Before Britain went to the polls to decide whether it should leave the European Union, interventions came flooding in from politicians, lawyers and activists warning that a ‘leave’ vote would set back LGBT+ rights. It was pointed out that the EU has intervened in the past in ensuring anti-LGBT+ laws were repealed and new protections were introduced — EU regulation underpinned the Equality Act for example, which gave LGBT+ citizens equal rights in employment and public services — and with no EU to uphold those principles, there would be no protection against basic rights being stripped away.
In principle this is entirely true, but the likely impact in the UK appears to be minimal. The EU has helped win almost entire legal equality, and now that is in place, only minor fringe religious groups are advocating rolling it back at all, and any major regressive changes would be widely unpopular. Unless the situation changes significantly, LGBT+ rights are set to bear little of the post-Brexit strain.
Don’t start waving your mini rainbow flag yet though — it’s not all rosy. Firstly, the victory for the Leave campaign is a victory for the conservative right. UKIP and many of the prominent Eurosceptic Conservative MPs have historically opposed LGBT+ progress, most notably equal marriage. Andrea Leadsom, one such MP now known for a demeaning stance on the ‘motherless’ Theresa May’s fitness for office, has seen a surge in support for her bid to become Prime Minister from the populist ‘anti-political correctness’ far right. Although unlikely to repeal marriage laws and other major protections, a weaker ally would be found in a less liberal government, and the leave vote would be seen to give them a mandate to place substantial restrictions on refugees seeking asylum in Britain, inhumanely discriminating against LGBT+ people fleeing persecution in Syria, Iran, Uganda and others.
There is also concern in Europe that Brexit could take the wind out of the sails of a bloc that is still highly important in securing social progress in other countries. The UK is said to be a leading figure in promoting equality in Europe, so an EU without the UK would have one less progressive voice at a table that has many conservative governments. Many also believe that the UK voting to leave sends the signal that countries can simply walk away from essential institutions of cross-border cooperation when they dislike specific rules, setting a bad precedent for countries where LGBT+ protections are far less politically popular. Rising anti-LGBT+ sentiment particularly in Eastern Europe has come hand-in-hand with anti-EU movements, and it is feared that the growth of Euroscepticism across Europe may empower those that want to wind back the clock on support for minorities.
The LGBT+ impact of Brexit will not be felt as immediately as many had warned, and nor will it be obvious, but there appears to have been good reason for advocates from Europe and further afield to be following the events in the UK with a keen interest. Now the work begins to ensure that rights and acceptance in the UK are fully maintained, and the feeling of vindication that many anti-LGBT+ leaders are feeling is not translated into further oppression.