Being LGBT+ in the Traveller community: a personal reflection

By Lois Brooks-Jones.

I remember being sat on the armchair, nails diggings at the leather out of stress as a comfort. I was 14 years old and was preparing to tell my family that I am bisexual. I had known for years, trying to suppress myself due to a phobia of losing everyone I loved. I just wanted to be straight, and not have to worry about seeing the care in my mother and father’s eyes leave, no matter how often they professed their support for LGBT+ rights in small but meaningful ways. 

This fear increases when you come from a community which is currently experiencing mass programmes of assimilation by governments and institutional powers, where ideas of tradition and historical cultural values are clung to even harder, to feel a sense of identity in a world which has been trying for 1000 years to smite it.

You fear being rejected from a community which protects you from the pain and harm caused by wider gadjo society for your sexuality or gender identity, and then being rejected from mainstream society for not only being LGBT+, but also for being Gypsy, Roma Traveller (GRT) identifying. This is a common narrative for LGBT+ GRT youth trying to navigate their own identity as well as deconstructing the extent of their family’s love and support. This impacts mental health, emotional wellbeing, as well as potential regarding suicide victims. 

I was lucky to have my grandmother. When I was 13 years old she point-blank asked if I was gay, taking long drags from her cigarette as she looked at me with her dark eyes. Seeing my hesitation, she followed up her question by saying “Because it’s okay if you are, you know”.

This is a woman born amid 1930s fascism, who learnt what it meant to be persecuted based on an identity outside of her control, and that this level of discrimination and hatred must not happen again. Included in the mass murder under Nazi Germany, LGBT+ people were included, with up to 15,000 LGBT+ being transported to Nazi concentration camps, with 60 per cent believed to have been murdered there.

Need for a support network

When we discriminate against LGBT+ people, we discriminate and threaten the safety of members of our own, already marginalised community. My family not only fully supported me in my sexuality, but also support those without the support of their own families. In no way am I saying that GRT are intrinsically anti-LGBT+, my own family are a testimony to love and acceptance. However, we can’t deny a lack of acceptance for LGBT+ GRT youth in need of a support network. 

Changes are happening, albeit slowly, and we must celebrate the fact that this year for the first time, LGBT+ Travellers made history, as in we had official representation at London Pride. This should by no means be seen as an ends in itself, but instead a vital part in a long-running battle for recognition and acceptance; a momentum on which we can build and send out a strong message to not only LGBT+ GRT people specifically, but to our community in general. We must tackle these attitudes head-on and with pride in ourselves. 

When we begin to accept hatred towards others based on identity, we comply with our oppressors. We divide ourselves, define what is or isn’t GRT, and do the establishment’s work for them. 

Lois Brooks-Jones is currently studying politics and international relations. A British Romany Gypsy, she is a Gypsy Roma Traveller and LGBT+ activist. Follow www.lgbttravellerpride.co on Twitter @TravellerLGBT

Romani and Traveller activists deliver action plan on Romani Resistance Day

Aspiring Romani barrister, Brigitta Balogh, independently organised a parliamentary event in Westminster on 16 May 2019 to mark Romani Resistance Day, officially commemorating the Romani heroes of 1944 for the first time in the United Kingdom.

The “Press for Progress” conference was a working event intended to set out a 10 Point Action Plan to the government and ministerial bodies on how to improve the lives of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in the UK. Participants had the opportunity to engage in critical discussion and create guidance for the government on how to proceed in future when drafting policies affecting these communities.

The event was chaired by Andy Slaughter MP, who was joined in a panel by Jonathan Lee from the European Roma Rights Centre, Lisa Smith who is the Chair of the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers, Mihai Calin Bica, a campaigner at the Roma Support Group, and Brigitta Balogh, a Bar Professional Training Student at City University of Law.

The 10 recommendations are intended to be distributed amongst civil society organisations, and government and ministerial bodies. The attendees of the event request the government to promote and protect the rights and entitlements of these underrepresented marginalised communities, in reference to the 10 Point Action Plan set out here. In order to press for meaningful progress in the lives of Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers in this country, we recommend that ministers and policy makers:

  1. Create and fully implement a National Roma Integration Strategy and appoint a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller person as the main national contact point in the United Kingdom
  2. Reinstate the part of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 that places a statutory obligation on authorities to provide sites.
  3. Establish a funding scheme specifically targeting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils in order to support both secondary and higher education students. This scheme is to be based on the methods set out by the Roma Education Fund to ensure Romani empowerment by promoting participation in professions in which Roma are underrepresented.
  4. Reject recent policy proposals to make every form of trespass a criminal offence.
  5. Introduce a statutory definition of Gypsy and Traveller, for use in all relevant areas such as housing, planning, accommodation assessment, education and health. This will incorporate those living a nomadic way of life and those who have ceased to live in this way for purposes that include: educating children; illness; old age; and lack of pitch provision.
  6. Introduce a definition of anti-gypsyism in the United Kingdom to help acknowledge and raise awareness of the discrimination faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. Discrimination includes hate speech, hate crime, cyber bullying, social exclusion and direct or indirect institutional racism. The definition is to be used in active monitoring schemes that identify and record racially motivated incidents.
  7. Simplify the EU settlement scheme to ensure it is accessible for Roma and other groups who may be lacking the necessary documentation, language and IT skills.
  8. Establish a government obligation under the Equality Act 2010 to collect and monitor racist incidents of bullying in schools, including acts against Gypsy/Roma and Irish Travellers.
  9. Establish a Romani and Traveller Women’s group as part of Parliament. This is to be based on the Council of Europe recommendation to promote Romani Women’s political participation.
  10. Allocate funding and appointing a national co-ordinator to support Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History month.

The 10 Point Action Plan was drafted by participants who attended the event:

Stephen Marsh
Lara Simak
Zachary Whyte
Tom Hoeksma
Sioned Morgan
Natalie Ayre
Jonathan Lee
Lisa Smith

The Action Plan was finalised in consultation with:

David Watkinson
Michael Haggar
Lynne Townley
Colin Clark .

Photo above picturing the activists involved is by Brigitta Balogh.

Roma student’s open letter on legalised discrimination against Gypsies & Travellers

By Brigitta Balogh.

Below is an open letter from Brigitta Balogh to British Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Minister for Faith, with responsibility for Gypsy and Traveller equality policy Lord Bourne.

Dear Lord Bourne,

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Brigitta Balogh and I am a Hungarian-born Roma woman, currently attending the Bar Professional Training Course at City University of Law, aiming to become the first Roma person to qualify as a barrister in England and Wales. My primary goal in undertaking this work is to advance Gypsy, Roma and Traveller civil rights with an informed legal background.

I have attempted to reach out to you and your office previously. However, my request for a meeting to discuss several pressing issues relating to recent High Court injunction orders have all fallen on deaf ears. Therefore, I have no option but to publicly address you via an open letter and request legal reforms.

As Minister for Faith, you are responsible for Gypsy and Traveller Equality Policy. This means that you have a duty to implement and monitor policy and make sure that those that are in place are applied fairly and equally, as well as complying with Human Rights legislation.

I believe that the communities have experienced laws, over many years, that are both directly and indirectly discriminatory. By way of recent example, the Planning Policy for Traveller Sites ​(PPTS) published in 2015 by the Department for Communities and Local Government changed the definition of Gypsy and Traveller.

Annex 1 of the PPTS sets out who is and who is not considered to be a Gypsy and Traveller for planning purposes and therefore who is, and who is not, entitled to the slightly more progressive regime of the PPTS. The change in the definition excluded Gypsies and Travellers who have had to stop travelling permanently. It has been argued that the definition is discriminatory, prejudicial, unreasonable and disproportionate, especially in relation to those who stopped travelling due to age, ill health or educational needs.

You will also know that the Caravan Sites Act 1968 placed a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites where they were needed. However, that part of the 1968 Act was repealed by the ​Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and, as a result, local authorities no longer have any legal obligation to provide sites.

Further, since the mid 1990’s, the situation has deteriorated further and councils are now obtaining High Court injunction orders to ban Gypsy and Travellers from their areas. This is a deliberate act to force our community to settle and the UK government should recognise that these orders are indirectly forcing the community to renounce its nomadic heritage and leave its traditions behind, potentially breaching Human Rights legislation.

Many government policies unfairly disadvantage Gypsy and Traveller communities and we witness firsthand uninformed MPs using their positions and influence to lobby for stricter enforcement of unauthorised sites in their areas, seemingly forgetting that many families are also their constituents.

We note that the hatred and antipathy directed towards Gypsy and Traveller families is also a potential vote-winner on occasion. For example, Douglas Ross MP, who was recently asked what he would do if he were to be Prime Minister for a day, stated: “I would like to see tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers.”

However, Mr Ross is not the only MP who has made such comments. Back in 2017, during the House of Commons debate, I had the misfortune of listening to Philip Davis MP talking about the “high level” of criminal activity within Gypsy and Traveller communities. He cited no evidence to support this.

Also, Mark Francois MP suggested that Parliament should make deliberate acts of trespass a criminal offence, as if this would help the situation of a lack of sites and pitches. These inaccurate comments find their way into the media and fit with The Sun and other newspapers open propaganda against the communities.

These agendas are destructive and take the focus away from providing legal protection for the communities. More recently, Labour Councillor Bob Murray for Denbighshire commented that “Hitler had the right idea” in reference to “dealing with” Travellers in his constituency. The fact that this was reported on International Roma Day, a day to celebrate our Gypsy Traveller culture and heritage, did not go unnoticed.

Regarding hate speech, in my view, the consequences of allowing public servants to engage in public instances of anti-Gypsyism actively prevents the possibility of positive social change. It is imperative to tackle and eliminate these elements as well as further support initiatives such as Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month, which has taken place in June every year since 2008 in the UK. This month-long series of events raises awareness and introduces community history into the school curriculum to support broader equality measures.

It is evident that the ​Equality Act 2010 has not changed perceptions of the Gypsy and Traveller population by the general public. We witness higher rates of bullying in schools, greater exclusions and now injunction orders. For these reasons, we suggest that it is your duty to propose significant and progressive legal reforms.

The UK government seems reluctant to engage in this process or change the status quo for these long overlooked, under-represented, marginalised communities who tend to live under poor socio-economic conditions, experiencing injustice in every field of life – but we hope that you will take a more positive approach.

The Welsh Government has a much more proactive approach towards Gypsies and Travellers. There, the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 has placed a duty on local authorities to provide sites, where a need has been identified, a model which can surely then be replicated in other parts of the UK.

A longstanding argument led by Gypsy Traveller activists suggests that the solution to the problem of lack of site provision is to reinstate the relevant parts of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 ensuring local authorities create a network of sites. There has to be accountability measures both from the UK Government and political party leaders to ensure local councils implement policy effectively, including provision of permanent and transit pitches and emergency stopping places.

A further example of innovation is Leeds Gate’s Negotiated Stopping policy; all authorities should be using this policy as an official way of catering for roadside encampments. Individual activists and organisations have been advocating for decades on these issues but progress has been limited. This cannot continue.

Lord Bourne, as the Minister responsible for Gypsy and Traveller Equality Policy, I urge you to address these issues as a matter of urgency. What I request is that you give the issues outlined above immediate attention that will be followed by positive action – as it is long-awaited. Amongst people who are willing to support this open letter, there are many who protested against repealing the duty contained in the 1968 Act. They have been actively fighting for the community and it is time to take action.

Please do not dismiss my motion for law reform by drawing my attention to the recent consultation dealing with unauthorised development and encampments. We need positive practical remedies and what we need to discuss, above all else is how to reinstate the obligation on authorities to provide sites.

Signed:
Brigitta Balogh.

IN SUPPORT:

Members of the British Parliament/London Assembly

  • Tom Copley, London Labour Party Member of the London Assembly.
  • Andy Slaughter, Labour Party Member of Parliament.
  • Caroline Russell​, Green Party Member of the London Assembly
  • Sian Berry,​ Green Party Member of the London Assembly

Lawyers

  • Greg O’ Ceallaigh​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Stephen Clark​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Michelle Brewer, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Owen Greenhall​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Franck Magennis​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • David Jones​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Paul Clark​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Miranda Butler​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • Camila Zapata Besso​, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers
  • David Joyce, Solicitor and Human Rights Commissioner at the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission
  • Aurora Curtis, Staff Attorney, The Legal Aid Society, USA

Academics

  • Colin Clark​, Professor at the University of the West of Scotland
  • Dr Hazel Marsh, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies University of East Anglia
  • Alexander Faludy, Independent Researcher, Portsmouth, UK
  • Beverley Stephens, Professor at University of Wales Trinity St David

UK and European Organisations

  • European Roma Rights Centre
  • ​Friends Families and Travellers
  • Traveller Movement
  • ​ACERT
  • Travelling Ahead
  • Leeds Gate
  • Derbyshire Gypsy Liaison Group
  • National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Group

Brigitta Balogh is a Roma law student, currently attending the Bar Professional Training Course at City University of Law, aiming to become the first Roma person to qualify as a barrister in England and Wales. Follow her on Twitter @hellobrigitta.