Feature writing

LGBT issues

Will the British royals join Danish Princess Mary’s fight for LGBT equality?

The Daily Beast

May 18, 2016

It seems a faraway, other time when Diana, Princess of Wales held the hands of people with AIDS.

And it was: The mid- to late 1980s was a time of greater homophobia, prejudice, and ignorance. Could you “get it” via “kissing” or touching, the nasty whispers went. Gays, then stigmatized as one of the groups most affected by HIV, along with IV drug users, were diseased, and those with HIV quite literally untouchable.

If you have no idea of what that dark time was like, read Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, watch The Normal Heart, and forever be thankful for the work of activists like Larry Kramer, Peter Staley (still campaigning, just last week he sat beside Hillary Clinton at an AIDS activist meeting), Sean Strub, and the warriors of ACT UP.

On the public stage, and in her own brave and pioneering HIV and AIDS advocacy, Diana showed that people with AIDS were people, and people to be cared about, loved, and fought for.

This was brave, because HIV, AIDS, and drug addiction were not charitable pursuits previously perceived as “royal.”

As The Daily Beast reported this week, today’s young generation of royals has taken on mental health as a campaigning focus. That is a valuable subject, but not likely to generate the kind of heat that stating a belief in global LGBT equality is.

And so it was that last week, as reported by publications like Pink News, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark delivered a speech to the IDAHO forum, hosted by her country’s government.

Mary delivered a speech—associated with May 17’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia—stating, clearly and passionately, a belief in LGBT equality.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. But that assertion, for far too many around the world, does not hold true.

“Even though we write 2016, too many LGBTI people continue to be victims of hatred, violence, discrimination, bullying and ill-treatment—and this we cannot and must not accept.

“Working together to change social attitudes and promote equal opportunities requires a broad and mutual effort by all of us.”

It was necessary, Mary said, to “build a culture where everyone is accepted and tolerated for who they are and where everyone can participate equally, fully and freely in all aspects of society.”

She noted that 76 percent of European LGBTs were not open about their sexuality or gender identity at work and among their colleagues, and that another study of 93,000 LGBT people across Europe had revealed that “nearly half of all respondents [47 percent] felt personally discriminated or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

She added, “We need to ensure and understand how we can create greater progress nationally, regionally, and globally.”

Mary’s strong words of support contrast with the near silence on LGBT equality on the part of Britain’s high-profile royals—a silence that most people assumed comes with tacit support for equality.

However, LGBT equality is also politically fraught, and a delicate royal tightrope to be negotiated. The royal family is at pains to remain at least publicly politically agnostic—LGBT rights and equality are not respected, indeed sometimes horribly violated, in some countries in which the royals are figureheads, or travel to.

The queen, as The Daily Beast noted earlier this year, supported the 2013 “Commonwealth Charter,” which declared: “We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, color, creed, political belief, or other grounds.”

The “other grounds” referred to sexuality—but specific reference to LGBTs was reportedly omitted for fear of upsetting Commonwealth countries with draconian anti-gay laws.

Then, a few months ago, controversy erupted when the Daily Mail reported that the queen had privately objected to marriage equality in the United Kingdom, which became law in 2014.

Palace sources told The Daily Beast the story was false and that the queen was not against same-sex marriage.

There has been no direct royal patronage of LGBT charities, although in 2014 the queen congratulated London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard (LLGS), a phone line this reporter was very proud to volunteer for, on the occasion of its 40th anniversary.

Last year, Prince William spoke out—without using gay-specific wording—against LGBT bullying.

In 1999, Prince Charles visited the site of the nail bomb attack on the Admiral Duncan gay bar in London’s Soho, which killed three people and injured around 70 others.

In 2015, Prince Harry visited the Mildmay Hospice in East London, where his mother used to visit to offer support for people with AIDS.

He and Prince William have also voiced their support for the Terrence Higgins Trust, another charity supported by their mother.

Apocryphal stories are told of the gay staff at the royal palaces: the British MP Edwina Currie once relayed to Pink News that the queen mother, who died aged 101 in 2002, had said, “If we didn’t have them as staff, we’d have to go self-service.”

Another queen mother anecdote has her reprimanding two quarreling gay staff: “When you two old queens have finished arguing, this old queen wants her gin.”

As charming as these stories are, and as encouraging the words and actions of the queen and Prince William are, the challenge facing Britain’s royals on LGBT matters is neatly encapsulated by the clarity, boldness, and directness of Crown Princess Mary’s words.

Will the British royals have the courage and cunning to negotiate the fraught waters of international diplomacy and follow her lead?