It’s definitely a new era for Britain, and arguably a scary one, as Boris Johnson becomes prime minister. Leaving aside his many gaffes and foibles – both personal and political – what does his election by the Tory membership mean for minority communities? I can’t speak on behalf of the entire LGBT+ community, but his elevation to prime minister certainly provokes concern among many LGBT+ people.
On the upside, broadly speaking, Johnson is socially liberal. He has a generally positive voting record on LGBT+ rights – backing some key pieces of equality legislation and absent on a handful of others – such as the vote to allow gay couples to adopt children. As an MP, he voted to repeal Section 28 in 2003 and to introduce civil partnerships in 2004.
By the time same-sex marriage was being debated in parliament, Johnson had left the House of Commons to become Mayor of London, but he did publicly express support for marriage equality from 2010. At that time, he was the highest-ranking Conservative to come out in support of same-sex marriage.
Johnson’s record is not, however, without its blemishes. In January 2018, shortly after he became Foreign Secretary, a series of 20 year-old media columns resurfaced in which he wrote insultingly about “tank-topped bumboys” and attacked “Labour’s appalling agenda, encouraging the teaching of homosexuality in schools”.
Before his conversion to equal marriage, in a 2001 book, he wrote: “If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men, or indeed three men and a dog.”
Love him or loathe him, we can all agree that Boris frequently engages his mouth long before his brain. But what he says does matter to minorities. Too many LGBT+ people have been left psychologically and emotionally scarred by taunts like “bumboy” and by demeaning slurs about same-sex love and marriage.
As we speak, Johnson has a mostly weak and vague commitment to further advancing LGBT+ rights. However, there are several things he could and should do.
Human rights are a pillar of EU membership. It was an EU Directive that secured LGB employees protection against discrimination in the workplace in 2003. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms is the only international human rights convention that explicitly protects people against discrimination based on sexual orientation. If the UK leaves the EU, we will lose this protection. Worryingly, many Johnson supporters on the right of the Tory party despise these laws and would celebrate their passing.
Johnson is silent on replacing the EU Charter guarantee with a domestic one. From equal pay for equal work to shared parental leave, much of the legislation that promotes gender equality began in Brussels. While we’ve been busy arguing about Brexit the EU has been introducing the Work Life Balance Directive which implements paid leave for carers. Would Johnson retain, expand or diminish current EU protections? He hasn’t said. We don’t know.
On trans rights, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 needs updating to simplify and ease the process of legally affirming a trans person’s true gender by means of a statutory self-declaration. There also needs to be more dedicated NHS services for trans people and trans-supportive services across all government departments and agencies, such as the Prison Service, Passport Agency and so on. As prime minister, Boris needs to commit to doing this and give a lead by condemning the tabloids who demonise trans people.
The public “debate” over LGBT+ inclusive relationship and sex education rages on. The parent protests in Birmingham and elsewhere against LGBT-inclusive education are an attack on LGBT+ pupils and parents – and on the teachers who support them. Johnson has a responsibility to call out religious extremists who want to undermine our equality laws by opposing education against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. We want him to speak in defence of schools that acknowledge LGBT+ love and families and to affirm his government’s commitment to put age-appropriate LGBT-inclusive education on the curriculum of every school.
Boris should give a pledge that the HIV prevention drug PrEP will be available for all who need it, with none of the current rationing. The HIV/Aids pandemic is not over. PrEP is a cheap, cost effective prevention therapy that can cut new infections and save the NHS the millions it costs to treat people once they become infected. Moreover, the EU, through its programme of scientific grants, is one of the largest funders of HIV research in the world: almost £300 million over the last decade and a half. The UK is major contributor to this scientific work. What will happen to this research after Brexit? Johnson must ensure that research funding is not cut and that the European collaborative approach favoured by HIV scientists is maintained.
Victims of anti-gay laws must be compensated. Tens of thousands of men were prosecuted for consenting adult same-sex acts, until these laws were fully repealed in the last few years. These men suffered the stigma of a criminal conviction. They were fined or jailed. Many lost their jobs, homes, marriages, children and friends. Some were beaten in the street, suffered mental breakdowns, became alcoholics and attempted suicide. They had their lives wrecked. They deserve compensation, similar to the already agreed German government scheme to recompense men who suffered persecution under homophobic legislation. Theresa May declined to offer compensation. Boris Johnson should remedy that failing.
Britain must become a safe haven for LGBT+ refugees. Some victims of anti-LGBT+ criminalisation, violence and discrimination abroad flee to the UK to claim asylum, only to find the asylum system is stacked against them: they are sometimes locked up in immigration detention centres, routinely disbelieved even when they produce evidence, and are banned from working while their asylum claims are processed, which can take several years, despite many of them having employment skills that the UK needs. These injustices have to change. Johnson should be leading the reform of the asylum system to ensure a safe haven for LGBT+ refugees.
None of these policies are difficult or costly. They are moral imperatives that Boris could easily achieve. But will he even try?
Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner and activist
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