Social Justice

The UK used to be the most LGBTQ-friendly place in Europe. Now, it's not even close

LGBTQ+ activists say they're not surprised to see the UK plummet down the rankings of queer-friendly countries in Europe

Image: Ian Taylor/Unsplash

The UK has plummeted down the rankings of LGBTQ-friendly countries in the past decade – a decline activists have condemned as “no accident”.

Until 2015, ILGA-Europe – one of the continent’s biggest LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, based in Brussels – consistently described Britain as the most queer-friendly place in Europe. But a failure to ban conversion therapy and a toxic row over rights for trans people have seen the UK fall dramatically.

According to the organisation’s annual Rainbow Map, the UK now places 16th – below Spain, Greece, Belgium, and Ireland. This is one spot higher than last year’s ranking of 17th place, but down from 14th place in 2022.

The Rainbow Map ranks 49 European countries on their legal and policy practices for LGBTQ+ people from 0-100%.

ILGA-Europe cited “efforts to rewrite guidelines to limit access to trans-specific healthcare” and a failure to ban conversion therapy as reasons for the drop, which has seen the UK tumble from scoring 86% in 2015 to scoring just 52% this year.

Cleo Madeleine, from trans-led grassroots organisation Gendered Intelligence, told the Big Issue that the decline was “unsurprising”.

“The reasons for the substantial fall over the past decade are really apparent to anyone in the sector and the queer community as a whole,” she said.

“It’s not an accidental lack of care, but a sustained opposition to rights and protections for queer people.”

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Why are LGBTQ+ rights under threat in the UK?

The UK’s precipitous decline can be attributed to several factors. It’s a “death of a thousand cuts”, Cleo Madeleine says.

In 2018, then-prime minister Theresa May launched an LGBTQ+ ‘action plan’ in which she vowed to ban so-called conversion therapy – the baseless practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, often through religion and prayer. The UN has said the practise “may amount to torture”, and campaigners have slammed it as “cruel and unusual”.

Boris Johnson reiterated the pledge to ban the abhorrent practise before the 2019 general election. But with the next general election imminent, any attempt to ban conversion therapy has been “kicked into the long grass”.

“It’s been postponed, it’s been walked back, it’s not a priority for the government,” Madeleine said.

Trans rights have also become a front in the ongoing culture wars.

The ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map

In 2017, Theresa May announced plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act into an administrative rather than medicalised process, in line with advice from the World Health Organisation. The Gender Recognition Act allows trans people to apply and receive a Gender Recognition Certificate, which in turn allows them to update the sex marker on their birth certificate.

But the Conservative Party’s position has changed markedly since then: last year, Sunak told Conservative delegates in Manchester: “We shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be. They can’t – a man is a man and a woman is a woman.”

Trans issues often dominate the headlines, with right-wing media in particular obsessed with the so-called ‘trans agenda’.

“Large sections of the media and political world have invested in manufacturing moral panic about trans people,” wrote Amnesty International UK’s gender justice director Chiara Capraro for the Big Issue.

This has shifted the Overton window away from trans people self-identifying as their true gender. Indeed, the Equality and Human Rights Commission – UK’s independent human rights watchdog – recently argued for specifying that ‘sex’ in the UK’s Equality Act in fact refers to ‘biological sex’, thus weakening protections for trans people.

Madeleine says that the government has attempted to “draw attention away from economic failure” by “punching down”. But it has a real impact on the community.

“[People] feels like no one has their corner in the face of this mistreatment. People are disaffected, they’re depressed, they feel like there’s no future for them,” she said.

“Young people are particularly impacted. They’re 16, 17, 18 – and they feel like they don’t have any hope. Because this toxic rhetoric is all they’re hearing from the most powerful people in the country.”

Nonetheless, trans and other queer people “aren’t going anywhere”, she said.

“Hold out hope,” she urged. “I won’t mince my words, we’ve got to a really bad state in this country, and our communities suffering. But It won’t be forever. We aren’t going anywhere, and things will change for the better.”

Jayne Ozanne of the Ozanne Foundation, an LGBTQ+ rights campaigner and survivor of conversion therapy, warned that historians will look back on the last six years with “utter disbelief” at how the UK changed from being “a global leader on LGBTQ+ rights to being a global leader in undermining the rights of that very same group”.

“Continued procrastination in providing the primary protection that the LGBTQ+ community requires, that of banning harmful conversion practices, has allowed abusers to continue to act with impunity,” she said. “A barrage of attacks on trans people, led by the very minister tasked with protecting them, has all but obliterated their ability to go about their day to day lives with any sense of safety.

“It is true that pendulums always swing – but the speed of this change has confounded many across the world. The good news is that pendulums always swing back – let’s hope that it does so just as quickly, and soon.”

What are queer rights like in the rest of Europe?

Elsewhere in Europe presents a brighter picture. For the ninth year in a row, the Rainbow Map ranked Malta the most LGBTQ-friendly country, with a score of 88%.

Iceland jumped to second place – scoring 83% – with a rise of three places as a result of the new legislation banning conversion practices.

In Estonia and Greece, legislatures amended rules to allow same-sex couples to marry and adopt children. Liechtenstein also extended adoption rights to same-sex couples.

The three countries at the other end of the Rainbow Map scale are Russia (2%), Azerbaijan (2%), and Turkey (5%). Russia lost seven points and dropped three places because of the federal legislation banning legal gender recognition and trans-specific healthcare. Russia also recently made the unprecedented move of criminalising the ‘international LGBTQ+ movement’ as an ‘extremist organisation’.

Poland still sits at the end of the EU ranking with a score of 18%, followed by Romania (19%) and Bulgaria (23%).

ILGA-Europe’s advocacy director Katrin Hugendubel called for urgent change.

“Across Europe, LGBTI people are being targeted by hate speech and violence and their human rights are being actively undermined, yet we still see too many countries across the region stalling in moving legal protection forward and not renewing their commitments through national strategies and action plans,” she said.

“This non-action is dangerous, as without proper legislation in place to protect minorities, including LGBTI people, it will be much too easy for newly elected governments to quickly undermine human rights and democracy.”

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