From Brighton to Belgrade: Gay Rights in Europe

March 1, 2013

Caroline Lucas, Peter Tatchell & Keith Taylor at Brighton Pride
Caroline Lucas, Peter Tatchell & Keith Taylor at Brighton Pride

Last month members of the UK’s Parliament took the huge step of passing legislation that will allow two people of the same sex to get married. It shouldn’t have been a radical step, but it was. Indeed it’s a step that, less than a lifetime ago, was utterly inconceivable and, to the next generation – in this country at least – will be seen as coming remarkably late. The moment couldn’t have been better summed up than it was by Gary Dunion, one of the editors of the blog Bright Green Scotland.

He tweeted:

“Remember when you had to prove to the Government that you and your partner’s genitals were different before you could get married? That was weird.”

This decision didn’t just happen overnight. It’s easy to forget when we celebrate this victory that we stand on the shoulders of many giants who have fought for equal love over the years. Indeed it was within my lifetime, in 1967, that ‘committing homosexual acts’ was decriminalised. For anyone unlucky enough to be gay in Northern Ireland the law only changed in 1982.

Perusing the House of Lords debates from 1967 gives an insight into just how far acceptable attitudes have changed. Lord Rowallan, the ex Governor of Tasmania, feared the worst when it was suggested that gay sex should be decriminalised:

He said:

“Are we to sit idly by and watch the increase of homosexuality among the young people? Or are we to say: No; the evil-doer must suffer as the innocent must be protected?”

Baroness Wooton, one of the first women to ever sit in the House of Lords, summed up the attitudes of those opposing the reforms at the time:

She said:

“I can only suppose that the opponents of this Bill will be afraid that their imagination will be tormented by visions of what will be going on elsewhere. Surely, if that is so, that is their own private misfortune, and no reason for imposing their personal standards of taste and morality on the minority of their fellow citizens who can find sexual satisfaction only in relations with their own sex.”

Of course times have changed since then. We’ve seen laws passed to ban discrimination against gay people, LGBT people are given protection under hate crime legislation and the abominable Section 28 – which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools – has been scrapped.
But, having patted ourselves on the back for our progress, we must remember the struggles still faced by LGBT people, both in the UK and abroad.

Keith Taylor at Allsort Youth Project
Keith Taylor at Allsort Youth Project

On a snowy day in January I visited the amazing Allsorts project in Brighton. This group, who support and empower LGBT young people across the region, serves as a reminder of both how far we’ve come and the distance we still have to go. Take for example their great work in schools, raising awareness of LGBT issues. Until 2003 this kind of work might have been illegal under the dreadful Section 28. We should, therefore, celebrate the freedom they enjoy in doing their work but also note the constant need for this kind of awareness raising. LGBT young people continue to have a tougher time at school than their straight counterparts with 55% of LGB young people experiencing homophobic bullying at school, and 96% saying they hear words like ‘poof’ or ‘lezza’ in the classroom.

Allsorts provide an incredible service to young people in Brighton. They have ‘drop-ins’, trans groups, support sessions and more. When I met them earlier this year I couldn’t help but compare the incredible safe space they provide to the lack of legal and cultural acceptance of gay people in other parts of our continent.


Belgrade Riot Police at Belgrade Pride 2012
Belgrade Riot Police at Belgrade Pride 2012

Last summer I witnessed first hand a stark example of the difficulties facing LGBT in Europe. I travelled to Serbia to be part of their ‘Pride’ celebrations. Unfortunately, and in stark contrast to Brighton’s vibrant parade on the city’s streets every August, the Belgrade version was held behind lines of riot police, indoors. This was after the police banned the march following threats of violence from the far right. Being gay in Belgrade isn’t easy.

Similarly the route to equal love for LGBT people in Poland looks long and thorny. Article 18 of the country’s constitution ominously states that marriage is a union ‘between a man and a woman.’ In January, Polish law makers voted down three proposed laws on civil unions for unmarried couples whether gay or straight. Recent debates in the National Assembly – including a remark from an MP who said homosexual relationships are “hedonistic and auto-destructive for partners and their families”– reinforce the fact that a broad acceptance of gay rights in Poland is still a long way off.

Yet – despite the struggle of our LGBT brothers and sisters across Europe – the progress we’ve made in the UK, from changes in the law to the superb work of organizations like Allsorts, should encourage us. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels, or spend our time preaching to ‘bad apples’ abroad while LGBT people in Britain still face prejudice and persecution, but we should celebrate our victories, often forged in long struggles against entrenched power. Indeed if the gay rights movement in the UK has taught us anything it is that bigotry is never set in stone.