Michael Cashman is a former British actor, human rights activist, and a member of the European Parliament for the Labour Party of Britain. In the European Parliament he is Labour spokesperson on human rights and a vocal critic of discrimination against minorities in the European Union. Founder of the UK lesbian and gay equalities organization Stonewall, he has in the past supported the gay pride march in Warsaw in 2006 against the increasing hate-speak from senior Polish politicians, and attended the Initiative Against Homophobia in Northern Cyprus in 2009 in an attempt to end discriminatory laws against lgbt people. He is a member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and the chair of the Delegation for Relations with South Africa in the European Parliament. He is now Vice Chair of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee. He received Special service award from American Association of Physicians for Human Rights in 1998, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Staffordshire for his human rights work in 2007.
Hrant Dink , Memorial Lecture, by Michael Cashman MEP. Final Draft
Ladies, Gentlemen and Others, dear friends, honoured guests. I am so excited to be here today and feel deeply honoured to be asked to speak at this fourth memorial lecture to Hrant Dink.
Turkey has a special place in my heart and it is a country I have known for many years. It is a place where I have many friends. And I have consistently supported Turkey’s application to join the EU. But that is probably a discussion for another time. And another place.
I have had an interesting life journey in getting here. And I have been blessed with the love of my mother and father and that of my partner of twenty seven years Paul Cottingham whom I married in a civil partnership five years ago.
I was born into a poor family in the working class district of east London where it was expected I would follow my father and become a dock worker. Yet fate intervened and I was discovered at school by a theatrical agent at the age of 11 years old impersonating a black blues singer, Eartha Kitt! Within weeks I was playing Oliver in the London production of Oliver and so began a career that would span thirty seven years. Thirty seven years encompassing theatre, television and films during which time I appeared in BBC Television’s most popular weekly programme, EastEnders, playing the first non stereotypical gay man and sensationally sharing the first gay kiss on a British ‘soap’. It caused media and political controversy. Especially when they realised I was gay in real life too!
The popular printed media were outraged and politicians called for my character to be dropped from the show because, they said, it was watched by families! My relationship was disclosed in the press, our address published. And the bricks came through our window. My name was placed on a hit list by right wing extremists, I received death threats.
The BBC stood firm and so did I and I remained on the show for three years. To kiss, and kiss again. Yet it was during this time that the British Conservative government brought in an anti gay law banning the ‘promotion’ of
homosexuality. A dangerous and vicious law which failed to define what ‘promotion’ meant but which led to both private and public censorship.
That a government could do this in the era when AIDS and HIV was represented in the UK media as, I quote, ‘a gay plague’ displays how quickly tolerance without legal protection can turn to negative actions on the basis of so called public or private ‘morality’.
This same law sought to reinforces the concept of the family as solely the union between a man and a woman.
If I have to be honest, it was as a young gay man that I gained my real experience of the world and how people saw me, or people like me. I knew I was different and I knew I had to make choices about who could know the ‘real’ me. For many reasons, not the least being because up until I was 18 it was completely illegal to be gay. You could face exposure, public ridicule, blackmail, extortion, imprisonment and treatment for a ‘mental illness’ including electric shock treatment. I was also aware that I had to conceal myself within my home community. But I was fortunate in that I knew I was gay, a homosexual, and I never denied it to myself. It would be some years later that I would decide never to deny it to others and to be proud of who I am.
I entered politics late in life, spurred on by the anti gay laws in the United Kingdom and the introduction of the new anti gay law by the Conservative Thatcher government .
I was elected in 1999 as Member of the European Parliament and during my years in the European Parliament I have pursued the cause of equality both for citizens of the twenty seven countries of the EU as well as for citizens of countries in all other parts of the world.
The European Union has legal agreements with other countries, such as trade and development agreements, in which respect for human rights are reinforced. Therefore as a Member of the Development Committee and as a member of the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Joint Parliamentary Assembly I see it as my role, my obligation, my responsibility to speak up for those who cannot be heard, to give a voice to those who have been made voiceless.
It doesn’t always make me popular! But then again if you go into politics to be popular then you are insane at the beginning of the process rather than insane at the end of it!
So for all those reasons and many more, I am deeply proud and privileged to be giving this memorial lecture in memory of the courage and the life of Hrant Dink. I will say this and no more on the issue, and that is that ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’. Initially of the few, but then of the many.
But now to my talk. I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on the rights of minorities. And in particular the right of Lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people. My focus is not specifically Turkey, but of course it includes Turkey.
And as I look at the rights of lgbt people this will ultimately lead to me reflecting on all minorities and how inextricably we are all linked.
For as no one individual is the same as another – even in families – or especially in families – so people which are grouped into minorities are as different from one another as anybody else. All they do is share certain characteristics. These characteristic being real, imposed or imagined.
If in my lecture I cause offence it is not intended. If I shock it may be intended. But my purpose, as Shakespeare said at the end of King Lear is ‘To speak what we feel, Not what we ought to say’. Arguably from a politician that is the most important aspect we should ask for: for a human rights campaigner it is of primary importance.
Of course my views are my own. We can only truly see the world through our own eyes. And even then we see it according to OUR truth. So if I offend or see it differently than you then I ask for your understanding and for your patience. Our roads may be different but I hope our destination - that of a better, fairer, more just world is an ambition we all share.
2011 is a year which promises much and upon which many hopes are pinned. Crises have come and gone and come again. The perennial problems of war, tyrannies, hunger, poverty and indifference remain. Indifference to the human suffering which surrounds us, and indifference to the infinite possibilities for women and men to achieve their true unique potential.
But what is it that creates this indifference? Why have we not fully learnt that we are our own gaolers and as well as our own saviours? Why do we recreate time and time again a hierarchy of oppression? Am I really different from you, and you from me? We find reassurance in placing others below us, so that at our leisure we can condemn them.
So I want to make the case for equality. Not for some. Not for one. But for all. The principle that we are all born equal. We are all equal at the moment of birth and death, but it is the time in between that makes the difference.
Specifically, I want to make the case for the defence of the human rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. The human rights of a group in society more sinned against than sinning themselves. I want to put forward a case for inclusivity. For their right—and in a personal capacity my right as a gay man—to enjoy non-discrimination before the law, equality before the law, and the equal protection of the law. Not superior rights. But equal rights. Rights so often denied to lgbt people in countries around the world, and in countries of Europe too! I specifically mention Europe because in order to examine and promote the rights of everyone, we must have the courage to look at ourselves in the same mirror. To examine our own record and our own history. Only that way, by applying the same standards and principles, can we truly reinforce the principle of the Universality of human rights.
Universal Human rights which know no barriers and no national boundaries. Rights which should be common to every human being. Should be common, but are not. They are denied solely on the basis of difference, and often the denial of rights is validated and reinforced by misinformation or misunderstanding.
In order to achieve equality we must celebrate that which separates and divides us. I truly believe that only by defending the rights of the ‘other’ can my own rights be defended. Even if the ‘other’ is diametrically opposed to my attainment of equality.
As a gay man it is something I have had to face time and time again. Or I have had to ignore the discrimination. As a politician I will defend the rights of others. And as a human being, breathing, living flesh, I must defend the rights
of others who might be attacked. The only way we can live together regardless of difference is as equal citizens enjoying equal rights. Including the right to live one’s life free from discrimination.
In this arena the state has the vital role to play as the promoter and defender of equality. Indeed that should be the basis of any true democracy – the enjoyment of Universal human rights as well as civil and political rights. Indeed I would go so far as to say that the litmus test of any civilised society is how it treats its minorities. Minorities which so often combine to make up the majority. But of course there are many conflicts in achieving anti discrimination laws which allow an individual to lead their life fully.
This brings us to the often difficult task of the balancing of rights. A conflict which often occurs when dealing with religion or belief. And let us not confuse religion or belief with the power base of organised religion. Organised religions are power organisations which place the personal and private in the public domain and, in my opinion more dangerously, often in the political domain.
Religion or belief are often used as a basis upon which to deny lgbt people equal rights, to deny them equality. The cry goes up that being lgbt is against religion and against the will of god. It is not natural. It is against the family. It is against religious tomes. Yet that is only an opinion. An opinion sometimes, but not always, shared by those who follow the same religion or branch of religion.
The same religious tomes which declared inter racial marriage as well as inter religious marriage against the will of god.
Religion is and can be a force for good, yet how is it that it has been manipulated to enforce division and sometimes the denial of justice? Has organised religion become distant from its followers and closer to those who would manipulate it in order to achieve power over others? The question hangs in the air!
But for me the crucial importance is that religion or belief should not be imposed upon another. And this is for me the test of the balancing of human rights. The right to believe, as in the religious example, but not impose that belief on another if by comparison to the imposer the others rights are diminished.
Some religious believers argue that in comparison their rights are diminished. But that is not true. They can still believe, still practise, finding the right way, the right life, and conducting the conversation between ones conscience with God. Nothing will have changed in human rights or civil liberties terms except the engagement of the principle of equality.
Arguably religion and faith are the most intensely personal and private experiences you can have. Private and personal and I repeat which should never be imposed upon another.
The choice of religious belief must always be respected but never given priority in the Universality of Human Rights. All rights are equal and enjoyed by all.
Choice. Enjoyment of the right. Defence of the right. And freedom of expression at the root of it all. The freedom to express and live your life without fear of discrimination or persecution. As each person lives so each chooses and the choices within the concepts of the law must be respected.
Religion and belief, private and personal, and separate from politics. The state protecting all religions and none, remaining but secular.
And why? Because religion and politics can be one of the most toxic mixes imaginable. Cast one’s eyes around the world and see how this toxic mix is used to shatter the lives and dreams of ordinary men and women. See how religion can be abused and used by extremists to achieve their power. And how the casualties are those who have no choice. And that is why the Pope is wrong. It is not intolerance of religion that is the problem it is the intolerance towards others that is displayed by some organised religions. That is the problem. Religion and belief should be used to promote tolerance and understanding. It should be used to celebrate the diversity of human beings and our ability to love and be loved. Our difference should not be used against us but should be recognised as part of the world in which co-exist.
The state should never enforce a narrow set of views or belief systems which are based solely on religion. To do so is to undermine the democratic process and ultimately put the state under the supervision and the control of those who have not been elected.
I’d like to share an anecdote with you. As you know, Coptic (Christian) Egyptians were recently victims of terrorist attacks in Alexandria, Egypt, that killed 21 Churchgoers on New Year’s Eve. The response from the majority Muslim community? Thousands of Muslim brothers and sisters showed up en masse at Coptic churches a week later, partaking in Coptic Christmas eve prayers, and acting as human shields from terrorists. “We either live together, or we die together”, said Mohamed El-Savvy. This is the kind of force for good religion can be.
How can an lgbt person live their life fully and achieve their unique potential if they cannot express who they are by living their own life, choosing their partner, building their family, expressing their views and opinions? How can one’s true potential be achieved by being forced to live a lie in order to escape persecution or discrimination? A double life reinforces double standards and creates double misery.
I do not understand why people become obsessed, or the state becomes obsessed with the private lives of ordinary women and men. The right to privacy. The right to a family life. The right to freedom of association. These too are human rights.
Just before the end of 2010 a relatively famous actor declared that Hollywood was homophobic and that as a gay actor he would advise any gay person wanting a successful career to stay in the closet. In other words to lead that double life and pretend to be someone else. To take on the identity of another.
But by so doing being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is reinforced as a negative. The love that dare not speaks its name. We are erased from history and prevented from acting as peers in our societies: we can never be famous, or celebrated or achievers. In order to achieve we must deceive: first others then ourselves. And the signal that we send to those young lgbt people is terrifying. It is that their lives are second rate: their love tarnished and unworthy: their experiences twisted. And the spiral of low self esteem, bullying, transphobia, homophobia, is begun and in the momentum that follows young lives are swallowed up.
What the Hollywood aspiring actor said was said to me when I was an actor: ‘think of your career, think of your future’. But for what? If you deny who you are subsequently what you have achieved has no value: what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world yet sell his soul? And yet this is what people and governments and law enforcers ask of lgbt people every day.
The young gay Iranian who would be hung by the neck by being returned to Iran was told to keep quiet about who he was and what he was and then he would be safe! What kind of life is that that it cannot be given the equal protection of the law? And the intolerance in Iraq, swathes of the Middle East, Africa, South America, parts of the Unites States, Asia, Europe. Laws used to criminalise lgbt people for no other reason than whom they are and whom they choose to love consensually. Gay, bisexual, transgender and lesbian lives debased, defamed and devalued by people and organisations using the excuse of morality!
Where is the morality in Uganda where they are debating bringing in the death penalty for homosexuality? And instead of speaking against such a measure most African Bishops speak in favour of it.
That is wrong and no mention of god or religion can ever make it right.
So let us ask ourselves, what is it that these people are afraid of? Do they believe that heterosexuality is so fragile that it needs the full might and force of the law to protect it by destroying or prohibiting that which is different? Do they believe that the very threat of destruction will bring about compliance? Do they honestly believe that the suffering which they create and promote is a force for good? What is it they fear? Is it choice? Or is it difference.
Yet still they cannot see, can they, that lgbt people are the sons and daughters of ordinary men and women made extraordinary by society’s obsession with our sex lives!
And believe me there is more to our lives than sex. Love. Relationships. Family. Work. Friends. Religion, too. Everything that everyone else enjoys or loathes we do too. We are flesh and blood, hopes and fears, dreams and despair.
We are family. We are brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces, and we are mothers and fathers too. We are an integral, loving, inclusive part of the nuclear family.
The simple reality is that so long as a man and a woman procreate so lgbt people will exist. We are family. Loving or seeking consenting relationships and the opportunities to build and maintain stable relationships playing our part in the building blocks of society.
And yet still people oppose us and in some countries they criminalise us. In some countries homosexuals and transpeople are murdered as the state casts its glance the other way. Dozens of transgender people have been and are still being killed here in Turkey. And in some countries we are sentenced to death. Sentenced to death for the simple fact of whom we choose to love and with whom we have consenting relationships. That is not the embrace of liberty or theology which should lift and support the human spirit. It is the crushing weight of the oppressor. It is inhuman.
I will never forget the image of the two young Iranian teenagers hung by their neck in public until they were dead. Their crime was loving each other. And by destroying those young lives what did the authorities achieve? Absolutely nothing. Today again, a young 17-year old Iranian is on death row for a crime he did not commit, an injustice enabled by a regime that dictates who may or may not live.
And still our bars or clubs are shut down. We are sacked for being l g b or t. We can be denied housing, hotel accommodation, goods and services. In some circumstances religious lgbt people are ostracised and excluded from their religious communities.
The websites of our NGOs are blocked or closed down. Accurate information is blocked or suppressed. Our lives are promoted with disinformation or defamation. We are not a part of the rational debate within education. Yet despite this oppression which around the world has gone on for centuries we still survive to demand the right to live our lives being true to ourselves and thereby true to our ancestors. True to our mothers, father, grandfathers and grandmothers. True to the people who gave us life.
For if we live the lives of others we can never truly be what our forebears made us. We deny our genetics. We deny our culture. We deny our heritage. If we cannot be who we truly are then the generations of lives which gave us life are wasted, thrown away.
Others argue that we must conform or face the consequences. They argue that we choose to be lgbt and therefore can choose not to be. Nature or nurture? The debate could last all night. But imagine for one moment that one can choose ones sexual orientation. One can choose whether to be lesbian or gay, or bisexual or transgender or heterosexual. Imagine it!
I do not know of any heterosexuals who did choose. I do not know of any lgbt person who woke up one day and said ‘yes’! I will choose and by so doing I can possibly lose my job, my home, my family, lose the protection of the law, and yes I can even possibly lose my life!
Let us be real. Whoever makes such choices when the choice to conform brings so much more.
But - in times of crisis extremism gains it moment and takes hold.
Across Europe we have witnessed rising intolerance and discrimination. The excuse has been the economic downturn but I believe the scaremongers and promoters of hate have never gone away. They have waited silently and in anticipation for their moment to come as they have always done throughout history. Indeed history is our primary teacher for the future. In that we are either determined never to repeat our history or we repeat it and become imprisoned by it.
Now when so much is going wrong in Europe we need more Unity. Not less. The economic and social challenges will never be dealt with successfully if we retreat to a narrow nationalism dressed up as patriotism. Only by joining forces with others, by recognising the common threats and the common benefits will we weather the storms which are gathering around us.
The economic crisis and the challenges facing some countries in the Euro zone such as Greece and Ireland are the same challenges and attacks that will occur on each of our nations whether we are in the Euro zone or not. It is madness to believe that isolationism will protect us.
Our problems are rooted not in the fact that there are too many rules and regulations as the Euro sceptics would have us believe, but the trouble is based on the fact that the rules, the regulations were often ignored or not enforced.
At this time in the European Union for us to turn away from one another is to repeat our history. To imagine that what is happening to another country is of no concern of ours is to defy logic. It is like living in a row of houses and at the far end a house is burning. Don’t worry we say, carry on as usual its nothing do with us, someone else will put the fire out. And so the wind whips up and the fire spreads and suddenly it is too late to do anything. The others that we could have helped and who could have helped us have all been taken. That is what the history of the EU teaches us and at our peril we ignore it now.
For the EU was born out of the ashes of the Second World War. It was built out the ashes of people’s hopes, people’s dreams, the ashes from the destruction and waste, and the ashes from crematoria and work camps that were dotted across the European Continent. And in building the dream of the European Union we determined that nation would never again fight nation for land, power, coal, steel, or economic superiority. And we also determined that ours would be a Europe based on fundamental values, fundamental human rights. A Europe where we would never turn our eyes away again as a country or an individual was targeted or scape-goated.
For us the phrase ‘never again’ was made real by the murders of millions. Murdered because they were different. Portrayed as different, inferior, or superior. Supposedly different races. Different religions. Different cultures. Different lifestyles. Different sexuality and sometimes simply because they were women. Or not physically able. Different Different. Different.
That is why the Treaties of the EU reinforce the rule of law, democracy and human rights. It is why the EU Charter of Fundamental rights exists. And it is why at every Treaty revision that the protection of human rights and anti discrimination have been reinforced time and time again.
Hence for me the importance of the EU as a force for good and a social model worth replicating.
We need more Europe. Not less. The similarities between the 1930’s and now are deeply worrying. As the economic turmoil and austerity hit homes and neighbourhoods so the search for the scapegoat has begun. The search for the ‘stranger’, the person who has taken ‘our’ home, ‘our’ job, ‘our’ place at the hospital, utilised ‘our’ public services. The ‘strangers’ who live amongst their own and even choose to practise their own culture.
How familiar it all is.
And so the seeds are sewn for social unrest and discontent. In believing ourselves to be dispossessed we need to dispossess others in order to reinforce our sense of security. We need to be both victim and victor. And the enemy within vanquished.
In Italy prior to the economic downturn of 2007 we saw the targeting and scape-goating of the roma community and indeed their expulsion. At that time not enough was said or done in defence of this community. This was to be repeated within the full glare of the media in France in 2010, and it still continues in Italy to this day. The expulsion of a minority community from a founding member of the European Union! And the reason that was used – or the excuse – was that they were a threat to the internal order of the country. But on this occasion there was an outcry and a demand for respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms which underpin the European Union.
The Commissioner for fundamental rights denounced the expulsions and compared them to the attacks on minorities which prefaced the Second World War. The Commissioner herself came under attack from the French Government which accused her of involving herself with the internal affairs of a Member State of the EU over which she had no legal competence.
Actions by the European Commission were promised. By finally and after much legal wrangling the actions came to nothing. France was declared not to have breached the Treaties of the EU or specific EU laws. The judgement was highly questionable and politically motivated!
Yet to some of us in the European Parliament none of this had come as a surprise. Indeed its recent beginnings, the rise of this intolerance, had occurred
some years earlier following the enlargement of the European Union from 15 Member States to 27.
This is not to blame enlargement for the rise of racism, anti-Semitism, islamaphobia, homophobia and every other phobia imaginable.
However the process of enlargement and the changes that were necessary for such countries to join the EU brought about an aggressive reaction both to the governments which had taken their countries into the EU and to the institutions of the EU itself. But the process of enlargement, the difficult changes that were sometimes necessary, the changes in laws which protected some minorities, gave an excuse and an opportunity for the dark forces of narrow nationalism and bigotry to show themselves under the flags of family, culture, religion and belief and the nation state!
The attack on the EU was based on the premise that all that was dear and cherished and natural was under attack. For any such allegation to be taken seriously evidence had to be shown of this attack on family, religion, belief and culture. The physical manifestation of this evidence was portrayed as the rights of minorities, the protection of the ‘foreigners’, and of women and lgbt people and their right to live as equal citizens, enjoying equality and the equal protection of the law. It was also represented as the imposition of laws from a ‘foreign’ power.
For some politicians and organised religions these fundamental rights were a step too far. It was proof for them that their power base was under threat. And so in the European Parliament debates on women’s rights, and the rise of transphobia and homophobia we once again witnessed the explosive mix of religion and politics.
Of course a full frontal war on human rights is never undertaken. The enemies of equality know that such tactics are doomed to fail.
No, the attack is corrosive, subversive and insidious. The attack has to utilise myths and stereotypes and threats to society as it is known and accepted.
Religion. Belief. Culture. Family. All under attack. Separately and severally.
But do not take my word for it: let me give you some examples from within the EU and then from my own country Great Britain. Because that which happens in one country can so easily and quickly be mirrored and repeated in another. Giving truth to the Shakespearean quote that ‘the evil that men do lives on, the good is oft interred with their bones’.
The example of the Roma community as a group of people whose rights should not be respected was witnessed in Italy and France.
Diminishing the effect of anti discrimination laws in Lithuania so as to exclude non discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation: defamation of lgbt people by the Law and Justice government in Poland as well as the attempted banning of Gay Pride Tolerance marches.
The replication in Lithuania and Poland of the Thatcher governments 1987 anti gay law on the so called ‘banning of the promotion of homosexuality’.
Denial of a woman’s right to choose an abortion in countries such as Ireland, Poland and Malta. Denial of access to information on such matters in Portugal, Ireland, Poland, Malta and elsewhere.
The Spanish Bishops attempts to block equality measures for lgbt people.
And in 2007, the European Year of Equality, the EU bus promoting equality, including equality for lgbt people, was denied access to the capital city of Lithuania.
The battle rages on freedom of movement for people in same sex marriages and partnerships, and for the mutual recognition of such marriages and partnerships across the European Union.
And in the United Kingdom as well as elsewhere the popular press portray hard working women and men from Poland, Lithuania and other parts of Eastern and Central Europe as stealing British jobs, and British homes and placing their children in British schools. Yet failing to recognise that these people have a legal and valid right to be in the UK and pay their taxes and charges like anyone else! They are in fact engaging in and enjoying the rights available to them as citizens of the European Union. The right of freedom of movement, and the right to live, work and study in any of the 27 countries of the EU. But as so
often in the portrayal of the ‘stranger’ the facts are omitted, conveniently forgotten and the myth becomes the reality.
The stranger becomes the threat, the fear. The vessel into which we can empty our anger, our frustration and our powerlessness.
And for some politicians it becomes a convenient diversion away from hidden, and sometimes not so hidden, agendas.
And most of the time at European Union level the European Commission, the guardians of EU treaties and laws, has little action that it can take unless there is a specific EU law or Treaty obligation. Because in most of these matters the legal competence often resides with the sovereign EU country or the issue is resolved over a long drawn out process, which of itself often results in behind the doors deals.
That is why I say that now more than ever we need a stronger EU. Now more than ever, we need decisive action to defend hard won rights and above all we need legal certainty. Especially when so much is at risk.
It is worthwhile recalling that up until 1997 the European Union had no legal basis to take action to combat discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, age, disability, or sexual orientation. Action to combat discrimination on the grounds of gender had been included in an earlier Treaty, yet this was not widened or accepted as the basis upon which to tackle discrimination on the grounds of transgender. Article 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam introduced the additional grounds for anti discrimination but all such matters had to be agreed by the member states unanimously. So if only one country disagreed, the legal proposal regardless of the European Parliaments decisions would fall.
The Treaty of Amsterdam was agreed and ratified by the then 15 Member States of the EU and within three years two new important EU wide laws were agreed, the Race Directive and the Employment Directive. But even here with good intentions and good meanings the approach by the European Commission and the EU Member States reinforced the hierarchy of rights.
The Race Directive outlawed discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnicity in the workplace and vocational training and also in the provision of goods and services. The Employment Directive outlawed discrimination on the remaining
grounds of age, disability, religion or belief and sexual orientation but only in the workplace and in vocational training. Goods and Services were omitted. Religious organisations lobbied and worked hard to get a partial exclusion from employing people who were lesbian or gay or bisexual. Their argument was that it was against their ethos! The exemption was granted and in some instances has been generously interpreted by some Member States when transposing the EU law into their national legislation. And shamefully some Member States have yet to properly implemented the law on non discrimination in the workplace.
Nonetheless in the European Parliament the majority of parliamentarians constantly press and defend the cause of Human rights including the rights of lgbt people. And this defence of human rights includes defending people in countries outside of the EU. But despite additional Treaty measures and the Charter of Fundamental Rights the appetite for anti discrimination laws has diminished.
In 2004 and for four years thereafter the European Parliament consistently called for an EU law to address the omission of the Employment Directive, namely that we take legal measures to prevent discrimination on access to goods and services on the remaining grounds of religion or belief, age, disability, sexual orientation. Despite the internal work on such a law undertaken by civil servants the European Commission argued that they would not produce such an EU law because there was no support for it from the Member States despite the president of the Commission having promised such a law at the start of his new mandate in 2004.
Nonetheless the Parliament supported by Nongovernmental organisations from groups on diverse issues such as race and ethnicity, women rights, disability rights, lesbian gay and transgender rights, joined forces to keep maintain the pressure for this demand. Finally after representations from the major political groups primarily from the left and centre left the President of the Commission acceded and produced the inclusive Equalities Directive.
The political significance was incredible. By so producing this proposal for a new law the Commission had declared that the hierarchy of rights was at an end. It was the signal that all discrimination would be treated as seriously as
another. It recognised the multiplicity of discrimination and that to do good on some and nothing on the others is to undermine all the good that was undertaken.
In one fell swoop the human rights landscape had changed and changed for the better. The Equalities Directive went through its parliamentary procedure and the wrath of certain religions and people purporting to represent decent families tried their best to oppose the passage of the law. But it passed through the Parliament with a substantial majority. Yet the ending is not yet a happy one and sadly reinforces my fears for the defence of rights at the moment.
Currently the Equalities Directive remains stuck in discussion with Member States with the opposition to it being led primarily by Germany, interestingly on the grounds of costs! Yet Germany is merely a cover for other countries who are also opposed.
But with determination we can build on these rights and defend them as resolutely as we have had to do until now. But it needs courage and guts. Especially from our lawmakers. The courage to lead public opinion, not to follow it. The courage to be unpopular in the short term, in order to do what is right and just for the long term. And the courage to stand up against those who would use any argument they can to deny others the rights they have and enjoy.
I come at these arguments intellectually but primarily personally because it makes no sense to me as a gay man, as a human being, to deny another the rights I wish to enjoy. I know too that the path can be difficult and the arguments must be made using language which makes the cause understood by the many and not just the few, vital and important though they are.
I know this from my experience in the United Kingdom when as an actor I left my comfort zone as a major TV artist and challenged the Thatcher government when it brought in its anti lesbian and gay law. We lost the battle against that particular law but we founded an organisation to make the case for equality— and achieve it we did!
Likeminded people worked together, regardless of difference, regardless of whether we were gay or heterosexual, regardless of race or ethnicity. And politicians primarily from the left and centre left and some from within the Conservative party joined us in the fight for equality.
It is worthwhile remembering that in the United Kingdom, it was completely illegal to be homosexual as recently as 1997. We could be arrested outside our bars or clubs and accused of soliciting for an immoral purpose, we could be denied housing, we could lose our jobs, in fact we had no rights and no protection from discrimination whatsoever. The only instance when male homosexuality was allowed was in private between two men and even then the definition of privacy was prohibitive and the age of consent higher than that for heterosexuals. However, with the election of a new government in 1997 politicians took their courage in their hands and revoked anti lgbt laws, brought in anti discrimination laws, and gave what had been so cruelly denied for so many years: they delivered equality. Equality.
Of course more needs to be done and some refinements such as access to marriage as well as civil partnerships are necessary.
Ten years ago last week, on 8 January 2001 the UK parliament brought into force an equal age of consenting sex regardless of whether one was heterosexual or not. It followed a long battle through Parliament. It was an extremely important moment because it set the precedent for equality. Legal equality.
Last week the leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband put it succinctly when he said:
‘It is amazing to remember how mainstream homophobia and prejudice were just a few short years ago. In Parliament as well as society. But we are making progress and society has changed for the better over the last decade. Together, we have shifted the consensus in this country (the UK) away from prejudice and towards equality and justice’. He then went on to remind us of the tragic murders still occurring, the gay man beaten to death in London’s Trafalgar Square and the senseless homophobia which is in our schools.
So much done, but so much more to do in order to make our world fit for our children. All our children.
And as governments change and political parties come and go, we need organisations to monitor and to ensure that we do not take the steps back from where we are – and here I want to pay particular homage to the courage and bravery of lgbt organisations here in Turkey who have done so much to put the case for equality and to challenge mistreatment faced by lgbt people wherever it originates from. LGBT organisations such as Lambda Istanbul, Pembe Hayat (Pink Triangle), Rainbow, and Kaos GL. Rainbow now sadly closed after a two year legal battle to stay open, but its leaders will carry on and open a new organisation, perfectly legal under Turkish law—and yet again, they will run the risk of being unfairly persecuted. The same goes when five transgender citizens are pursued, arrested, detained and charged by the police in Ankara simply for being who they are. Their trial is ongoing, and the police charged them with unruly behaviour, resisting police arrest and depravity. They were simply driving their car! Their legal battle goes on, and I dearly hope the prosecution will see reason in this case. The courage and bravery of these organisations and individuals in challenging discrimination will not go unrewarded. Their battle for equality is our battle. And history tells us—no, history guarantees us—that it is a battle they will win.
Indeed this battle for decency and human rights has gone on for generations.
In a powerful speech in a play co-written by Shakespeare he reminds us of the treatment of the ‘stranger’. Thomas More is called to the Tower of London where the citizens of London are rebelling because the ‘strangers’ have made their way from Calais in France to Dover and are now headed towards London.
Let me paraphrase -
‘You bid that they be removed? The stranger, with their children upon their back, their belongings at their feet, their family at their side. You bid that they be ‘removed’. Imagine you are the ‘stranger’ with your children upon your back, your belongings at your feet, your family at your side. Imagine you are the stranger and then bid that they be removed – and show your mountainish inhumanity.’
And that is what we must do when we defend the rights of the ‘other’. We must imagine... what if that were me, my brother, my sister, my father, my mother? What if that were me? That power to imagine endows us with the power to change our lives and the lives of others, and so change for the better the world into which we were born and will die. But most importantly, the world we will leave to our children, and our children’s children.
But despite the strong opposition to equal rights the world is getting better and there are many reasons to be positive, yet never complacent:
In Warsaw where a few years earlier the government had attempted to ban gay pride marches last year saw the celebration of Euro Pride on the streets of Warsaw. This gives me hope. In places such as Bucharest in Romania and Sofia in Bulgaria the LGBT Pride marches are continuing despite the extreme right wing protests. The young girl who marched alongside me two years ago wearing a mask for fear of being recognised last year walked with me and her parents undisguised. She and her parents walked with pride! This gives me hope.
On the negative laws in Lithuania both the Lithuanian President and the European Parliament are calling for action to be taken to ensure conformity with EU fundamental rights and the principle of non discrimination and equality. This gives me hope. And in Africa where the rich and powerful American Christian evangelical right wing has decided to fight to destroy homosexuality the African lgbt people are fighting back! At the beginning of this year the Constitutional Court in Uganda issued a judgement in defence of lgbt people’s rights, saying that lgbt people’s dignity was worth as much as anyone else’s. This from a constitutional judge in one of the world’s most homophobic countries! This gives me hope.
At the United Nations General Assembly, a small group of countries deleted ‘sexual orientation’ from a list of people particularly at risk of extra-judiciary killings. Yet again, we were made invisible. This was successfully reversed, with an overwhelming majority of the world community of states affirming that no, it is not acceptable to kill lgbt people. This, too, gives me hope.
But so much more needs to be done, and done soon.
So let me finish on mentioning the most powerful sound in the fight for human rights. It is a sound which terrifies the tyrant, trembles the dictator, and makes the abuser pause for thought: it is the sound of a new born child as it cries when it is brought into this world. It is the cry that reminds them that another generation has begun and so the battle for human rights and civil liberties and all that is decent and good will go on and on. Generation after generation after generation.
Equality will be achieved, because I believe that goodness and decency will always triumph in the end. That is what I believe in: the human spirit which lifts up the soul and makes us fight when others would hesitate. The same human spirit that makes us realise we are all the same. And more importantly that we are all so different, and so unique.
It is on that principle that we must always defend the ‘other’ and accept that there is no basis for the denial of equality before the law and the universal enjoyment of human rights. For this to become a reality we must ensure that all political parties place this on their political agenda, and that politicians of all parties have the courage to give a voice to the voiceless.
As Hrant Dink gave his voice to so many. And continues to do. Thank you.