GSN meets one of Europe’s leading champions for LGBT equality who argues gay and trans citizens need the European unity more than ever.
It was raining in Brussels and I was late. I’d over-estimated my walking speed and sense of direction on my way to meet with Michael Cashman, one of the UK’s representatives to the European Parliament.
His assistant Renaud rang me: ‘Where are you now?’
‘I don’t know. I can see the Sofitel?’
‘Oh. You have to cross the park. I will meet you in reception.’
Well-groomed and impeccably dressed, Renaud was sympathetic when I finally made it to the reception of the parliament – my clothes dripping and my shoes covered in grass.
I was annoyed with myself for being late, but as Renaud escorted me through the vast spaces of the parliament building I was excited to be meeting Cashman who has been a hero of mine for many years.
Cashman first hit the headlines in 1986 when he played the role of Colin Russell on UK television series EastEnders. At the time this was one of the UK’s most popular series and Cashman’s character was responsible for the first gay kiss to be shown on this type of television program in the UK.
It was a difficult period for LGBT people in the UK as (in 1988) the Conservative government introduced legislation known as ‘Section 28’ which effectively decreed that same-sex relationships were not equal and gay issues should not be discussed in schools. Teachers were left fearing for their jobs if the word 'gay' was so much as whispered.
Cashman was one of the leading advocates against this legislation, co-founding (with Sir Ian McKellen) the organization Stonewall and taking a prominent public role as a gay man speaking out against discrimination and for equality.
He was elected as a Member of the European Parliament in 1999 representing the UK Labour party.
I was nervous. Cashman was charming although on a tight schedule as he had to travel to The Hague that afternoon for a state dinner to mark IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, 17 May).
‘It’s the first opportunity that I’ve had to wear my CBE,’ he said proudly – showing me the smart-looking blue cross. Cashman was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen in the 2013 New Year Honours List for his public and political service.
How did that make you feel – to be awarded a CBE?
I finally felt the establishment had acknowledged that we have struggled, that we have had to fight against discrimination. It means a lot to me.
How did your experience of advocacy and campaigning translate to your role here at the European Parliament?
As Shakespeare wrote: ‘The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.’
The interesting thing about the Section 28 legislation that was introduced by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is that we are now fighting against the ‘sons of Section 28’ in countries such as Russia and the Ukraine – the language of these right wing politicians is almost the same as that used by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government in the 1980s.
We have successfully campaigned against similar legislation in countries such as Latvia and Lithuania, but aspects such as education fall within the control of the government of each member state of the European Union, so that makes it harder to influence directly.
The challenge, in moving from working in the UK to the European Parliament, is that I wasn’t prepared for the complexity of dealing with so many different governments, different cultures, and different approaches to equality. This has been compounded by the expansion of the European Union to 27 member states.
How have you gone about taking a lead role on protection from discrimination and equality for LGBT people in Europe?
The first step was to re-start the inter-parliamentary LGBT network – this is essential to bring together parliamentarians across the various political parties, to work as a force to monitor discrimination and to call for protection from discrimination.
At that time there was rhetoric in the parliament that was anti the rights of women, especially on topics such as contraception or abortion, and alongside that there was an attack on LGBT issues. We saw hate speech from national governments and politicians, and in some countries LGBT pride marches were being banned.
So what we do is get the issues discussed by the relevant committees – for example the Justice and Home Affairs Committee which I sit on – and through this bring the debate to the floor of the parliament, calling on the commission to act to ensure the relevant country is working within the treaties it has signed.
So the enlargement of the European Union to include countries in central and eastern Europe is good news for the LGBT people in those countries?
What I found amazing is that when enlargement happened we were having to fight the same battles over again – having to deal with politicians quoting the Bible at you.
It’s extraordinary as these people from central and eastern Europe, after their experience with Soviet totalitarianism, should be giving us lectures on how to fight for human rights – not arguing against them.
However it has been an important reminder to never be complacent, to never take anything for granted. In that sense enlargement has been a gift.
We continue to debate these issue and support local and national non-governmental organizations and we’re seeing real progress. For example Malta has moved from the introduction of basic protections for LGBT people to now having civil partnerships. When I look at Poland we’ve seen the second openly gay person now elected to parliament and the first trans woman elected – in most countries the broader debate about LGBT issues is now seen as a normal part of the landscape of politics.
What are some of the current hotspots in the European context?
The are many hotspots. In the last plenary session of parliament we issued a warning to Ukraine, linking any further visa liberalization to protection for LGBT people.
Russia is a deep, deep concern on human rights in general – it pretends it is functioning as a democracy but its not. There are also concerns in places like France – as there are so many people demonstrating against marriage equality that is exactly why you need to give protections to minority groups, because the people arguing against equality are the very people that empower the thugs on the streets of Paris.
All of this is an important reminder why we created Europe and committed to a set of fundamental values - that we would never turn our back again. However the current economic and social crisis is leading to a rise in racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Everyone is looking for someone to blame. The parallels with the 1930s are deeply worrying. We need Europe now more than ever.
What are the areas that you’re currently focusing on?
We’re working to ensure freedom of movement of same-sex couples that are in a civil partnership or marriage. At the moment if you go to a country that doesn’t recognize these unions then your protection is diminished.
Also LGBT rights in Africa and the Caribbean are something we are looking to address through our trade agreements.
What does the future hold for Michael Cashman?
After 15 years this will be my final year here [Cashman has announced that he is stepping down from the European Parliament in May 2014].
I won’t be going away from the human rights landscape. I’ve been privileged to be able to speak out, I’ll be keeping an eye on everything.
I also want to write, paint, and travel a lot.