact, several EU countries had no legal protection against workplace discrimination before the adoption of an EU anti-discrimination law. Thanks to the European Court of Justice, this protection was extended to transgender people.

That same court also made sure that same-sex registered partners enjoy exactly the same employment benefits and are treated equally under pension schemes as married couples.

In the past two years, the EU also adopted important protections for victims of crimes, making sure those victims of homophobic and transphobic crimes are guaranteed adequate and effective support. The EU also cares for those who come to seek safety on this continent and for those who live beyond the EU borders.

The EU now ensures that LGBTI asylum seekers are recognised and cannot be sent back home and asked to pretend not be who they are to avoid persecution. And Europe has become a clear leader on LGBTI human rights at international level, having put the issue at the centre of its external/foreign policy.

These are all significant steps forward for LGBTI people in Europe and beyond, but the EU is rarely credited for these victories. And that’s ok. The essential thing is that millions of people have those rights and protections. It is clear that there is so much more to do, and to fight for across Europe.

The situation of LGBTI people within the EU varies considerably from one country to another. But the EU is one of the best guarantees we have for progress. It is one of the greatest leverage to set standards and to make sure there are clear mechanisms to challenge discrimination wherever it takes place.

We live in increasingly connected and interdependent world. Let’s make the best use of that, support others, share our experiences and jointly building our continent and the world free from prejudice, discrimination and violence.

We do not suggest more Europe, we suggest making full use of Europe and its competences as our tool: strategically, effectively, wisely.

Juris Lavrikovs is the Communication Manager at ILGA-Europe.