Christine Jardine: The EU champions LGBT rights – will Brexit Britain?

Pride marchers fill the Royal Mile in Edinburgh (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Pride marchers fill the Royal Mile in Edinburgh (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
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writes Christine Jardine.

The news from India this week that gay sex will no longer be a crime reminded me of a few years ago at a public meeting when I was asked about my attitude to equal marriage.

My answer? “For me the important word is equal. If I had two children and one was straight, the other gay, I would want them both to have the same rights, same protection under the law and the same opportunity to commit to the person they love.”

I am proud not just of the fact that this is a question I wouldn’t even need to think about now in this country, but that as a member of the EU we have placed promoting those rights abroad at the centre of our foreign policy.

But as I think about the decisions this parliament has to make, and the impact they will have on all of our lives, I can’t help but worry about the safety of those rights and others which have been hard won.

Can we ever assume that they are completely beyond the reach of their opponents?

Surely the current debate in the US over Roe versus Wade – the landmark Supreme Court case that secured the right to have an abortion – demonstrates that even in a democracy there is never any room for complacency.

In June, I had the privilege of speaking to the Pride March in Edinburgh.

The celebration of diversity along the Royal Mile was awe-inspiring. A display of love and joy, and a very long way from the bitter, divisive atmosphere in which the now nationwide event was born.

Pride marks the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, and was originally a show of defiance and rebellion against repression.

As a society we have travelled a long way, but this is not the time to relax and assume the work is done.

I have LGBT constituents who are still not comfortable holding their partners hand in public, or displaying any kind of affection, in case they draw attention to themselves.

That breaks my heart.

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But it also strengthens my commitment and my gratitude for the work that has been done on this and many other human rights, in many ways enabled by our membership of the European family.

It was EU law, specifically the charter of fundamental rights, that kick-started the UK’s commitment to LGBT equality.

And of course, EU laws have never limited our ability to set higher rights for LGBT people in areas like employment discrimination, or to pass laws on equal marriage.

But the Charter does specifically outlaw discrimination on sexual orientation.

It has been used by the Court of Justice to outlaw homophobia, and to make it clear that the sort of incidents we have seen particularly in eastern Europe are unacceptable.

Yes, the UK has gone beyond what has been required by EU law, but without the measures adopted by the EU, the encouragement that offered and the legislative background it provided, would we be where we are now?

While the Tory government seeks to argue that the protections enshrined in the Charter already exist in British law or will be incorporated through other EU directives, there is really no coherent argument for scrapping it.

The Charter is the only international human rights document that contains a provision specifically outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

During recess we saw the Prime Minister dance her way across Africa in a desperate attempt to strike trade deals to plug the economic hole we know will be created by Brexit.

One of the countries she visited was Nigeria, where homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Back in June waiting to speak to the crowds in Edinburgh, I couldn’t help but remember that question back in 2011.

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But I also thought about the young people in Nigeria, and elsewhere, who every day, deal with recognising their sexuality.

I thought about the fear that must come with it for them, and their parents, if that sexuality will not be respected in their society the way it is here.

In Nigeria, same sex couples are denied the same rights and opportunities as their heterosexual peers. They face persecution, ridicule and prison.

That’s not what I would want for my child, or anyone’s.

It saddens me that I couldn’t find a reference to human rights conditions in any of Mrs May’s speeches.

By contrast, we do not need any visiting dignitary to raise the issue.

It is a condition of EU or single market membership that countries must respect LGBT+ and other human rights.

One of the reasons I am so proud of being a Liberal Democrat is that the party believes that British foreign policy should seek to promote the liberal values of human rights and democracy throughout the world.

Gay rights are human rights. Whether it’s across the world or close to home, and we all have a moral responsibility to protect them.

I know and respect that there were many reasons why people voted for Brexit in 2016.

But I don’t believe that anyone who cherishes freedom voted to diminish their rights, their childrens’ rights or to make people feel less safe in their own country.