Gay legal rights are a relatively recent phenomenon in the pantheon of rights for minority sections of society. The modern gay rights movement only began in the late 1960s and has developed into today’s relatively broad acceptance in the UK and parts of Europe. This can be seen in the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain and the EU, the recognition of transgender individuals as legally being of the sex they now choose to be.
Public attitudes towards homosexuality have also changed to a large extent; the vindictive scapegoating of gays of the 1980s has been replaced by a broader, though not total, acceptance with the general public. This was evident in the reaction to David Laws’ expenses scandal in May 2010 in which anger was focused more at the Daily Telegraph for invading Laws’ privacy and on Laws’ cavalier attitude to Parliamentary standards rules than on Laws’ sexuality.
The Civil Partnerships Act 2004 has created an institution that is similar to but legally distinct from marriage. Gay couples entering into a civil partnership enjoy all the legal protections of marriage – the same tax advantages, the same inheritance rules. However the fact that it is decidedly not “marriage” shows just how far the gay rights movement has to go. To grant gay couples the same rights and privileges that married couples enjoy but with the crucial exception that they are not allowed to describe themselves as “married” seems rather petty; nonetheless, the progress Civil Partnerships represent for gay legal rights is undeniable.
Discrimination is a familiar foe to the gay community. Currently there are clear gay legal rights to protect from discrimination in the workplace, as laid out in the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. It is currently far more trouble than it is worth for employers or co-workers to overtly discriminate against gays because of these rights, although that is not to say that it does not happen. Discrimination can be either direct (“We gave the job to someone else because we didn’t want to hire a gay”) or indirect, in which the prospective employer sets a requirement for employment that disproportionately affects a particular group or race, in this case gay people. There are also protections against victimisation and harassment in the workplace.
At time of writing, same-sex marriage has been achieved in England and Wales and Scotland is expected to follow in autumn 2014. In Northern Ireland, there is as yet no estimate at all by when same-sex marriage will be available - it will have to come by court-case, as a majority in the Assembly have opposed it.
Civil partnership remains available UK-wide, and soon (but not yet) civil partners will be able to transform their relationship into marriage.
Gay legal rights have begun to percolate through to wider society – in March 2010 a gay couple who were turned away from a B&B in Cookham, Cambridgeshire because the owner said it was “against [her] convictions” to allow them to stay. Under the Equality Act 2006 it is illegal to discriminate against someone based upon their sexual orientation, and a complaint was duly made to the local police, who said that they would investigate the matter.
However these gay legal rights are hard to enforce as their efficacy or otherwise is really a matter of attitudes rather than rights – while the couple had the law on their side they still had to find another bed for the night.
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