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Research in action

Driving to Improve the Rights of Same Sex Couples

WintemuteProfessor Robert Wintemute, The Dickson Poon School of Law. 

In 1996 an Austrian was evicted from his late partner’s apartment because as a gay man, under Austrian law, he lacked the same rights as a heterosexual.  In 2002 a French lesbian woman was told that she was ineligible to adopt a child as an individual because her home would lack a ‘paternal role model’.  In 2003 a Chilean judge lost custody of her three daughters because, staggeringly, her sexual orientation was thought to put their development at risk.

These situations may have different locations and subjects, and be drawn from diverse legal systems, but they all have one thing in common. That is the work of Professor Robert Wintemute of The Dickson Poon School of Law. Legal discrimination based on sexual orientation is still a daily reality in most countries around the world. In the three cases mentioned above, Professor Wintemute presented his research on anti-discrimination law to the European Court of Human Rights and its Inter-American equivalent. His input helped the courts to find human rights violations in each case.

Karnerv. Austria, E.B. v. France and Atala v. Chile are now cited as landmark judgments in law and academia. By participating in these cases, Professor Wintemute has helped to improve the human rights of lesbian and gay individuals and same-sex couples living in the 47 countries falling under the European Court’s jurisdiction – including Britain – and the 23 nations party to the American Convention on Human Rights.

‘When I joined King’s in 1991 the legal situation in Britain was very bad,’ says Professor Wintemute. ‘The age of consent for gay men was 21 rather than 16, lesbian and gay members of the armed forces were hunted and sacked, there was no protection against discrimination in employment or education and Parliament had described same-sex couples as having ‘pretended family relationships’. One of the most gratifying changes since then is that discrimination against lesbian and gay people has become a ‘mainstream’ human rights issue of interest to many heterosexual researchers.  One doesn’t have to be directly affected by a particular injustice for outrage to generate passion for legal research.’ 

For more than two decades Professor Wintemute has been at the forefront of research into the law relating to sexual orientation discrimination. Since 2012 this specialism has been going through one of the most important periods in its history, with key rulings from the European, Inter-American and US Supreme Courts, as well as laws allowing same-sex couples to marry in England and Wales, France, New Zealand, Uruguay and several US states.  

The world-class research of Professor Wintemute has contributed to many of these developments, whether through published work, collaborations with fellow academics and campaigners, or the organisation of pivotal global conferences. He has also consistently offered practical help to the victims of discrimination, as an expert witness, or by submitting legal arguments to support them. He has spoken around the world, from Santiago (with the support of the British Embassy) to Surabaya and from Dubai to Durban, and has been interviewed by newspapers in Buenos Aires, Istanbul and Mumbai.

Since joining King’s in 1991, he has helped build his field from scratch, drawing on a detailed knowledge of discrimination law worldwide to improve the rights of lesbian and gay individuals and same-sex couples.

His publications have been cited by the Constitutional Court of South Africa and the House of Lords, as well as courts of appeal in England, Scotland and Quebec, while his collaborations with non-governmental organisations like ILGA-Europe (the European region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association) in Brussels, the International Federation for Human Rights in Paris and the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva have helped to promote lesbian and gay equality globally.

‘An anti-discrimination lawyer’s research is never done,’ continues Professor Wintemute.  ‘That is why it is important to society that I continue to do it.  England and Wales have marriage, but unequal survivor’s pensions for same-sex couples, and no civil partnership for different-sex couples.  France has marriage, but no access to donor insemination for lesbian couples.  Russia is like Britain in 1988, having just passed a federal law making ‘propaganda’ for lesbian and gay equality an offence. At least 75 countries, including around 80% of Commonwealth countries, still criminalise same-sex sexual activity, with five imposing the death penalty.’

Professor Wintemute’s work is not over yet. But those he has helped so far would argue he has made a significant start in paving the way for future change.

Image credit: Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY

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