Jo Swinson: Liberal Democrats can and must be champions of everyone’s right to live the life they want

When I walk through the park with my husband Duncan, I often hold his hand. It’s a simple gesture of affection we all recognise, and one that many of us have done thousands of times without giving it a second thought. But that isn’t the same for everyone.

One of my campaign team recently told me that he worries about holding his boyfriend’s hand in public as he doesn’t feel safe. I’ve never had to think about the negative consequences of it in that way, and no one else should have to take a risk assessment before choosing whether to do something as simple as hold the hand of the person they love.

Everyone should be free to be themselves and live the life they want. But right now, for many people, it’s just not the case.

We face a growing tide of hatred in politics, with disgusting views expressed openly in our streets and on our screens. Many LGBT+ people face social and legal discrimination, as demonstrated by the 81% rise in transgender hate crime revealed this month. And, while the Liberal Democrats delivered same sex marriage, many couples in Northern Ireland are still denied the right to marry the person that they love.

This cannot be right. Britain needs leaders that stand up for our liberal values and under my leadership, the Liberal Democrats will build on our proud record of opposing Section 28, leading on trans rights and legislating for same sex marriage to make things better for all LGBT+ people.

Fostering good physical and mental health

Our NHS is the best in the world, but too many LGBT+ people feel unsupported and misunderstood when they ask for help.

It’s essential that we make PrEP available to anyone who needs it. I will campaign to make PrEP free on the NHS, without limits, for anyone who needs it.

We need more outreach to those who most need help, and we need to normalise LGBT+ conversations so no teenager is driven to self-harm for fear of their sexuality or gender identity. Health services must be a safe space for everyone, however they live and identify.

Creating a safe and inclusive culture

In 2017, Stonewall found that one in every five LGBT people had experienced hate crime in the previous 12 months, rising to two in five trans people. Shamefully, 80% of crimes like this go unreported, and the punishments even for those crimes that are reported are often appallingly lax.

We must focus on challenging the homophobia and transphobia that drive hate crime and ensuring appropriate punishment.

At the same time, we must teach children about LGBT+ matters in schools. This is a key part of building equality and inclusivity into the foundations of our society. Education should help our children negotiate the world and understand the communities they’re a part of. We owe it to them to provide them with the best information we can to live their lives happily, safely, and without discrimination.

I respect everyone’s right to their own religious beliefs, but for me, this cannot extend to our education system treating some people’s lives and identities as if they are less worthy of respect. We must also acknowledge that there are many LGBT+ people in faith groups for whom their sexuality and faith are both central to their identity. They need our support and protection.

Enabling everyone to self-identify and self-determine

Despite initial moves towards progressing on self-identification, the Government has floundered – scared by pressure groups and the media.

As a cis woman, I can’t pretend to understand the experience of questioning one’s own identity, nor do I face the same potential risks or dangers when I speak up about these issues. But that doesn’t take away my passionate belief that trans rights are human rights. I’m a feminist, and I hate hearing that I’m not allowed to believe both in women’s rights and the rights of trans women. Trans women ARE women.

The Liberal Democrats must continue to lead the campaign for self-identification. As Leader, I would champion trans, non-binary, genderfluid, and self-defined gender identities – making clear that there is no equality or liberty without defending the rights of everyone.

Trans people should be able to legally change their gender without the current medicalised hoops to jump through; their own experience should be enough.

We must also ban the use of all forms of conversion therapy and make it clear that an individual’s right to self-identification is paramount. No-one should be forced to live a lie or change how they think or feel just to fit in with the narrow world view of those around them.

As Leader of the Liberal Democrats, I promise to lead us in campaigning at every opportunity in making sure no-one faces discrimination, prejudice or disadvantage because of their sexuality or gender identity. We have always been the leading party in the fight against discrimination and I will make sure we continue to be so.

Now more than ever, it is time for politics of compassion and co-operation to come forward. And that’s just what I offer to LGBT+ people in our communities today.