queer question time for the would-be london mayors

Despite criticisms raised that the annual London celebrations have been stripped of their radical roots, the Pride LGBT London Mayoral hustings showed our community can still be conscious of the struggles we collectively face.

by Michael Segalov
15 April 2016, 8:05am

There's a whole load of issues facing the London's LGBT community in 2016: health epidemics, mass closures of charities, and a spike in hate crime to name but a few. With just weeks to go until Londoners head to the polls, the queer vote has never been more in demand.

Pride in London has drafted a pledge for politicians, a broad three-pronged manifesto for London's LGBT community: freedom to be safe, freedom to be healthy and freedom to be visible, and had been signed by all but one of the candidates who took part.

Peter Whittle, the UKIP candidate, has thus far opted to not sign up to Pride's manifesto, although he failed to mention why throughout the two hours we were there. "It's unusual for UKIP to be invited to a Pride event", he laughed in his opening, in an attempt to cut through the tension. After a substantial outcry from the community last year, UKIP had their invitation to march on the London Pride parade revoked.

To make up for his party's chequered history when it comes to queer issues, Whittle was quick to point out that he's the only LGBT candidate in the race. "I spent the first 16 years of my life in 70s London and I was closeted", he told us, "and in the 80s when we had the onset of HIV and AIDS, the terror and fear that me and my friends felt... I've learnt what that's like." When reminded that his party leader, Nigel Farage, had used a live TV debate to demonise foreign-born people in the UK living with HIV, Whittle muttered something inaudible about public support. Whittle also failed to say the word "trans" once throughout the evening, despite being specifically asked about the issues trans people face.

After the usual introductions and tedious claims from every party that same-sex marriage was definitely their thing, the real questions could finally be answered.

Why are our LGBT venues disappearing?
Up for discussion was the rapid closure of queer venues across the city; an issue that transcends the LGBT divides. Across the city, community spaces are disappearing, The Black Cap in Camden, The Joiners Arms and the Green Carnation have all been lost in the last 12 months. While it's not just LGBT venues that are being priced out of the city - under Boris Johnson's mayoralty the number of live music venues in London has dropped from 430 to 245 according to Sadiq Khan - these venues have a particular resonance with London queers. They were places of refuge, of support and comfort - places of special significance for those of us who grow up without a community in which our culture could be shared.

The offerings from some sat along the top table were pretty much identical: big developers who don't give a shit about any community were sucking the soul out of London in their drive to turn a profit. Even Zac Goldsmith was keen to assure us London shouldn't become a "corporatist mass".

Unlike Zac, who shyly conceded he'd not once step foot inside a gay bar, Sadiq Khan assured the crowd he'd been to a fair few. "When it comes to venues shutting, being turned into flats, it needs to go through councillors," he argued. "For the last 8 years we've had a mayor not on the side of London's venues."

In short they all agreed; the closure of cherished venues needed to be addressed.

What can be done to address health inequality?
Public health was next up on the agenda, a topic not often covered in debates with those vying to be mayor. Across the United Kingdom, an estimated one in 20 gay and bisexual men are said to be living with HIV, in London it's an alarming one in eight. In 2014 over 3,360 gay and bisexual men tested HIV positive, the highest annual figure ever reported. It's not hard to see why health is at the forefront of community concerns.

As the question was asked, "what will you do to tackle health inequality and challenges we're facing as a community", a story broke online that triggered an audible gasp.

NHS England had just announced they'd be scrapping plans to make PReP, an HIV prevention drug, available to those most at risk of becoming HIV positive. Research indicates the drug can reduce the chances of HIV infection by up to 99% when users take it daily. With MPs and politicians sat in front of us people wanted answers, even if it meant they were off script.

"I'm no expert", Goldsmith quickly responded, "but I've looked into this and it's a no brainer, I will use my position to try and persuade the government to intervene."

"I fear Zac Goldsmith thinks PrEP where you get sent aged eight", read a tweet that caused a few to cheer, as Khan too promised to do all he could to get PrEP available on the NHS.

Sian Berry cited her recent trip to sexual health and HIV care clinic 56 Dean Street in arguing for PrEP prescription, a view echoed by the others up on stage.

With mental health and suicide such a problem in LGBT circles - according to The Trevor Project, LGBT young people are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts, a quarter of trans young people have actively tried - it was somewhat alarming that only Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate, gave anything more than a cursory mention to the issue.

Why do a quarter of young homeless people identify as LGBT?
The mayoral campaign has been consumed by talk of housing - London rents are rising at a rate of 10% a year, and Labour allege that house building is at its lowest level since 1924. All the candidates accepted there's a problem, but LGBT people have an even bigger crisis to face. According to research by the Albert Kennedy Trust, a quarter of young homeless people in Britain identify as LGBT, despite making up just 5-7% of the UK population.

"It's like this government didn't scrap housing benefit for under 21's," Khan quickly interjected. "We need to remember that young trans people not accepted in their home are now ending up homeless, and this is a policy that Zac voted through." It was a pertinent and cutting reply.

There were however points where views diverged. Sophie Walker of the Women's Equality Party focused almost entirely on women's equality, including the barriers that LBT women face. Some men in front of me continued to giggle whenever she started talking, a stark reminder that misogyny and sexism amongst gay men continues to rear its ugly head.

Green Sian Berry was the only candidate to suggest central resource centre for LGBT young people in the capital, and with the closure of charities and community centres plaguing the queer community, it's a promise that we should force the other hopefuls not to forget.

With the crowd filing out, I surveyed the room, almost exclusively filled with white gay men. The specific problems facing BME people, trans people, women once again sidelined, voices remaining unheard. We can ask all we want of the Mayoral candidates when it comes to fixing London, but the event was a stark reminder that the "issues" facing London's LGBT community continue to be defined by those with the time and resources to make themselves heard.


Text Michael Segalov
Photography Torbak Hopper

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