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Why Queer Folk Must Vote Against Brexit

09/06/2016 8:37 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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A European Union (EU) flag, center, flies in between two British Union flags, commonly known as a Union Jacks, in London, U.K., on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. German Chancellor Angela Merkel threw her political muscle behind the push for a deal to keep the U.K. in the European Union as diplomats worked to bridge the remaining differences between its members. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The last few months have been an interesting moment in time for British politics. From a pro-austerity Tory party returning to Parliament with a majority to Sadiq Khan becoming the first Muslim mayor of London (which has also seen a renewal of labour politics), British politics has challenged all assumptions and predictions. But perhaps the most tumultuous moment that might change the fabric of the United Kingdom and more largely Europe is the upcoming referendum on Britain's exit (also being called Brexit) from the European single market. Whilst both major parties are bitterly divided over Brexit and there has been a resurgence of far right parties such as the UKIP gaining a national voice, this issue has a particular resonance for minorities and queer people.

The pro- Brexiters announce that Britain will be better off leaving Europe as there will be more money to spend on the national economy...This is far from true.

LGBTQ rights in the UK have taken a battering under the Tory party, from the infamous Section 28 which made discussing queer issues in educational institutes illegal to the party's strong stance against gay marriage until very recently. LGBTQ rights became part of a progressive Labour manifesto only in 1985. However, in recent years, both parties have taken a piecemeal approach towards queer rights. Section 28 was scrapped under the Labour government, which also outlawed discrimination in goods and services and introduced the Civil Partnership Act in 2005. Labour also supported same-sex marriage in 2013 when introduced by the coalition government -- in fact, there were more Labour MPs supporting the legislation rather than the Tories themselves. However, with this backdrop, there has also been a tremendous cut to LGBTQ services -- the closure of mental health services PACE in 2016, the imminent shut-down of the UK's only LGBTQ domestic violence helpline, Broken Rainbows, and a surge in the number of homeless queer people. The austerity cuts have been particularly harsh on queer people of colour who are in a vulnerable situation, especially if they are migrants or seeking benefits.

The NHS currently [provides] counselling, health checks and access to subsidized medicines for queer people. We cannot let this institution get decimated by the present government.

The pro- Brexiters announce that Britain will be better off leaving Europe as there will be more money to spend on the national economy without the interference of Brussels. This is far from true. Under this present Tory led government, Britain has faced some of its worst austerity cuts and a growth of privatization -- John Major privatized the railways in 1994, the coalition government privatized the Royal Mail in 2013 and the National Health Service (NHS) is already under grave threat. Many of the queer people I have spoken to in the last few months are already worried about what this means for them. The NHS currently guarantees equal and free healthcare for all. This includes providing counselling, health checks and access to subsidized medicines for queer people. We cannot let this institution get decimated by the present government.

[T]he UK under the present Home Minister Theresa May has... [deported] a large number of queer migrants back to their home countries where they are vulnerable to violence...

One of the criticisms many queer people of colour have of the queer movement is about how little it has done for those of colour, poor and especially the trans-identified. Ranjan, a gay Indian man I spoke to, wants to seek asylum in the UK since the Indian Supreme Court's decision in 2013 to reinstate Section 377. He is particularly angry at how little support the UK government offers to queer asylum seekers. In fact, the UK under the present Home Minister Theresa May has been particularly censured for deporting a large number of queer migrants back to their home countries where they are vulnerable to violence and even death. One of the things that leaving Europe will do, and which the present Tory government supports, is withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, which would be a travesty for the many queer migrants who are trying escape various forms of oppression. Measures such as the anti-radicalization programme "Prevent" -- which the government in the guise of protection uses to further stoke tensions among communities, especially Muslims -- can only be challenged under a progressive Europe. Jin Haritaworn in the new book Queer Lovers and Hateful Others explains that while on one hand queer people are being brought into the fold of "respectable citizens", on the other hand a new bogeyman is being created -- the Muslim, the migrant, the person of colour.

[T]he choice is simple -- vote to stay and fight for a progressive Europe, which enshrines queer rights, migrant rights and opposition to austerity politics as its central tenets.

The pro-Brexiters have also promised an overhaul of current employment rights, which protect millions of workers in shaky positions. This will be particularly devastating for people of colour and queer individuals in precarious employments. The referendum, I would argue, is a queer issue. It is a fight for reclaiming the soul of Europe -- a humane Europe that stands for freedom and the safeguarding of minorities, irrespective of race, religion or sexuality.

Perhaps it would be apt to end with Amartya Sen, who has argued in his book Development as Freedom that development cannot be judged by the mere accumulation or growth of gross national income, but rather on whether people have the freedom to do what they have reason to value. For its own health, economic and otherwise, the United Kingdom cannot shut its borders or create a new enemy out of migrants, as is the call of the fear-mongering campaign being led by the pro-Brexit team. For queer people of colour in the UK, the choice is simple -- vote to stay and fight for a progressive Europe, which enshrines queer rights, migrant rights and opposition to austerity politics as its central tenets.

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