Sep 2013: LGBT activists and supporters demonstrate in London against LGBT discrimination in Russia
International backlash on LGBT equality
Yesterday, the European Parliament rejected a motion making recommendations on sexual health and sexuality and substituted an anodyne comment that these were matters for national governments. The Lithuanian Parliament continues to debate not one but a whole bunch of anti-LGBT bills, no doubt encouraged by developments in next door Russia. These are warning signs that progress towards equal rights (let alone liberation from prejudice and intolerance) is not guaranteed and that things can go backwards as well as forwards.
So the European parliamentary elections next May take on a particular relevance. If reactionary parties make the kind of gains they expect, it may become impossible to use the European Union to bring about progressive change. Instead of the expansion of the EU to include former Soviet-bloc states leading to an extension of real equality for women, ethnic minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in those countries (which have had to sign up formally to EU equality directives), a large number of bigoted MEPs elected by them make the implementation of even existing equal rights an uphill struggle.
How can trade unionists contribute? Unions that are politically affiliated will play their part in Britain’s European election campaign and need to alert voters to the threat posed by candidates who would deny equality to our communities. All unions can help win the battle to defeat the reactionaries and to challenge their support at home by backing LGBT activists fighting the same battles in their own countries that LGBT activists have been fighting in Britain since the 1970s.
First, though, it’s necessary to listen to what LGBT activists abroad actually want us to do. The TUC’s LGBT committee has rejected calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics (Sochi, Russia, 2014) because Russian LGBT activists have said “don’t boycott, but engage!”. Elton John has used his concerts in Russia this week to protest against Putin’s homophobic laws. If he’d stayed away, this opportunity would have been lost. The German Winter Olympics team has adopted a rainbow coloured team strip to wear in Sochi. This is what our Russian sisters and brothers want us to do, we should listen. After all, British LGBT campaigners would feel patronised and insulted if someone from Russia tried to tell us that they knew best what we ought to do.
On December 8, another initiative offered British trade unionists a practical way to support campaigns for LGBT equality abroad. RMT activists have set up a fund to raise money to provide material support. Full details will be circulated to unions soon, meanwhile you can check out the fund on Facebook and their website will shortly be up at rainbow-international-fund.org
Globally, there appears to be a stark contrast between places where legal equality has been achieved and those where persecution is widespread. It would be dangerous to assume that this is one-way traffic only. The level of homophobia in Britain remains at between a quarter and a third of the population and reported hate crime has soared. Trans people face prejudice everywhere. Complacency among our communities – strongly reinforced by same sex marriage – could have negative consequences not just next May but in this country too.