The UK’s first big political debate of 2015 was on gay rights as the three big parties faced off during the Gay Star Travel Expo today (17 January).
Labour’s Lord Michael Cashman, Liberal Democrat’s Baroness Liz Barker and Conservative’s Crispin Blunt MP answered a variety of questions from the engaged and curious British public.
It was chaired by Gay Star News editor Tris Reid-Smith.
They were asked, in overview, what is Britain’s role in global LGBTI rights.
Blunt said: ‘When I came out four years ago, it was pretty clear to me I owe a massive debt to Michael Cashman and Liz Barker who fought the fight. Without them and the work they’ve done, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in. I am finally accepting of myself.
‘My contribution is to try and help gay and lesbian people in other countries in the world where the social and political environment remains hostile.’
He explained Britain is engaging in political diplomacy, trying to change the views of leaders to – if they can’t stop the law – to at least stop the law being enforced.
‘The most effective way for the UK is to deal with each law on a case by case basis but with a general values approach that underwrites that country by country.’
‘The first role of the UK is to lead by example. In terms of legislation, we’ve done that, we’re probably the best in the world,’ Barker said.
‘But we must prepare ourselves of the next decade of societal change in the wake of the legislation that we’ve passed. It’s not easy to be a lesbian or gay man in some parts of this country.
‘Internationally, we need to set the example that equality is good for business and economy. I would like to see the British government put in some motions that demonstrate this.
She added: ‘I think we’ve got a really good story to tell about all the detail that went in over the last 30 years, and all the parts people played.’
Cashman said: ‘I was appointed by Ed Milliband as the LGBTI Global Envoy, and we are absolutely determined that global envoy will not sit in a closet in the back of Whitehall, but will have a position within the Cabinet Office. The global envoy will have an overarching umbrella not just in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but in culture, media, sport and education.’
He added: ‘HIV became an excuse and is still an excuse to deny gay men but equally lesbians and bisexuals equal rights in communities.
‘We need to address that in the UN. We need a declaration that we will seek to achieve decriminalisation, the end of the death penalty and equal age of consent in 2020. Unless we set ourselves a goal, we cannot hope to achieve it.’
The first question came from the public, asking about how lesbian, gay or bisexuals can possibly ‘prove’ their sexuality?
‘With the review by the Home Office on how they handle gay asylum seekers, it should lead a reversal of the burden of proof,’ Blunt suggested.
‘If you assert you are LGBTI that should be taken as the position unless there is evidence to the contrary.’
He added: The important thing is if you need refuge, you need to assert your sexuality as soon as you can. A process should be in place that if a straight refugee has lied, their presence in this country should be in peril.’
Barker said you must consider asylum cases in the context of immigration policy. She said she would like the list of countries that the Border Agency makes blanket decisions on to be reviewed. She also said the people who make these decisions are not being appraised on how to do their jobs.
‘We have to put our energies in changing those laws in countries that make them feel they have no other option to seek asylum,’ Cashman said.
‘If we deal only with the people that arrive here, we are not helping those who can’t get out of those countries.’
Cashman also suggested asylum cases should not be dealt with at the Home Office, but needs another department.
Another question from the audience asked about the discrimination of religious organizations, saying while Britain has good laws they could be better.
‘One of the biggest promoters of hatred in parts of Africa are organized religions,’ Cashman said.
‘I am pleased to say in advance, I will be meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury to use the soft power of the Anglican church to prevent conflict against LGTBI people in countries around the world.’
Blunt said: ‘We have to allow religious orgs in the UK the same freedom for their own organization if that’s how they choose to organize their beliefs.
‘That is the uncomfortable cost of liberty, their liberty. It’s got to be their own adherence to turn those organizations around.’
Barker said: ‘People in these organizations need to have that space to practice their beliefs.
‘I don’t think we can remove those protections. We need to have a dialogue and change hearts and minds.’
Another asylum question was asked, talking about the difficulties people face in detention centres.
It was quickly answered, with Barker saying when things have calm down, there should be a cross-party discussion with the Home Office to discuss how to best address the situation.
An audience member asked about the question of gay couples travelling to anti-gay countries, and whether it was ethical to do so.
‘I do think women find it more difficult,’ Barker said, urging for more travel information. ‘I certainly know I have a list of countries where we just wouldn’t go. We are women and we wouldn’t feel safe.’
Crispin said it isn’t an ethical problem, it’s a practical problem.
‘The laws that have been on the statute books for ages with no arrests, you’re probably be safe. You can find advice for LGBTI travellers in any reputable tourist guide.’
Cashman pointed to the ‘brilliant’ ILGA map that shows where it is illegal to be gay.
‘There’s a real conflict to when we get the Eurovision Song Contest which is arguably a LGB contest.
‘When it was in Russia, there was a huge influx of gay men and straight allies celebrated as if we were in a gay club, we manifested in the streets. I know, because my late Paul used to go every year!
‘In Baku, Azerbaijan, the LGBTI community felt inspired and liberated of so many open people from other countries, offering celebration.
‘So there is something to showing others they have nothing to fear from progress and everything to fear from staying in the dark ages.
The final question came, asking how Britain can make the economic case to push gay rights around the world?
Barker said: ‘The absolutely instrumental thing is the economic argument that stands up not just for individual companies but for the prosperity of countries.
Not just in a negative way, looking at the cost of health systems under oppressive anti-gay laws but in a positive way, how their GDP will increase if they allow gay and lesbian people to live and love openly.’
Blunt said it was a big opportunity to tell multinational companies where they should base their offices.
‘If you tell Uganda’s President Museveni that several banks will no longer be in Kampala, this is something that impacts hard.’
Cashman said Britain must make it clear the benefit of the economic consequences of equality, but the economic consequences of inequality.
A second debate will take place at the Gay Star Travel Expo featuring some of the world’s most influential LGBTI activists, such as Peter Tatchell, to discuss the question: ‘’Are we winning or losing the fight for LGBTI rights worldwide?’