Last week I wrote a Blog about Stonewall’s list of 100 most inclusive UK employers for LGBTI people. The article summarised the advances in terms of the range of legal protection that the LGBTI communities now enjoy. From protection against discrimination in employment to same sex marriage, the turnaround in fortunes from a persecuted minority to part of the mainstream has been truly remarkable.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The GreatGatsby once remarked that “Switzerland is a country where very few things begin, but many things end.”
Today, the Swiss voted in a referendum to introduce laws which would extend protection from discrimination to LGBTI people. The proposal attracted support from 63% of Swiss voters and, finally, begins to bring the country into line with many of its neighbours who happen to EU member states. Switzerland is not part of the EU and, therefore, is not under any obligation to implement European laws which combat sexual orientation discrimination.
Critics of the Swiss proposal stated that the proposal was unnecessary because the country’s constitution already protected LGBTI individuals (and the country is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights). There were also concerns about what the proposal might mean for freedom of speech. Clearly, a majority of voters did not share these concerns.
Switzerland has a reputation for being a relatively conservative society (with a small ‘c’). After all, it was only in 1991 that the Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden finally permitted women to have the right to vote in cantonal elections. In federal (national) elections, woman had been given the right to vote since 1971.
We often forget this has been an incremental or gradual process in the UK and it did not happen overnight. Therefore, it is not advisable to be for British people to be smug or to have feelings of superiority about this issue. It was, after all, as recently as 2003 that the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 were implemented by the then Labour Government of Tony Blair. For the first time in UK employment law, LGBTI individuals were protected from discrimination in employment and training. This important law, critically, did not cover the provision of services and it was with the passage of the Equality Act 2010 that this area was eventually covered.
A link to an article on the BBC News app about the story can be found below:
The only gay in the village became a household phrase in the UK thanks to the long running Little Britain sitcom TV and radio series (which has been broadcast by the BBC since 2000).
Daffyd Thomas claimed to be the only gay person in a small, Welsh village (actually he wasn’t), but in some respects his catchphrase reflected the isolation that many people in the LGBTI communities experience – either in their personal or professional lives.
The reason that I mention this topic is because, last week, the LGBTI campaigning organisation, Stonewall, published research about the most inclusive LGBTI friendly employers in the UK (Newcastle City Council topped the list). That said, for many LGBTI employees, an inclusive work place is still a far off dream.
Please find a link to a story on the Sky News website about one employee’s decision to hide his LGBTI identity from his colleagues:
A person’s sexual orientation is, of course, a protected characteristic in terms of Section 12 of the Equality Act 2010. Such individuals should not be subjected to direct discrimination (Section 13); indirect discrimination (Section 19); harassment (Section 26); and victimisation (Section 27).
Many years ago, I remember teaching a group of students who were studying for a professional qualification. Many of them were employed by recruitment agencies and it was my task to highlight the relevant provisions of discrimination law at that time. One evening, we had a discussion about discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation – particularly in the context of the ban on gay and lesbian people serving in the UK Armed Forces. This ban would eventually be lifted in 2000 – following the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Smith and Grady v UK (1999) 29 EHRR 493.
One of the students asked me what protection existed for gay and lesbian people in employment law generally. Very little was my response. Before the introduction of the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998, the work place could be very hostile for LGBTI people (see Macdonald v Lord Advocate; Pearce v Governing Body of Mayfield School  UKHL 34).
Yes, admittedly, the UK was (and still is in spite of Brexit) a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. In particular, Article 8 of the Convention recognises the right to family and private life. It was this Article which was used to overturn extremely restrictive laws on same sex relationships which existed in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Reinforcing Article 8 is Article 14 of the Convention is Article 14 which contains a general prohibition on discrimination.
The late 1960s are often referred to as the key period of the start of gay liberation in the UK with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which decriminalised homosexual relationships between consenting adults (aged 21 or over) and as long as such conduct was in private. What is often overlooked is that the 1967 Act applied to England and Wales only. The picture was very different (and would remain so for over a decade – sometimes longer) in various parts of the British Isles.
Homosexual relationships were decriminalised in Scotland in 1980; in Northern Ireland in 1982; the UK Crown Dependency of Guernsey in 1983; the UK Crown Dependency of Jersey in 1990; and the UK Crown Dependency of the Isle of Man in 1994. The age of consent was set at 21 for all these parts of the British Isles. Things have since moved on.
In the last 20 years, the influence of the European Union has been particularly profound regarding measures to combat sexual orientation discrimination.
In 1999, as a result of the Treaty of Amsterdam, the EU adopted two Directives which considerably expanded the scope of its anti-discrimination laws (the Racial Equality Directive (2000/43/EC) and the Employment Equality Directive (2000/78/EC). Of particular interest to this discussion is the Employment Equality Directive which made it unlawful to discriminate against a person on grounds of sexual orientation. Admittedly, this Directive was limited because it covered the areas of employment and vocational training only.
It did not extend to the provision of goods and services, so had the case of Bull and Another v Hall and Another  UKSC 73 had occurred when the Directive was transposed into UK domestic law, the same sex couple who were refused a double room at the guest house in Cornwall would not have been successful in their claim for sexual orientation discrimination.
On 1 December 2003, the Employment Equality Directive would eventually become part of UK law in the form of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. The Regulations were repealed and replaced by the relevant provisions of the Equality Act 2010 (which came into force on 1 October 2010).
Shortly afterwards, the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 would give legal recognition (and protection) to gay and lesbian people who chose to enter such relationships. These rights would be further underpinned by permitting same sex couples to marry (in England and Wales in 2013 and in Scotland in 2014). Currently, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK not to permit same sex marriage – although this will change from next week onwards (see link below):
Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards will celebrate their wedding on Tuesday in Carrickfergus.
This change to the law has come about as a result of the introduction of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 passed by the UK Parliament (in the absence of of a functioning devolved government for nearly the last 3 years).
The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) is also worthy of comment. Article 19 prohibits discrimination by reason of a person’s sexual orientation and, notably, this provision is hardwired into UK law by way of the Equality Act 2010. Article 19 extended legal protection to gay and lesbian people more generally – over and above the limited areas of employment and vocational training which the Treaty of Amsterdam and the Employment Equality Directive had originally addressed.
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (although Poland and the UK had negotiated some opt-outs) contained significant provisions on equality and non-discrimination, namely, Article 20 (equality before the law) and Article 21 (the principle of non-discrimination).
Finally, if employers want to do more to create an inclusive work place, they could start by using Stonewall’s inclusive toolkits (see link below):
As a society, the UK has certainly moved on from the overtly hostile attitudes towards members of the LGBTI communities over the last 50 years or so. The legal rights and protections which LGBTI people now enjoy would have seemed unthinkable in 1967 when a limited form of tolerance was ushered in as a result of the Sexual Offences Act (in England and Wales). More recently, the UK and Scottish Governments have issued pardons to those individuals who were convicted of criminal offences under the previous laws (in 2017: the Policing and Crime Act 2017 in England and Wales (known as Turing’s Law after Alan Turing, the Enigma Code Breaker) and, in 2018, the Scottish Parliament followed suit by passing the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) (Scotland) Act 2018).
On Friday 7 February 2020, Phillip Schofield, the British TV celebrity announced that he was gay at the age of 57. Mr Schofield is married with 2 children and had lived a heterosexual life – until now. He likened hiding his sexual orientation to being in prison and being consumed by it.
A link to the story on the Sky News website can be found below: