The UK Used to Be LGBTQ-Friendly. What Happened?

Participants in London’s first trans pride march, in 2019.

Source WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty

Why you should care

A sinking tide lowers all boats.

Melania Geymonat and her girlfriend, Chris Hannigan, got on a London bus and were attacked by a gang of four teenagers. Geymonat said the young men “started behaving like hooligans,” asking the couple to kiss, calling them “lesbians” and describing sexual positions. She ended up with a broken nose in the May attack, which was condemned by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the country’s then-prime minister, Theresa May, who both said that violence against the LGBTQ community would not be tolerated.

But the attack was a reflection of what observers say are increasingly homophobic tendencies in the United Kingdom.

Britain has dropped from the most LGBTQ-friendly country in Europe in 2014 to seventh this year.

That’s according to the Rainbow Europe rankings, which rate all 49 countries in Europe on human rights and policy for the LGBTQ community. The U.K. has dropped from a rating of 82 percent LGBTQ-friendly to just 66 percent in this year’s rankings.

The biggest storm to envelop Britain in recent years has been that of Brexit, as the nation prepares to leave the European Union. “The impact of Brexit is relevant because there is a whole debate going on about who should be in and who should be out. It’s uncomfortable, and minorities are feeling the brunt of that,” says Robert Berkeley of BlackOut UK, a nonprofit social enterprise run and owned by a volunteer collective of gay Black men.

Hate crimes are increasing in the U.K., according to Berkeley, against all protected minorities. Singer-songwriter Grace Petrie agrees, referencing the anti-trans protests that were very visible at the 2018 London gay pride march. A small group of women made their way to the front of the march, handing out literature about how transgender women aren’t “real” women. Media reports said they accused trans women of “raping” lesbians.

In the U.K., the Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERF) movement places its anti-trans views in the context of a fear of “female erasure.” In the United States, the anti-trans movement is significantly more scattered. Observers say that in part this is due to a number of high-profile TERFs being given credibility and visibility in the U.K.’s mainstream media. In England and Wales in 2014, there were 607 hates crimes reported against transgender people. In 2018, there were 1,651, an increase of 171 percent.

London Trans Pride 2019

Activists take part in London’s first-ever trans pride march this year. (Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

Source Getty Images

Petrie believes that a schism within the U.K.’s LGBTQ community has contributed to a lessening in tolerance in general for those who identify as transgender.

“It’s been my view for a number of years that if we allow the demonization and marginalization of a part of our community to be tolerated within the queer community, then it’s a really short distance from debating the rights of trans people to the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people,” Petrie says. “That’s what’s happened in Britain.” Gay pride events this year were followed by protests outside some primary schools in Britain against teaching children about the existence of gay and queer people.

“These conversations about whether or not it’s OK for children to learn about the existence of queer people is something that is now being called into question,” says Petrie. “That has been massively allowed and exacerbated by the fact that people within the queer community were debating the rights of trans people — one thing follows the other. If we don’t have solidarity within the community, then it’s very easy for us all to be marginalized.”

And as the U.K. fell from grace in the Rainbow rankings there was another surprise shift: The tiny island state of Malta, a deeply Catholic and conservative nation, is now Europe’s No. 1 for LGBTQ rights — in 2014, it was No. 11.

Gabriella Calleja, who oversees LGBTQ rights for the Maltese government, says that several legal changes in recent years have helped improve the country’s ranking. In 2014, legal civil unions and adoption by same-sex couples were introduced; in 2016, the nation was the first in Europe to ban conversion therapy, which aims to change sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual. Then, in 2017, lawmakers legalized same-sex marriage. 

All of those legislative changes helped shift attitudes, says Calleja. “I think the increased visibility and inclusion in political discourse of LGBTQ figures also helped transform the island — there is a general acceptance that wasn’t there a few years ago.”

Elaine, who preferred not to give her full name, lives in Malta with her girlfriend. “That’s not to say that there is no discrimination,” she says. “Those things take years, I assume, but in general, I can’t complain.”

Legal changes are often ahead of public opinion, and Malta is no exception — it’s still lacking legislation that softens its stance on other keystone issues for the left, such as abortion, which remains a crime in all circumstances. But for an island that only began allowing divorce in 2011, the advances and changes in laws and attitudes affecting the LGBTQ community are ahead of the curve.

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