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Originally published in the Independent
Last year in the House of Commons, I came out as one of the 100,000 people in the UK living with HIV. While there has been huge progress in treating HIV, it remains just one of many issues which disproportionately affects gay men. Gay men like me are also more likely to earn less, be diagnosed with serious mental health issues and six times more likely to take their own life. While these statistics are discouraging, the legal protection we have won in recent years has been hugely significant. It was often the EU that provided the forum where we, the LGBT+ community, achieved success.
Until November 2003 – just 15 years ago – it was illegal in the UK to talk positively about LGBT+ people in schools and public institutions. When protections for LGBT+ people got included in one of the EU’s founding documents, the Treaty of Amsterdam, it helped us start to dismantle these discriminatory laws.
Let’s be clear: rights are not gifted from any political body, including the EU. British LGBT+ activists have fought hard for the protections we currently enjoy. There are still countries in the EU, such as Latvia and Hungary, where LGBT+ people suffer significant inequalities in law and face cultural barriers. Yet because of the way the European Union is set up – to be participatory, democratic and rights based – achieving protections for people has almost always been easier within the EU than in the UK alone.
It was campaigners using the EU laws and structures which resulted in the decriminalising of gay sex in Northern Ireland and it was UK trade unionists using EU law who made it illegal to discriminate against gay people in the workplace.
All this EU progress on LGBT+ rights while the British government was trying to prevent LGBT+ people serving in our military. For trans people too, it was the EU Court of Justice which ruled that firing an employee for undertaking gender reassignment was sex discrimination. This list doesn’t even touch on the rights won in the European Courts of Human Rights. Whilst not an institution of the EU, our current membership requires us to be part of the ECHR, but the current government wants to leave post-Brexit.
I respect the result of the referendum, but neither LGBT+ people nor the Labour party must be seen as implementing a decision which will harm our communities. There is a deep principle in democracy that a past vote cannot to bind a future vote. It would be the most terrible democratic defeat if we were to allow one day in 2016 to freeze our evolving democracy. Last year LGBT+ people in Taiwan lost a referendum on gay marriage, but the day after we showed them solitary in their fight to overturn that hateful, bigoted and historic wrong. We must say the same about Brexit.
Seventy-two percent of LGBT+ people want a final say and, according to the anti-Brexit group Best for Britain, two-thirds of constituencies support staying within the EU.
Any new referendum must be based on the winning strategies of the successful same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland where young LGBT+ people were told to speak to their grandparents, travelled back home to vote and were inspired by the thought they could turn the tide of despair into hope.
With just fifty-one days remaining before Britain leaves the EU, this LGBT+ History Month we should reflect on how we have won our rights through the EU and what Brexit will mean for us in the future. I know a Labour government will fight for LGBT+ rights, but no government will last forever. No protections in Parliament can stop a future government from acting regressively. It is only by remaining members of the EU that we will be able to ensure our rights are not swept away.
To those that say we would never wind the clock back, just look at the USA. After decades of progress Donald Trump is now winding back that clock, banning trans people from the military and encouraging states to pass laws allowing adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBT+ couples. Without the protection of the EU, this type of regressive populism could easily come to the UK. It will start with LGBT+ people, but end badly for us all.