Standing with our LGBT members

From criminalisation to celebration, it’s quite a journey – and there’s still a long way to go

Last weekend, I attended UNISON’s LGBT conference, where we reflected on the progress we’ve made together and the challenges still to come.

Our LGBT group is only a decade old in its current form, but our union’s campaigning for equal rights stretches back far further.

The features on LGBT history in our journals and website earlier this year show that we were negotiating and campaigning for equality early in the 1970s.

That is an immense source of pride to me, and to millions of trade unionists across our country.

Those of you who have watched the film Pride (and if you haven’t, you really should) will know that solidarity between the union movement and LGBT campaigners played a crucial part in the transformational changes we’ve all witnessed our lifetimes.

Like many UNISON members, I grew up at a time when homosexuality was criminalised. Positive rights like legal protection from discrimination were almost unimagined. And now we celebrate same-sex marriage.

From criminalisation to celebration, it’s quite a journey.

But it’s not been smooth all the way and we’re by no means at the end. Same-sex couples can marry in England, Scotland and Wales.

Steps in that direction are being taken in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. But Northern Ireland lags behind, even though polling shows an overwhelming majority of people in favour.

And of course, even if someone can get married, they’re still not equal.

Not equal in pensions – many people receive far less on the death of their same-sex spouse than they would if they had married someone of a different gender. That’s another battle we must fight together.

And despite hard-won legal rights, we don’t see real equality in too many workplaces.

I was recently contacted by two female members who both work in the same religious school. At the moment they hide their relationship, but they want to start a family.

They wanted to know if they would be OK. It may be 2015, but they still felt unsure – they needed to know their jobs wouldn’t be at risk.

One of the many caveats in our legislation is that in voluntary aided schools – state schools with a religious character – Section 60 of the School Standards and Framework Act says that “conduct that is incompatible with the school’s religious tenets may be taken into account for the purposes of dismissal.”

As with any case, it would be dependent on the exact facts.

But the one thing we can be very clear about is that UNISON is behind its members and against discrimination of all forms, whatever the circumstances, and wherever the workplace.

When I was growing up, transgender people were invisible. There was no discussion of transgender rights.

But, the current issue of U magazine – which goes to every one of our 1.3 million members – has as its lead story an interview with Phillippa Scrafton.

The piece focuses on  about her journey through transition and UNISON’s role in that.

There has been an overwhelming response from UNISON members – warm emails from people moved and inspired by her. Real progress.

But beyond every milestone there is more ground to cover, and so much more to achieve.

The fight for equal legal rights has been a real success but – whether you are L, G, B or T – UNISON and the union movement will be alongside you every step of the way.

We will continue the battle for equal treatment and the just application of those legal rights.