Jo Swinson: The best way to promote LGBT rights is to remain in the EU

“It is time to take a clear stand against the bigoted ideologues who yearn for the inequality of the past.”

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Today is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. It is an important occasion to celebrate sexual and gender diversity, and to raise awareness of the need to fight the discrimination that LGBT+ people still face. For the UK and the rest of the EU, the date falls during our European election campaign and serves as a reminder that these elections are an opportunity to progress LGBT+ rights at home and abroad, tackling and eradicating the prejudice and violence experienced by LGBT+ people.

It feels shockingly recent that it was only on this day in 1990 the World Health Organisation ended the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. Since then significant progress has been made across the globe, and this date is now celebrated in over 130 countries. In the UK, we have since made huge steps in the right direction, including the introduction of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, repealing Section 28, and introducing same-sex marriage: a Liberal Democrat achievement in government I will always be proud of.

Twenty-nine years on from this milestone, however, we still have far to go. In the UK our Conservative government, propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party, has failed to address the inequality faced by same-sex couples in Northern Ireland. These couples are still forced to travel abroad to have their marriage legally recognised and even then, that recognition is denied when they return home. The situation is deplorable. Yet despite calls from campaigners, including the partner of murdered journalist Lyra McKee, the Tory government still turn a blind eye to this injustice.

This year we have also witnessed the return to politics of Ann Widdecombe as a MEP candidate for the Brexit Party. A woman who holds extreme anti-LGBT+ views, she opposed same-sex adoption and the repeal of Section 28, and called for protests over same-sex marriage. Now Farage’s party has welcomed her to its regressive campaign. Widdecombe’s return marks one of the latest archaic shifts in British politics, which has been blighted by increasing nastiness. This has been particularly apparent in the debate surrounding proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. The issue has been used as a political football. Meanwhile, trans people are having to undergo intrusive tests to have their gender recognised.

Liberal Democrats reject this regression of British politics. We believe Britain is better off in the EU. We believe in equality and freedom of expression. And we passionately believe that LGBT+ rights are human rights. That is why our European election manifesto not only carries a clear “stop Brexit” message, but also commits to driving forward progress: including championing equal marriage and ensuring the UK mirrors other EU states by introducing an “X” gender option on passports. We believe our diversity is our strength and are committed to promoting that diversity.

The EU has been a vocal proponent of LGBT+ global rights. All members are required to legally recognise same-sex couples and as one bloc the EU has an influential voice on the world stage. Earlier this year the European Parliament condemned Brunei for introducing “retrograde” laws that would see LGBT+ people stoned to death. They called for a consideration of asset freezes, visa bans and the blacklisting of Brunei Investment Agency owned hotels. High Representative Federica Mogherini also unequivocally condemned the laws, stating “no crime justifies an amputation or torture, let alone the death penalty. And no person should be punished for loving someone. That can never be interpreted as a crime.”

The EU’s principled stance was heard around the world. So much so that Brunei wrote to the EU Parliament in an attempt to explain the decision. When progressive countries speak together our voice cannot be ignored. This is crucial in the face of persistent violence and discrimination. Recently, we have witnessed LGBT+ activists forcefully arrested in Cuba, gay men in Chechnya beaten and humiliated by police, and the sentencing of an Egyptian TV host to one year in prison for interviewing a gay man. We still have so far to go in the fight for global LGBT+ equality.

That is why we must recommit to working together to champion sexual and gender diversity. Liberal Democrats believe we can best do this in the EU. In the EU we have a seat at the table: a seat that we would continue to use to campaign against discrimination and to influence our EU partners to make progressive strides. We need to amplify progressive, liberal voices fighting prejudice.

It is time to take a clear stand against the bigoted ideologues who yearn for the inequality of the past. Every vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to stop Brexit. It is a vote to stay in the EU and fight together for equality. It is a vote to tackle homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia wherever it exists.