Opportunity Grant report: the Equalities Act 10 years on: impact on LGBT+ citizens

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

July is pride month in the UK. A time when LGBT+ people and their allies come together to celebrate progress towards equality and highlight the continuing efforts to be made. This year, 50 years after the Stonewall riots which started the movement, pride month has had commentaries on progress, reports of homophobic and transphobic hate crimes attacks along with demands for “straight pride” in the news. Reminders that whilst legal contexts change, cultural and personal perspectives are part of a longer, slower process. The most recent illustration of this has been the ongoing protests at primary schools across the UK against inclusive education and the opening-up of latent homophobia. Furthermore debates around proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act across the UK, have led to transphobic vitriol being openly expressed. The Equality Act (2010) was meant to stop this. Our seminar sought to explore what progress has been made in achieving the aims of the Equality Act. A key theme of our event, was that tragedy narratives remain an important part of the story-telling of LGBT+ activism towards equality, but there is plenty of hope to build on.

Our event took the Equality Act 2010 as its starting point: a retrospective of its impact over the last decade for LGBT+ communities. The Act pursues equalities for people who share nine “protected characteristics”, including sexuality and gender reassignment.

Importantly for social policy, this reflexive legislation includes a Public Sector Equality duty that puts a duty on all public authorities, when carrying out any activity, to:

  • Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act.
  • Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.
  • Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.

Importantly, for our focus, public authorities must consider the experiences of LGBT+ people when developing and delivering policy.

As Dr Eleanor Formby highlighted from her qualitative research on LGBT “communities”, many non-heterosexual, non-cisgender people still self-censor (for example, not kissing or holding hands with a same-gender partner in public) due a fear of victimisation. While the incidents reported above might be the most obvious ways in which discrimination against LGBT+ people manifests itself, Samuel Mann showed how gay and bisexual men are still paid less than their heterosexual counterparts, controlling for other factors: whereas for lesbians pay tends to be higher.

Illustratingthe nuance of experience the decline in direct discrimination and harassment was explored by  Professor Mark McCormack highlighting data from the British Social Attitudes Survey that in 2012 20% of people thought same-sex relationships were “mostly wrong” or “wrong”, compared to 64% in1987.

Peter Matthews also showed how the concept of the heterosexual family dominates policy and practice in the way housing and homelessness services are delivered in Scotland, to the extent that some experiences of LGBT+ people might be classed as “everyday homophobia”.

In the initial wake of the Equality Act we can see how broader attitudes in society have shifted but lived experiences and policy practices may not yet have “caught up” with this shift. Whilst homophobia has decreased in the UK, and most legal impediments to equality have been removed the feelings of insecurity from localised acts of homophobic abuse to global signifiers such as the Orlando shootings in 2017 and the Brunei death penalty decision in 2019 remind us that lived experience need not mirror the evidence of change: similar to the differences between crime and fear of crime as one participant observed.

As Professor McCormack highlighted in his paper, and what came out of the broader conversation in the seminar is that it is important that we do not rely on a tragedy narrative, as many LGBT+ activist charities do, as this may have the unintended consequence of making LGBT+ people more fearful than they need to be.

The question that remains, and was discussed in the rest of the seminar, was what more can be done to ensure the ambitions of the Equality Act are delivered? It was clear from the research presentations and discussion that a major implementation gap exists between the ambition of the legislation and the lived experience of LGBT+ people. Austerity since 2010 has not helped. Between 2007 and 2015 the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s budget was cut by 62% limiting the work it could do in delivering guidance on best practice and monitoring compliance. As highlighted by a practitioner in attendance, this means public authorities have to search for case studies of successful implementation and good practice, and there is duplication on the part of voluntary sector organisations in offering such guidance, but who are also facing budget cuts. This has been compounded by budget cuts to local government and the NHS meaning that previous equalities and diversity work has been cut.

The discussions in the seminar also highlighted how the existing protection for people with a non-normative sexual or gender identity still retains a heteronormative framing. People in consensual non-monogamous relationships still face prejudice, for example in adoption rights and non-binary identities and other sexual identities such as fetishes remain unacknowledged and unprotected within legislation. The ongoing protests at primary schools with parents rejecting inclusive education also demonstrate how much further we need to go to “foster good relations” between LGBT+ people and other communities and challenge homophobia, biphobia and transphobia where it manifests itself in the delivery of public services.

Broadly, as the seminar picked-up, we still live in a heteronormative world. With its framing of “protected characteristics” the also Equality Act inadvertently “others” people; the proverbial “straight white man” does not realise they are diverse themselves (they have a sexuality and a sex) and that they need to do the including themselves. This suggests the potential for further research within social policy to understand LGBT+ equality:

  • How does inequality for LGBT+ persist, particularly beyond harassment and victimisation, in terms of income inequality and exclusion?
  • How does social policy in its design and delivery reinforce heteronormativity and how can this be effectively challenged?
  • What gaps persist in equalities legislation to protect people and groups not currently protected?

On the back of the seminar, we plan to establish an SPA LGBT+ network for researchers working in this area, for people who identify as LGBT+ and allies. Please email Dr Lee Gregory (l.j.gregory@bham.ac.uk) to keep up to date if you are interested in joining this network and exploring these questions, and others, further, whilst we set up the Network jiscmail.

Lee Gregory (University of Birmingham) and Peter Mathews (University of Stirling)