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Lessons from Orlando: Greater LGBTI equality would make us all safer

Leading gay lawyer Jonathan Cooper examines equality in the US, UK and around the world and argues it improves our security

Lessons from Orlando: Greater LGBTI equality would make us all safer
Jonathan Cooper is a human rights lawyer, based in London.

In Orlando, the LGBTI community were massacred where we feel safest. Gay bars and clubs are venues for a good night out, but they are also places of refuge. Are those places of safety now threatened by mass murder?

The terror attacks in Orlando re-emphasise how vulnerable we are, but do we have to accept that defencelessness? The culture of contempt for the LGBTI community continues to thrive across the globe. Wherever most of us live we are considered, in varying degrees, by some to be legitimate objects of disgust.

Hate for many is the norm. But does it have to be that way?

America embodies that jumble of emotion directed at LGBTI people. There may be a strong and vibrant community but there are attacks on American LGBTI people from all sides. The President may use the language of protection, but laws are erratic and inconsistent.

It is inexplicable that the federal courts guarantee an equal right to marry, but those same courts are not empowered to ensure equal rights in the workplace.

Even prior to the Pulse carnage, how safe was it really to be lesbian, gay, bi, trans or intersex in the USA? Does the lack of a coherent and meaningful equality strategy give permission to act to those who hate? Is that kind of bloodbath a peculiarly American phenomenon? Could it happen anywhere?

The LGBTI community in the UK has been no stranger to violence, but now law enforcement agencies take active steps to address it. As recently as 1999, London’s LGBT community was targeted by a terror attack. Two were killed and many were injured in a bomb blast in a gay pub on Old Compton Street, where yesterday a vigil was held for the Orlando victims.

Back in 1999 the UK was a very different place for LGBTI people. We had no protection at all back then. Criminal laws were actively enforced against gay men. There was an unequal age of consent. Gay men and lesbians were banned from serving their country and were humiliated and dismissed. Section 28 dictated to local government that we had to be ignored. The Human Rights Act was not yet in force. It was not safe to be LGBTI.

Is there a link between state-sanctioned indifference at best and homophobia at worst and attacks on the LGBT community? If America had comprehensive federal laws protecting LGBT people would that mean the chances of an Orlando type attack would be diminished?

In the UK, our equality means that the state will do all it can to safeguard us as LGBTI people. The state has to protect us. With our equality has come security.

We are safe in part because we now have the law on our side. Our equality is mandated. Britain is quite literally a place of asylum for countless LGBTI people who are persecuted in their home countries.

Does it matter where our security has come from? Much of the equality we enjoy today was forced on a reluctant UK by European institutions. The EU has transformed the lives of the LGBTI community.

Across the Union the single market became the excuse to sweep away the tyranny and the persecution of the past; denying our equality undermined the effectiveness of that single market. By granting a British trans woman equality back in the mid-90s the European Court of Justice set the stage. Trans women and men were protected by equal treatment laws and all of our equality was here to stay.

Be in no doubt, it is thanks to the EU’s single market that the lives of LGBT people have been transformed. The EU’s sister organisation, the Council of Europe and its Court, among other things, stamped out criminalizing people for being gay and demanded an equal age of consent.

The European Court of Human Rights required that gay men and lesbians be welcomed in the UK armed forces. That Court got rid of crimes that only gay men could commit.

The UK, more than most other European countries, was forced by these European institutions to change its laws relating to LGBT rights. LGBT equality did not come naturally, it was imposed upon the UK.

To its credit, the British establishment, on realizing the writing was on the wall, ended up fully embracing the equality agenda. The government could have opted for the least change required, but pushed for maximum human rights protection.

Along with extraordinary LGBTI politicians, lobby organization Stonewall demanded the rights being granted by these European institutions were transformed into an equality agenda. These skilful politicians maximised all the opportunities that the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights offered.

No longer did LGBTI persecution distort the British system of government. Our de jure equality became de facto and Britain became more at peace with itself.

What’s more, guaranteeing our equality became a vote winner – an unanticipated benefit for the political class. The LGBTI community became at one with the British system and society became more content. LGBTI people became secure and protected and violence against us reduced.

The blood bath in Orlando once again exposed our vulnerability, but these direct attacks on us for being LGBTI are not inevitable. As fully integrated equal members of society whose differences are embraced and respected, targeting us for who we are has diminished. With equality comes security.

As our equality deepens, risks to our wellbeing will be lessened. There are many lessons from Orlando, but one must be to provide the LGBTI community across the globe with greater equality.

It doesn’t matter where that equality comes from and how it comes about, but the more equality we have the less hurt and anguish for everyone.

Jonathan Cooper is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers in London and the former director of the Human Dignity Trust which works to decriminalize homosexuality. You can follow him on Twitter here.


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