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What has Queen Elizabeth II done for gay rights?

As she celebrates her diamond jubilee, GSN asks if the British monarch is a Queen against queens, or a silent supporter
What has Queen Elizabeth II, pictured here delivering the Queen's Speech to British government, done for the gays?

For six decades, Queen Elizabeth II has remained silent about homosexuality.

Ever since her father King George VI died in 1952, leaving her as Queen, the words ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’, and ‘transgender’ have never been reported as crossing the lips of the reigning monarch.

Even when the UK government was reforming anti-gay laws, she did not reference the community once in the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the British parliamentary agenda for the year ahead.

Republican gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell believes it is because the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are the ‘unspeakable ones’. In an article originally published in The Guardian, he said ‘her silence sends a signal of exclusion and disrespect.’

Despite this an unscientific Gay Star News poll over the last few days has seen a large amount of support for Elizabeth II. At the time of writing 45% of GSN readers voted to say they were a supporter of the Queen, compared to just 19% who oppose her.

As a constitutional monarch and head of the Commonwealth she has no power to legislate, does not vote, and her job is to give royal assent to bills that pass her way. She has a right to inform and be informed about what is done in her name, but that is all.

From Winston Churchill to David Cameron, Elizabeth has consulted with the head of her British government weekly for six decades. These meetings are legendary but private.

So the only way we can understand her personal feelings may be to look at which charities she has given her patronage.

Among the 621 charities, she is not patron of a single LGBT rights organisation.

By contrast Elizabeth II is patron of the Mother’s Union – an anti-gay charity that has campaigned against the right for marriage equality. Mother’s Union head Reg Bailey has even said legalising gay marriage risks the possibility of polygamy and marriage between siblings.

She is also the nominal head of the Anglican Church, ripped apart by internal battles over gay clergy and gay rights in general. Her current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is apparently unable to control the homophobic ranting of some of his hate-filled juniors. More recently the Church of England has been involved in trying to block same-sex marriage equality across the UK.

Whether the Queen could have quietly intervened in these examples or a little mention in her annual Christmas message of her LGBT subjects or perhaps a nominal patronage of a charity which helps gay or trans people would have done some good is, of course, conjecture.

The 86-year-old has been seen as a stabilizing force when she has spoken about different races and faiths. Her supporters would argue she can only do good by staying clear of controversy and outspoken remarks about LGBT people or issues would jeopardize that.

Tatchell argues there is evidence of regal prejudice. He says gay staff used to be banned by the royal household from bringing their partners to the annual Christmas ball at Buckingham Palace, while heterosexual staff were allowed to attend with their partners. This ended in 1994 after the discrimination was exposed by gay rights group OutRage!, a charity that Tatchell co-founded.

However it is fair to point out similar barriers – official or merely ‘understood’ – existed in the majority of British firms at the time. By making the change so early, admittedly under pressure, the Queen could even have been described as a trailblazing employer.

More seriously still, it is illegal to be gay nine out of the 16 countries where she remains monarch. Does that mean she cannot risk alienating her subjects by speaking out or does that put a greater responsibility on her to show some sign of approval and help the lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens in those realms?

This summer London will host World Pride and organizers are putting the emphasis on the Commonwealth. Shockingly 41 of the 54 member states in this ‘family’ still criminalize homosexuality with laws dating back to British colonial times. The penalties for this ‘offence’ range from jail to corporal punishment and right up to the death penalty.

The best that can be said for Elizabeth is she has never been caught making a homophobic remark or showing support for this injustice and cruelty, and given the historical context some would say that’s an achievement.

In those countries gay people still live in fear of conviction, so it is easy to understand why some are frustrated by the Queen’s silence.

On the other hand, honors have been given to Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill, lesbian campaigner Clare Dimyon, and Sir Nick Partridge of the Terrence Higgins Trust. These royal seals of approval may be made on the orders of the government but the ceremonies are undertaken by the Queen or her close family.

Perhaps future generations of the royal family may create a more inclusive monarchy.

The late Princess Diana, mother of Prince William and Prince Harry, shocked the world when she shook the hand of a HIV positive person in 1989. It was instrumental in helping to de-stigmatize a condition that was still viewed with a great deal of fear.

More recently Harry has shown a small sign he may follow in his mother’s compassionate and engaged footsteps. As GSN recently reported the 27-year-old has indicated his backing for straight rugby star Ben Cohen’s anti-bullying foundation StandUp which puts a strong emphasis on tackling homophobic bullying.

Like Tatchell, Gay Star News got in contact with the royal press office to ask about the monarch’s gay rights history. Like the campaigner, we had no response.

In the article, Tatchell said: ‘I rest my case. The monarchy is homophobic – if not by conscious intent, then by default.’

Commenters on the article largely disagreed with this statement saying as she is not allowed to air her public opinions, the Queen’s views remain unknown by default.

Is it fair to judge someone as homophobic merely because of their silence? Is it just to place the blame for the decisions of the Queen’s governments and organizations on her shoulders when she is merely their titular head? That is for each of her subjects to decide for themselves. 

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