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New laws that ban discrimination against gay men and women are introduced at the end of the month. Christopher White cuts through the official waffle to find out what it will mean for you

Discrimination against the gay community becomes illegal when the Equality Act comes into force on 30 April. It will make it illegal for any business, service provider or charity to treat people differently because of their sexuality. From schools to supermarkets, the law applies to everyone. For example, B&B owners won’t be able to turn away same-sex couples and even insurance firms will have to be fair. Here we look at some of the contentious points and explain how to use the law.

What will the impact of the new law mean for the gay scene?
Though the new law makes it illegal for businesses to cater only for people of one sexuality, it’s still okay to have gay bars and clubs, travel and financial services as long as they’re available to people of any orientation.
Just as straight bars won’t be able to refuse entry to gays, gay bars will have to accept straight customers, as will other businesses such as gay saunas. But the occasional straight tourist is a small price to pay to finally get equal treatment.

What about B&Bs, hotels and holiday companies?
Basil Fawltys everywhere must be crying into their warm beer: hotels and bed-and-breakfasts will no longer be allowed to turn away gay guests, or refuse gay couples a double room where they would allow a straight couple to have one. Nor will they be able to cancel bookings for gay wedding receptions as one Essex hotel did just a few weeks ago. Though there have been punishments of a sort for this already – one hotel in Scotland, for example, was recently taken off the local quality assurance list after mistreating gay guests – the new laws leave them open to large fines if they continue to discriminate.

Will the new laws have an impact on schools and education?
Despite hysterical shrieking from some quarters about teachers being forced to give pupils “books on homosexuality”, the Equality Act won’t have quite that effect. (Shame – a bit of Oscar Wilde would probably do them the world of good.)
It will mean that a school will no longer be able to prevent a student from becoming head girl because of her orientation; nor will a teacher be allowed to single out a child for ridicule and criticism because he has same-sex parents. And, of course, it will prevent discrimination when selecting students for admission and for access to services within the school.

Did Catholic adoption agencies win their battle to be exempt?
Voluntary adoption agencies – such as those run by the Catholic Church – are exempt until the end of next year, having been given a “transition period” by the government to come to terms with the new laws. Until then, they can continue to refuse applications made by gays, but they must refer them on to another agency that will help.
After 31 December 2008 they must treat anyone looking to adopt equally regardless of sexual orientation, although some agencies have made the mature, adult decision that they would prefer to close altogether.

What do the laws mean for religious groups?
Religious organisations will still be able to restrict membership and the participation or activities of members, and will be allowed to continue to discriminate in the provision of goods or services or the use or sale of premises.
They can do so only with the condition that the discrimination is necessary to comply with the principles of the church in question, or to avoid conflicting with the beliefs of most of the religion’s followers. So all the gay priests will be staying in the closet or confessional booth for now.

What about healthcare?
Some health services are aimed specially at lesbian and gay customers, if a supportive environment is likely to encourage their use or make them more efficient – gay men’s sexual health services, for example. These will not be affected by the Equality Act.

There is an exemption for the sale of life insurance until the end of next year. However, the latest guidance for insurers makes clear that they shouldn’t ask about someone’s sexual orientation, and should base their questions on behaviour, regardless of whether you’re gay or straight.

Can gay men now donate blood?
The National Blood Service is exempt from the regulations. The policy of excluding donations by groups such gay men is reviewed every six months, however, so this may change. The new laws only actually apply to receiving goods and services, and some have argued that giving blood isn’t receiving a service.

Just as there are no longer any adverts saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish”, it will now be illegal to publish advertisements indicating an intention to discriminate against gays.

Civil partnerships?
Civil partnerships will be taken to be equivalent to marriage – if someone refuses to provide a service to civil partners that he would be willing to provide to a married couple, he will be guilty of unlawful discrimination.

The act in action:

What should I do if I’m discriminated against?
At first it’s a good idea to sort the matter informally with the business or service provider in question, or with their head office, governing body or umbrella organisation, such as Visit Britain if you’ve been refused a room in a hotel or B&B. Most organisations will have an official complaints procedure that you can use.
The Sexual Equality Regulations come with a questionnaire that you can
send to someone you believe has discriminated against you, to find out why they behaved how they did. They don’t have to reply, but not giving an answer will look bad in any future court case. The questionnaire must be sent within six months of the act of discrimination happening.
If you still aren’t satisfied, you can bring a case of discrimination to the county court in England and Wales or the sheriff’s court in Scotland.
This can take time and may be costly, and you should seek advice from your local law centre or Citizen’s Advice Bureau or from your solicitor.
To bring a case against a local education authority you must notify the secretary of state in writing. Discriminatory advertisements will be dealt with directly by the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

What penalties are there for people who break the rules?
Since it’s a civil offence (or a “statutory tort” in law-speak) rather than a criminal offence, they won’t be banged up. The courts can order an individual or company found to have unlawfully discriminated to pay compensation, including compensation for hurt feelings.

Does it matter if the service is charged or for free?
No, the law applies the same to paid-for services as it does to free ones.

Are religious people still allowed to discriminate?
Not as private individuals – religious B&B owners, for example, will still have to comply with the law. But religious organisations have been granted some exceptions.

What’s the difference between direct and indirect discrimination?
Direct discrimination is when a person treats someone less favourably than someone else.
Indirect discrimination occurs when a condition is applied to a person and that person is excluded from a benefit or subjected to a detriment because they cannot meet that condition. The Equality Act treats both forms of discrimination the same.

Does the law work the same in England, Scotland and Wales?
Yes. Northern Ireland, however, has its own regulations that came into effect at the beginning of this year and are slightly different – it doesn’t have the sections on blood donation and insurance, for example.

Are there any other exceptions?
Charities will still be able to provide services to people of a particular sexuality if that charity exists to help only people of that orientation.
So gay men’s health charities such as GMFA would be able to continue to operate, but the Salvation Army, for example, wouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against gays. The same is true of associations whose object is for membership to be enjoyed by people of a particular orientation, such as the Gay Police Association. Parliament and the intelligence services are also exempt.

Where can I learn more?
Stonewall is producing a plain-English guide to the new laws, and there is information available on its website: stonewall.org.uk.

When does it come into force?
30 April.

I’ve been discriminated against already. Is there anything I can do about it?
Not if it occurred before 30 April, but it’s still worth complaining and naming and shaming the company involved.