Equality in a cold climate

Here’s my speech to the Stonewall/DELGA fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth:

When we talk about gay rights in a cold climate – a chill wind is blowing. And I suspect that the temperature is in danger of dropping sharply –in terms of what will happen to the funding both in terms of outreach, support and gay health

LGBT organisations rely on three main sources of income:

– government grants
– private donations
– corporate sponsorship

I don’t have to tell people in the room who are involving in local Government about the bleak funding future ahead of us. As basic services get squeezed the axe will most certainly turn to external funding where cuts will not be so immediately felt.

If you stop collecting rubbish people notice pretty quickly, but this is not the case when it comes LGBT support groups.

Private individuals have inevitably become less generous as household finances become shakier. Even the pink purse isn’t recession proof.

And as companies’ profit margins have evaporated, so does their benevolence.

So what can we do about it?

It is a point I make time and time again – you must spend to save.

A difficult argument when the economy is in dire straits, but now more than ever should this case be made.

Where any of us have a seat at a table where financial decisions are made we must make the case for continued funding. We must make the case for well-targeted projects that support the gay community.

Providing condoms and lube in every gay pub, club and sauna makes HIV/AIDS less likely to be spread.

Spending money to promote clear public sexual health messages saves money on treatment.

Creating safe places for confused teenagers to come to terms with his or her sexuality makes for productive and well-adjusted adults.

I salute the work Stonewall has done in making sexuality an issue of good business. Going out there and making the business case for companies to take the issues of gay people seriously and also dealing with business perceptions.

But further afield one real protection against any roll back to gay rights is by enshrining them in law.

As the Equality Bill currently wends it’s way through Parliament, as Liberal Democrats I sometime feel we have been a bit of a lone voice in arguing for what I believe is full LGBT equality.

I won’t bore you with commentary on the whole 205 clauses, but there have been two main bones of contention, transgender issues and second class treatment of gay discrimination rights.

The transgender community continues to be ostracised. Even some parts of the gay community can be a bit snooty about transgender issues.

Maybe this is partly this is because some gay people see their issues been unfairly lumped into one basket, but sometimes I wonder if there is simply lack of empathy.

The Government, however, displayed complete ignorance of transgender issues. They showed relentless and ill-informed determination to keep as one of the protected strands ‘gender reassignment.

They seemingly did not understand or even wish to understand the complexities of the range of the spectrum of gender identity.

They had no awareness that many, many trans people never change sex nor even ultimately pass for the other gender nor even go on that journey nor that some people are just intersex in some form and that those who have gender identity issues will experience discrimination and need protection because they don’t fit gender stereotypes at all.

The current case of 800 metres world champion, Caster Semanya of South Africa highlights just one of the complexities. But the Government completely refused to change the title of that protected characteristic to ‘gender identity’ thereby leaving swathes of people unprotected by the soon to be new laws.

The second point, one that I know I don’t share with Stonewall – and I know this because I questioned Ben when he gave Evidence to the bill committee and he told me so! – is to do with what I call the second class treatment of gay protection.

I think lots of gay people would be surprised to learn that harassing a pupil because of their sexuality is not explicitly outlawed in schools. And just so we understand – harassment in this context means intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive behaviour.

It is rightly explicitly illegal to harass a pupil because of their race, their gender or if they have a disability, but it is not explicitly illegal to harass a pupil because of his or her sexuality.

Direct discrimination is banned and it is thought this will give sufficient protection, but for me a question mark remains as why you wouldn’t put something as important as this in big letters on the face of the Bill – young gay people should not bullied in school. End of!

There should not be a hierarchy between different types of discrimination and we shouldn’t want to slip gay rights in the Bill through the backdoor, no pun intended.

I’ve lost a few skirmishes on these issues in Parliament, but the battle is not over until the fat lady sings, more correctly until Her Majesty gives royal assent.

Then we come to blood.

If any of you were here last year you may remember that I raised the issue of the blanket ban on gay men giving blood and that this as an issue that we needed to campaign on. I am delighted to say that Stonewall changed its position to support our view which is that individuals should be banned according to their actual behaviour, not according to crude categories.

Currently there would be a lifetime ban on a gay man who had had protected sex once. There is no equivalent on a straight man – who may have had more partners. So to me the argument is clear – judgements should be based on people’s actual behaviour and the risks that arise from that. Stonewall agree with me and recently the Anthony Nolan bone marrow transplant trust removed their ban on gay donors. Other countries have a risk-based approach.

Sadly – the government disagrees. Perhaps Stonewall can use their influence behind the front lines on this one.

I hope that give you all a brief assessment what I think the key issues are, I look forward to hearing from the rest of the panel and answering your questions.