britain has more openly queer politicians than anywhere (even canada)

But that’s only part of the story. There’s a long way to go before we can feel progressive, considering there have been no elected trans politicians here, ever.

by Sophie Wilkinson
07 July 2017, 11:05am

Colliding with pride weekend is the first anniversary of the first ever female cabinet member's coming out. Last year, Justine Greening, who had the international development brief, tweeted on the same day as the parade, just 48 hours after the Brexit vote: "Today's a good day to say I'm in a happy same sex relationship, I campaigned for Stronger In but sometimes you're better off out! #Pride2016"

It was a nice touch; a topical joke to apply to the wounds of those LGBT people who might value the benefits of, say, the EU's Amsterdam Treaty, which demanded all member states adopt anti-homophobic discrimination employment legislation by 2003. Trans people benefit from the EU, too. In 2002, its 1976 gender discrimination directives' details were updated to include any anti-trans discrimination.

But, as we all know now, Brexit is on its way. And though Greening has, via her new double brief of Education and Women and Equalities, promised to deliver compulsory sex education in schools, the devil is in the detail and we're still to read the small print on this much-needed legislation.

Greening's role in the cabinet gave her the authority to take a meaningful stand against the Justice department's Sam Gyimah — he congratulated her on her coming out, FYI — when he "talked out" a bill that would have automatically pardoned thousands of old and elderly gay men historically convicted of homosexual acts. His argument was that the government didn't want to accidentally pardon any paedophiles along the way, but Greening seemingly had no response to this.

Additionally, how any queer Conservative reconciles their own sexuality with the knowledge that their party denies housing benefit to 18- to 21-year-olds, some of who might not be able to live as themselves in the family home, is beyond me.

The sad truth is that, though MPs can be LGBT, and the concept of an out lesbian getting a seat at the cabinet table is still inspiring, visibility can only go so far.

Visibility used to be devastating for an MP, like in 1976, when Maureen Colquhon was outed by the Daily Mail's Nigel Dempster. A strident feminist, Maureen had requested to be addressed as "Ms" instead of "Mrs" by the Commons Speaker and called for a crèche in the Commons (a nursery was introduced in 2009) to encourage working mothers into politics. Although it's arguable that she should have been de-selected for saying Enoch Powell wasn't, in her words, "a racialist", she was actually de-selected by her local party for being in a same-sex relationship. The Northampton North Labour chairman Norman Ashby insisted: "She was elected a working wife and mother…this business has blackened her image irredeemably," but Maureen attested: "My sexuality has nothing to do with my ability to do my job as an MP".

How any queer Conservative reconciles their own sexuality with the knowledge that their party denies housing benefit to 18- to 21-year-olds, some of who might not be able to live as themselves in the family home, is beyond me.

It would be another eight years before another MP came out. Labour's Chris Smith did so just a year after being elected by his Islington South and Finsbury constituency by just 363 votes. He would be a pioneer twice, coming out as HIV positive in 1995 and explaining that he'd had the condition for 17 years. This means he'd not only lived through something initially thought to be fatal, but knew all too well the stigma faced by gay men as they became pariahs, stricken by an incurable virus that was all too regularly blamed on their "lifestyle".

Tony Blair's close ally Peter Mandelson was the first gay man in a cabinet, but with both the News of the World in 1987 and gay Times columnist Matthew Parris as a guest on Newsnight in 1998 outing him, he seemingly never needed to do it himself. Peter, who was anointed "The Prince of Darkness" by Lord Hattersley in an entwined barb of antisemitism and homophobia, would later explain: "It had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my life as a politician or what I was doing as a minister."

The first Conservative MP to come out was Alan Duncan in 2002, and in 2006, the Lib Dems' Simon Hughes was outed as bisexual by The Sun. One could argue The Sun had a defence of hypocrisy in revealing Hughes' previous affairs with men, as this was the same Simon Hughes who presented himself as "the straight choice" in his 1982 election campaign against human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

MPs being outed by a press that was yet to stumble over Leveson in its quest for salacious gossip, and castigated for their sexuality through outright political manoeuvres and silly slip ups really didn't happen so long ago. And so it's hard to find the precise moment they could not only be out without risking their political career, but be out and confident enough to help other LGBT+ people out. Because, even after the sleaze scandals of the early 90s dropped the bar when it came to public expectations of politicians' sexual proclivities, the LGBT ones still couldn't always bat their own corner.

Overturning Section 28, the legislation which made it illegal for schools or other state-run services to "promote" homosexuality, like it's a tummy tea, was down to a mix of backbench MPs and local government representatives in 2003. The Civil Partnerships Act of 2004 was thanks to Tony Blair's Labour and Michael Howard, far less homophobic than former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, allowing his MPs a free vote on the matter. David Cameron name-checked The Equal Marriage Act as one of his highest achievements in his farewell speech outside Number 10 last year, but the whole idea started off with the straight Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone.

The number of LGB MPs in the UK is the highest it's ever been, with 45 LGB MPs from across the house. To this day, there has not been one trans person elected to Parliament.

Maureen Colquhon's legacy hasn't been forgotten, and in 1997 Labour politician Angela Eagle credited it with helping her out of the closet. Eagle would later tell The Guardian: "[Colquhon's de-selection] wasn't exactly a great precedent. But I had decided to move in with my partner and I was ready to do it. It does free you up to be yourself. I think, in politics, you have to be yourself. It just makes you a better politician." But that mature approach isn't shared by everyone, she explained: "The only thing the media wanted to know about was who else was gay and I didn't think that was very fair." Add to that the nasty homophobic hate mail she received for launching a leadership campaign against robustly heterosexual Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, Channel 4's Gogglebox repeating the "lesser of two Eagles" joke (her straight sister, Maria, is also an MP), and the ease at which the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts compared MP Wes Streeting to "a ladies' hairdresser" the picture is clear: politics and media has still got a long way to go to treat its LGBT MPs decently.

The number of LGB MPs in the UK is the highest it's ever been, with 45 LGB MPs from across the house, and two out gay men -- Nick Gibb and David Mundell -- in the cabinet alongside Greening. To this day, there has not been one trans person elected to Parliament.

Increasingly, MPs' sexuality is simply an addendum to their lives. Especially in Scotland, where 22-year-old Mhairi Black, Kezia Dugdale, the Labour leader, and Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader, just happen to all be out and proud lesbians.

By the same token, we are lucky to have MPs not afraid to use their sexuality to bolster criticism of their leaders' approach to minorities like them: Davidson, a potential replacement for Theresa May, put pressure on the Prime Minister to get confirmation that LGBT+ rights wouldn't fall by the wayside now that the DUP have a clammy hand on the reins of power. And following Lib Dem leader Tim Farron's repeated inability to not ascribe sin to gay sex, Lord Paddick's departure from his shadow cabinet acted as the trigger for Farron to finally own up to the fact that his interpretation of Christianity wasn't perhaps as liberal as he insisted.

The great advantage of LGBT+ MPs and other politicians is that they will inevitably understand some ways in which LGBT+ lives are different to heterosexual lives, and they may even share the fears we have with regards our treatment via either outright bigotry or invisible bias. But what use is that knowledge if they don't try to do something about it?

For all the torment LGBT+ MPs live through for being high profile figures, all MPs are likely from the more privileged quarters, and like, say, Alan Duncan, it's far easier to come out when you're not facing many other obstacles, identity-wise. Will we see that fabled black disabled lesbian MP in parliament any time soon? When life in general gets easier for black disabled lesbians, then maybe we'll be in with a shot. But the only way for that to happen is for legislators, LGBT and otherwise, to think a little more about people both like and unlike themselves. 

Read: Is Pride still doing what it set out to do?


Text Sophie Wilkinson
Image via Wikipedia

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