With the UK’s General Election fast approaching – and Ireland’s marriage equality referendum to take place soon after – it is worth reflecting on how democracy has served the LGBT community in recent years. Winston Churchill once described democracy as “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” But what is democracy? And what has it ever done for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) people in the UK?
If democracy is just about voting every five years or so, leading to a government formed by the party with the most MPs elected: then it has done very little for LGBT people. The offence of “gross indecency”, for example, which tyrannised us all – women and men – for over a century by criminalising intimacy between men, was created by an elected House of Commons. They didn’t even bother to vote on it; in 1885, the House of Commons just passed the law containing the offence. To his credit, Churchill recognised that gay men were being tormented, but conceded his Government could do little or nothing about it. He pointed out in 1954: “… I wouldn’t touch the subject. Let it get worse – in hope of a more united public pressure for some amendment… Remember that we can’t expect to put the whole world right with a majority of 18.”
During the 1950s, as many as one thousand gay men were in prison at any one time for being gay. Pressure from the Church of England and then the Wolfenden Report calling for decriminalisation did bring about a partial reprieve. But this only occurred at the end of the 1960s, and there were significant caveats. Crucially, the legislation clarifying that consensual sex between men was legal required that both men were over 21, there were only two people involved and they were in private. Anyone else would be convicted. Ironically, after the law changed in 1967 there was an increase in convictions.
After 1967, there was no further action from the UK Parliament for 30 years, except a refusal by elected representatives to create an equal age of consent for LGBT people. Worse still, 1988 saw the introduction of Section 28 to the Local Government Act, which prohibited local authorities in England and Wales from “promoting” homosexuality, and labelled gay family relationships as “pretended [sic]”. By the end of the 70s, the UK had protection against race and sex discrimination, people could still be fired, not hired, made homeless and denied services simply because they were gay, lesbian or transgender. Equality came, but it was offered principally by Europe’s multi-layered democratic mechanisms, and New Labour rode that wave with confidence. In order to do that, Tony Blair had to out manoeuvre the opposition. Even his huge parliamentary majorities at times felt powerless against those who were hell-bent on keeping LGBT people as second-class citizens.
If democracy is about accountable government, where elections play a crucial but not a defining role, then democracy has come to the rescue of the beleaguered LGBT community in the UK. As the most straightforward way of holding a democratic government to account, human rights have transformed us from being grateful for anything that Westminster might do for us (or rather not do to us) to be equal bearers of rights.
Our rights are the same as everyone else’s – not bigger (or smaller), the same. We have privacy rights, so does everyone else. They can’t be vilified and targeted and nor can we. They mustn’t be discriminated against and neither must we. They might need protection and so might we. From a European perspective, it is a slow ongoing process before the European Court of Human Rights, but we are getting there. And for the UK, the whole process has been sped up because we have the Human Rights Act. As a result, all domestic courts and tribunals in the UK can guarantee our human rights, not just the court in Strasbourg. On top of this, the EU’s democratic institutions have transformed everything by ensuring our equality through regulations. And not to be outdone, out of the dying embers of the New Labour project came the Equality Act of 2010 which put LGBT people at its very heart.
Once human rights law confirmed LGBT equality, elected representatives had no choice but to follow. It was as if MPs of all parties breathed a great big sigh of relief. They no longer had to be homophobic (some of them could even come out). Prime Minister Cameron is a shining example of how our equality has enriched us all. He embraced equality with verve and has used all democratic opportunities to welcome LGBT people into the fold.
Without democratic institutions holding government to account and nudging representative democracy along, experience continues to prove that the situation of the LGBT community is dire. Jamaica, Uganda, Nigeria (all purporting to be democracies) foment LGBT persecution. The list seems endless as does the violence and the deaths. Apartheid South Africa subjugated LGBT people, but liberation also brought their equality, in the form of a Bill of Rights, a Constitution with its Court and a Commission devoted to upholding human rights for all. Nonetheless, the struggle of the LGBT community in South Africa remains, as evidenced by the violent abuse directed at lesbians because of their sexuality.
Democracy should be celebrated, but for it to be meaningful, much more than elections are required. It is about democratic institutions beyond the legislature and enforceable human rights. Churchill also had this to say about democracy: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” No doubt many of us will be disappointed by the outcome of the election in May, but now that democracy and its institutions can protect human rights in the UK, I feel less daunted by the prospect that others also have the right to vote.