LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When John Walker discovered he could not leave his work pension to his same-sex partner in the event of his death, it kickstarted an 11-year legal battle with his former employer and the British government.
Last year he won, but his victory exposed the limitations of LGBT rights protection in Britain, campaigners have warned.
Their concern is that these rights could be further eroded when the country leaves the European Union next year.
White won his case under the terms of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, an EU law that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
“He couldn’t have got the remedy he did and he wouldn’t have won his case without EU equality protections,” Corey Stoughton, acting director of human rights group Liberty, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Campaigners worry about what will happen once Britain has left the union and is longer bound by the charter’s rules.
“We are losing the only freestanding human rights protection to non-discrimination,” said Jonathan Cooper, a barrister at British law firm Doughty Street Chambers who specializes in EU equality rights issues.
“What is it about the Conservative government that says we are perfectly prepared to repeal the most comprehensive human rights protection?” he added.
The government’s response is that there will be no “substantive change” to the protection of LGBT rights once the charter is rescinded following Britain’s exit from the EU.
“The implication that any (rights) will change as a result of our decision to leave the institutions of the European Union is farcical,” a spokeswoman for the British government said.
“Rights for the LGBT+ community will continue to be protected in the UK, as they are now.”
Since Britain voted in 2016 to leave the EU, the vast majority of European laws have been transferred onto the domestic statute books under the EU Withdrawal Act - except the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
To explain why not, the government published guidance as to how the main tenets of the charter would be incorporated or interpreted within existing British legislation.
Campaigners were, however, unconvinced.
“We found this (analysis) to be unpersuasive and concerning,” said Laura Russell, head of policy for LGBT rights group Stonewall UK.
“The charter provides a clear framework for protecting human rights and equalities. With the (withdrawal) bill now in law we’ve lost a vital layer of protection for LGBT people’s rights.”
Gay rights are protected in Britain under three main covenants: the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), to which Britain is a signatory, the Equality Act 2010 and the charter.
In addition, the Human Rights Act compels public institutions to treat everyone fairly - including in terms of their sexual orientation.
The government argues that the charter was superfluous, as the existing provisions offer comprehensive protections to British LGBT people against discrimination.
The terms of Britain’s Equality Act, for example, expressly outlaw “discrimination and harassment related to certain personal characteristics”, and specifically cite sexual orientation as a “protected characteristic”.
The act also goes further than the EU in certain areas, including protecting gay people from discrimination from goods or service providers, such as shops or restaurants - which is not currently covered under any European equality directives.
But the Equality Act can be amended by parliament, potentially exposing LGBT rights to the whims of future politicians, added Doughty Street Chambers’ Cooper.
“With the charter in place it would have been very difficult to amend the Equality Act,” he said.
“It’s not too fanciful to imagine a bill going through parliament at some stage which someone adds an amendment to that which says (guesthouse) owners can now decide who to let stay.”
Other LGBT activists say these fears are unfounded.
“As a gay man and an ardent Brexiteer, the suggestion being made ... that I should feel threatened and worried by Brexit is as offensive as it is patently untrue,” said Darren Grimes, digital manager at British think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs.
“Our equality, non-discrimination and family rights were hard fought for over many years by parliamentarians in the UK. The idea we’ll become intolerant of minorities without the EU is unfounded nonsense on stilts.”
What happens next is unclear, not least because the Brexit negotiations are still ongoing. But human rights groups say there is still a case for the British government to address.
“Brexit should not mean the loss of human rights and equality legislation,” said Stonewall’s Russell.
“We will continue to work together with Liberty and Amnesty International UK to protect the fundamental rights and equalities the LGBT community have worked so hard for.”
Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org