When Theresa May took over as the UK’s Prime Minister this week she promised to tackle ‘burning injustice’.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people should join with others to hold her to that promise.
On some aspects of LGBTI rights, May has travelled an impressive distance. At one time she opposed getting rid of the notorious Section 28, which prohibited ‘promotion of homosexuality’, and letting same-sex couples adopt.
But later she backed civil partnerships and equal marriage. In fact, letting same-sex partners marry was one of ex-prime minister David Cameron’s achievements which she publicly praised.
However having our partnerships legally recognized, important though it is, is not the only issue for LGBTI people. There is a serious risk that the UK government will make life harder for those of us who are most vulnerable.
Not just getting married
While public attitudes to LGBT people have become far more accepting in recent years, and legal protection increased, prejudice and discrimination have not gone away.
Young people not yet confident about their own worth may be particularly hard hit. At the other end of the age range, older people with long-term health and social care needs may also be affected, and those in between at a difficult point in life.
However there is reason to be cautious. May has served for several years as a cabinet minister. During that time, social inequality has increased and human rights have come under attack.
Young LGBTI people who feel isolated or are being bullied can get a lot from youth groups – but funding cuts have had a devastating effect. Those forced out of their homes by prejudiced parents can struggle to find a safe and affordable home.
Bigoted landlords and employers do not always admit this. It is just that the ‘wrong type’ of tenants or employees may be harassed, expected to put up with grim conditions or turfed out for no obvious reason.
When things go wrong, having access to free expert advice and legal aid can make all the difference. In the workplace, trade union support may also help to protect LGBT staff against unfair treatment.
However legal aid has been slashed and those advice agencies still open often have long queues of would-be clients. Unions have been weakened and are under ongoing attack.
LGBTI people whose mental or physical health has been harmed by violence or rejection may find their local NHS heavily overstretched. And those unable to work because of illness may face obstacles in getting social security, because of the crackdown on ‘welfare’.
Frail older and other disabled LGBT people sometimes rely on personal assistants to get to community venues or visit friends. These days, social care cuts mean that they may be lucky to get an occasional cup of tea and help to get to the toilet.
The situation may well get worse.
Brexit and after
In the run-up to the European Union referendum and afterwards, the mood towards migrants and minority ethnic people changed drastically. Many have faced levels of hatred not known for years.
This is especially bad news for LGBTI people trying to escape to the UK from countries with harshly homophobic or transphobic regimes or fleeing Isil/Daesh. Just getting to Europe safely, let alone convince immigration officials that you are genuine, has been hard enough.
This seems likely to get harder still. The impact to those at risk of imprisonment, rape, torture or death because of their sexuality or gender identity may be horrific.
LGBTI people from other EU countries who have settled in the UK also face uncertainty. Many have become part of friendship networks here or in romantic relationships. The same applies to UK citizens elsewhere in the EU. This may be highly unsettling to them, their partners and close friends.
In Northern Ireland, some of the gains of the peace process have been put at risk, as borders again take on a heightened significance. The LGBTI people there who have worked hard to make it a more peaceful, tolerant place are entitled to feel annoyed.
More widely, the sense of being part of a Europe committed to basic standards of equality and respect for diversity has been undermined. And if the economic damage caused by Brexit leads to further division and unrest, there is a danger that public attitudes towards minorities may take a sharp turn for the worse.
Making a difference
This is not an argument for despair. In her first speech as prime minister, Theresa May recognized that there were deep inequalities in life-chances based on class, ethnicity, gender and age.
She declared that she wanted to lead a ‘one-nation government’ that ‘will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.’
To make sure that she turns these words into actions will be tough. As her choice of ministers has made clear, she is keen to keep the hardliners in her own party happy. This may lead to polices that make matters even worse.
It is up to all of us to take a stand if we want to make sure this does not happen.
Perhaps you are in a comfortable position at the moment, with a decent home and income? Can you remember when you were younger and less secure? Or imagine what it may be like for you if things go wrong, for instance a serious illness or job loss?
Or maybe you are one of those feeling afraid? In which case can you persuade other LGBTI people that it is important to defend you and others at risk?
Marriage equality is important but not enough. If our new prime minister could change her mind earlier on this issue, we can all do our part to remind her of the need for justice for everyone.
Savitri Hensman is a writer, voluntary sector worker and activist. She is the author of Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness: Same-Sex Love and the Church.