The role of trade unionism in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Britain has not always been well appreciated.
In the early 70s, John Lindsay recalls that the Gay Switchboard’s advice to those with employment problems was to get help from the CHE (Campaign for Homosexual Equality) or Friend, a national support group, rather than a trade union representative. No unions included sexuality or gender reassignment in their policies, there was no legal recourse to discrimination at work, and reps were not equipped to handle the issues.
Over several decades, LGBTQ+ and ally workers explained and argued, took legal cases and collective action, changed policies, won political party manifesto commitments, and changes to the law. Through organisation, they insisted that unions should be a home for and represent all workers, and they have brought about many of the rights we have today.
Key to this is the idea that equality in and out of work is a trade union issue. Safety from dismissal and safety from police. Pensions equality and adoption rights. Freedom to be out at work – even as a teacher or social worker – and freedom to be out as a student, customer, person.
The organising of union members, and external support from groups such as CHE and the Gay Liberation Front, gave us some of these life-changing equal rights. Nalgay, the first national union LGBT+ network, was set up in 1974 among other groups that formed through the 70s and 80s. These groups won union support for adding sexual orientation to equal opportunities and anti-discrimination policies.
By the 80s, there were a growing number of wins on workplace discrimination, individual and collective. For example, the National Union of Railwaymen (now part of RMT) won travel rights for unmarried same-sex partners. Mutual solidarity grew from the miners and Wapping disputes.
LGBTQ+ trade unionists led Stop the Clause, one of many groups campaigning against Section 28. In the 90s, the civil service unions negotiated the end of ‘vetting’ in the Foreign Office, which prevented the hiring of gay people. There were campaigns run jointly by TUC and Stonewall on pensions equality, and rights for unmarried partners. This decade also saw legal cases protecting trans people for the first time owing to European Court rulings under the Sex Discrimination Act.
The 2000s saw the big pushes for legal protections. Unions legally challenged the exemptions from new equality regulations and legislation, in the workplace and out, such as adoption rights, and won amendments to the Civil Partnerships Act. The unions also finally started to recognise trans people (and indeed bisexuals), in response to internal activism and external pressure from groups such as Press for Change.
By the time I was out, unions were champions of LGBTQ+ rights. My parents were able to bring home posters from PCS Proud and guidance from the TUC. Yet in work, in life and online, queer members and reps like me continue to face problems.
LGBTQ+ doctors and medical students face perhaps surprising levels of prejudice, harassment and discrimination. We are in the midst of a worldwide backlash against LGBTQ+ rights, with our trans siblings taking the brunt. Medicine and academia are not immune from this: attacks on access to healthcare; the torturous practice of conversion therapy and wholly inadequate gender healthcare provision in the UK are but a few examples.
The BMA and other unions must take lessons from our history and commit to further progress. We have published our survey on current LGBTQ+ experiences in medical settings, and we have campaigned for a ban on conversion therapy, inclusive of trans and asexual people.
We have recently written to the BMJ, which is editorially independent, to challenge its article “Gender dysphoria in young people is rising—and so is professional disagreement” and express our concern, that alongside criticisms made by LGTBQ+ organisations such as GLADD and neurodivergent doctors, in our view, it lacks equality, diversity and inclusion awareness and patient voice. That the article has been used by transphobic lobby groups around the world is of particular concern to us.
The BMJ confirmed “that its door is always open and is willing as ever to speak with any complainants who wish to talk to them about their coverage”. We will therefore share the details of contacts who have raised concerns with us with the BMJ.
It is through action on equality issues we improve the lives of significant sections of our membership. We make our union a home and representative space. And, we show Pride.
Emma Runswick is BMA council deputy chair
(This blog was updated on 22 August 2023)