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While England and the rest of the world were enjoying the ‘Swinging 60’s’, under General Franco the Spanish claim to Sovereignty over Gibraltar had culminated in the closure of the Frontier, leaving the Rock landlocked and under siege until 1982, when the border was partly opened for pedestrian traffic. This long economic, physical and (dare we say it), psychological blockade meant that we, as a society, were left with little opportunity for any of the new ideas and movements happening in the rest of Europe to filter through.
At that time, Gibraltar’s outdated laws meant that homosexual relations were still held to be criminal and carried, at least theoretically, a sentence of life imprisonment. But by the early 1990’s, Britain was in the embarrassing position of being one of the signatory members to the European Convention of Human Rights (extended, in its day, to the Rock) and having to ‘justify’ before the Council of Europe Gibraltar’s obvious violation of human rights. This was particularly difficult for the UK, since already by 1967, it had itself already decriminalised homosexuality. So it was that, in 1993, Gibraltar introduced an amendment to its legislation, decriminalising sexual relations between men. Curiously, the antiquated law did not mention lesbian relations, since in Victorian England, when the original consent laws were drawn up, it was considered unnecessary to refer to women, as they were deemed to have no sexual life or identity of their own.
When the long awaited amendment to the Criminal Offences Ordinance (as Gibraltar laws were then known), came into effect, Gibraltar set the age of consent at 18 years of age; and so, for a brief time, Gibraltar was ahead of Britain which was still slowly moving towards lowering their own law from 21 down to 18. But, that shining moment of being ‘ahead of the game’ was to be followed by a period of stagnation. From 1993 to 2000, whilst much was changing elsewhere on this front, nothing further happened to advance the rights of sexual minorities in Gibraltar.
Finding this unacceptable Gibraltarian Felix Alvarez founded and launched in September 2000 an organisation which he called ‘Gib Gay Rights’ and the press immediately took to calling simply ‘GGR’. Campaigning under the slogan ‘The End of the Fear Factor’ within a week of the launch Felix called a public meeting and 21 gay and lesbian people were amongst the first to come out and show their support. The meeting elected Alvarez as Chairman of the newly formed group, which set about organising itself. Immediately GGR started a campaign to capture media and social attention for the rights of gay citizens.
Yet in an early recognition that the rights of Gibraltar as a People is intrinsically and inevitably linked to the right to self-determination of individuals, and in the middle of a threat of a possible ‘Joint Sovereignty’ deal over Gibraltar, Alvarez took the demand for the People’s self-determination to the Spanish Parliament. This insistence that the individual and the People are one has marked the focus of the Group from its earliest days.
One of GGR’s earliest acts was to participate in the November 2000 Remembrance Day ceremony. Deliberately courting controversy a pink triangle wreath was used instead of red poppies and this was laid at Gibraltar’s Cross of Sacrifice to bring attention to the many homosexual victims of the Holocaust. So, with that moment of remembrance, the move for change at social, political, and legislative levels had commenced. Though starting with a focus on ‘gay rights’ it soon became apparent to the group that there was a need for a voice in the wider arena of Equality and Human Rights because of the many people who turned to the group for help with other non-gay issues. This spurred the group into building bridges across the community and re-naming itself ‘Equality Rights Group (GGR)’; a move which, throughout the years, has led to important social campaigns.
Amongst others, these include demands for legislation to protect young people against abuse; and the setting up of a Sex Offenders Register, as well as demands for comprehensive disability equality legislation. Today, the Equality Rights Group is Gibraltar’s prime broad-based Human Rights organisation. Its strong support coming not only from the LGB community, but also, increasingly, from the heterosexual population. Our focus continues to be a commitment to fighting for the rights of all our citizens, regardless of status or category. For in the end, whether gay, straight, black, white, disabled, able-bodied, young or old, human rights belong to us all.
Since the foundation of GGR important progress has been achieved on various fronts. These are just some of them:
- The start of open social dialogue on LGBT issues.
- Regular Media coverage for LGBT rights.
- Political party involvement with the adoption of pro-LGBT policies by most parties.
- Taking legal action through the Courts, as a result of which, in 2010 government’s policy of refusing joint tenancies to same-sex couples in government housing became illegal, thus ending discrimination in this area.
- Equalisation of the age of consent: Following international action by GGR, and intervention at the Supreme Court, today, the principle of equality is now unchangeable in this matter, too. Whatever the legal age of consent, the Courts have held that it must be equally applied to all. And indeed, in 2012, the Gibraltar Parliament approved legislation equalising the age of consent at 16 for all.
- LGBT people are increasingly losing their fear and ‘coming out’. Accepting their own sexual orientation and being open about it. This ‘visibility’ in numbers has proven very important and has aided in the demand for equality and fair treatment of LGBT citizens within our community.
- Equality Rights Group’s 13 year campaign for Civil Partnerships to become a reality has culminated in its cooperation with Government to introduce legislation to bring it into force for same-sex couples. This is expected to be approved by Parliament by March 2014. Particularly important is that, following discussion and consultation with Government, the new law will be extended not just to same-sex partners, but to opposite-sex partners, too, thus making it truly equal. Furthermore, same-sex adoption becomes a part of statute, along with full financial provisions for partners in civil partnerships (regardless of sexual orientation).
- And in an area of law in which GGR has long campaigned for change, the group has worked closely once more with Government on developing and steering new laws to combat Hate Crime and Hate Speech to cover among others, violence and abuse towards LGBT people. These statutory provisions entered Gibraltar law in August 2013 as part of the Criminal Justice Amendment Act 2013. A satisfactory piece of new law which still requires to be perfected, nonetheless. Particularly disappointing was that the new law did not lay a statutory responsibility upon Gibraltar police for reporting on hate crime and hate speech incidents, thus continuing to ‘invisibilise’ homophobia. It is, nonetheless, a development ERG will be continuing to press for.
- The same atmosphere of cooperation has resulted in a review of existing legislation to combat discrimination in the provision of goods and services not only on the grounds of sexual orientation, but also disability and other protected categories. We look forward to these new provisions entering the statute books in 2014.
- We will also continue to press for an adequate and satisfactory introduction of comprehensive protections for the disabled. We understand that 2014 will see the much-awaited legislation which will enshrine the UN’s Convention on the Disabled into local law and shall be lobbying for these changes to materialise.
- On the broader front, ERG led a campaign for the People of Gibraltar to be recognised for their contributions and sufferings over the past 309 years. In particular, the almost-silent part of history documenting the very real trauma lived by 17,000 mainly women and children during their forced evacuation from the Rock during the Second World War. Working closely with UK supporters, ERG pushed for the George Cross to be conferred upon the people of Gibraltar. In so doing, ERG engaged in a major media, public relations and political campaign to bring the Evacuation Experience to public attention. So far, no fruit has come of this effort. It is time the rights of the People were acknowledged. Silence is never a dignified option. ERG instigates actions and campaigns short-, medium- and long-term. This is one the time for which may still be in the distance, but which we continue to insist on.
- For well over a decade, ERG was a lone voice calling on Gibraltar to commemorate international Holocaust Day. On January 27th 2014 the first-ever commemoration of the Day on the Rock took place. More evidence that giving up is not an option and that ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ waiting to be found.
- Action on Poverty: this project initiative received its impulse following the publication by ERG of a full-page ad in the ‘Gibraltar Chronicle’ launching a challenge to modernise and reform the Social Security system in Gibraltar. The call included an invitation to civil society organisations to form a coalition to develop the demands. As a result, Unite the Union’s Community Branch and the Gibraltar Private Sector Workers and Pensioners Association allied with ERG to establish the campaign. Following media and other lobbying, AOP led contacts with the government of Gibraltar and the Official Opposition party, the Gibraltar Social Democrats. Talks are ongoing.
- Surrogacy legislation: a controversial piece of legislation for some. For ERG, the issues were clear: the right of any couple unable to birth their own child within ethical guidelines was irrefutable. Individual couples followed up on the Gibraltar government’s promise to introduce an appropriate Bill to make the law reality. But it didn’t come; not until ERG called on the Chief Minister of Gibraltar to make the promise a reality. Within a few weeks of our ‘Surrogacy Campaign’, the Bill was presented to Parliament. Couples of all genders and sexual orientations are now able to formalise their parenthood.
- ‘Bring Back Democracy’: congratulating government for its cautious and careful handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, nonetheless ERG kept a clear eye on any encroachment on people’s fundamental rights. As restrictions were lifted all around the community, the freedom of assembly never figured. Again, not until ERG wrote several times unsuccessfully to the government of Gibraltar on the matter, and facing silence, announced it would seriously consider a legal challenge on the question. Two days later, government lifted the ban.
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